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Public Yawns At Climate Change. But Why?

Andy Revkin passes along a new Pew report showing that very few people seem to care much about global warming—just 30 percent of respondents listed it as a "top priority," down from 38 percent two years ago. To top it off, a new Rasmussen poll finds that 44 percent of Americans think "long-term planetary trends" are the cause of warming, compared with only 41 percent who think humans are the cause. (Then again, that poll is horribly phrased: Of course "long-term planetary trends" cause shifts in climate. But the specific issue at hand is whether man-made emissions are driving an unprecedentedly rapid spike in global average temperatures. There are much better ways to elicit people's views on that question.)

Anyway, these findings do look bleak for enviros, but I'm not sure it's entirely surprising. Climate change is still something that's years away, abstract. And lately, it hasn't been discussed much in public. Back in 2006, recall, we had the hubbub around Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and, later, the release of the fourth IPCC report on climate change (which garnered shockingly little press coverage, considering how significant a document it was). That was the high-water mark of public awareness of climate science. But in the ensuing years, coverage—to the extent that there's been any—has quickly drifted away from the topic of what's causing rising temperatures, and moved on to the question of what we should do about it.

That, in turn, meant a lot of discussion about energy policy rather than global warming per se. In the 2008 election, both major candidates agreed that the planet was barreling toward catastrophe, but didn't dwell much on that fact. Instead, they stressed their plans for taming America's oil habit, transitioning away from fossil fuels, and creating "green jobs." And the Bush administration, obviously, has worked hard to muzzle any and all climate talk. The public tends to take its issue cues from its political leaders, and I think that probably explains why "energy" ranks high on the Pew list and "global warming" does not—to the extent the latter gets discussed in American politics these days, even by people worried about it, it's mostly background noise. Meanwhile, the wheezing economy is, quite rightly, consuming all of our oxygen right now.

So, maybe it's just wishful naivety on my part, but I'm not sure this proves that Obama and the public are "out of sync" on climate policy, as Revkin suggests. But there are a hundred other ways to interpret this poll, so interpret away! (Hey, maybe the unusually bitter winter is influencing poll respondents...)

--Bradford Plumer