Pew Survey

Global Warming Concerns Melting Away

What is causing the public’s continuing backslide on climate change?

Much of the “inside the Beltway” climate chatter this week revolved around President Obama’s State of the Union address. No surprises there.

The President talked up the importance of both fossil fuels and clean energy, what he called the “all of the above” strategy. He did make a passing reference to global warming, as Mother Jones‘s Kate Sheppard tweeted: “Climate is only mentioned as something that Congress can’t seem to agree on.”


Most climate-concerned pundits, recognizing this is an election year, didn’t fault Obama for keeping climate change in the lock box. Grist‘s David Roberts, a persistent critic of the White House’s climate messaging (or its lack thereof), found reason to be optimistic about Obama’s speech, citing the President’s unambiguous support for clean energy. But Roberts also acknowledged a harsh reality:

Of course a rousing bit of truth-telling on climate change would have been nice. Of course a call to put more areas off-limits to drilling would have been nice. There’s all sorts of stuff he could have said to stoke his green base.

But greens should be honest with themselves: The energy issue is a tough nut to crack for a national politician. Contrary to what a lot of folks seem to think, Obama can’t change the political climate or public opinion with the power of his words. No president, including The One, is willing to get out very far ahead of public opinion; presidents react to it more than they shape it.

Indeed, especially when public opinion is going backwards on climate change, as the latest Pew survey reveals:

Since it was first tested on the annual policy priorities list in 2007, the share of Americans who view dealing with global warming as a top priority has slipped from 38% to 25%. Democrats (38%) are far more likely than Republicans (11%) to rate this as a top priority. But the decline has occurred across party lines: In 2007, 48% of Democrats rated dealing with global warming as a top priority, as did 23% of Republicans.

Those eye-opening numbers have gotten surprisingly little notice in the mainstream media, or the climate blogosphere. Perhaps that’s because the slide is not news any more. Some climate advocates will blame the ongoing decline on the same media — for losing interest in climate change — and also point to the “disinformation campaign” waged by fossil fuel interests and political operators.

But scholars who track public attitudes on climate change attribute the drop-off to a larger force at work, which often goes unmentioned. For instance, Matthew Nisbet a communications expert at American University, explains, in this interview with Climate Central:

Starting in about 2005 and peaking in 2007, there were historic levels of concern and belief of climate change in the public, but that time was also unique because it had the lowest levels of unemployment since before 2000. In 2007, national unemployment was only about 5.5 percent. What changed in 2008 and 2009 was that unemployment spiked up to close to 10 percent.

When people debate about what caused the public to become less worried about climate change, the first thing a lot of people point to is Climategate (the 2009 release of controversial e-mails sent between several prominent climate scientists). It’s plausible that this could have played a part, but there are a lot of other potential explanations. When it comes to talking about what influences the public’s concern about the environment, the elephant in the room is the economy. No one is talking about how the economic conditions likely had an influence on the decline in the public’s concern.

Nisbet added that the limp economy “poses a major communication challenge for climate change.” When people fear for their job or where their next meal is coming from, he said, they’re “just not going to be as worried or concerned about other things, including the environment.”

In social science parlance, this is known as the “finite pool of worry,” which other experts have discussed in reference to climate change.

But what goes down can also go up. In December, Nisbet wrote that newly encouraging signs of an economic recovery mean that “public belief and concern over climate change may be headed for an upward swing.” He reiterated: “The performance of the economy is likely the central consideration that should inform climate change communication and public engagement.”

President Obama’s reticence on climate change in the last two years (as the economic downturn has persisted) indicates he too has come to this conclusion.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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25 Responses to Global Warming Concerns Melting Away

  1. harrywr2 says:

    Indeed, especially when public opinion is going backwards on climate change

    Or when the stalwart Wallstreet Journal writes articles about the coals industries ‘grim future’.

  2. Marlowe Johnson says:

    Given the extent to which climate policy is consistently framed in terms of clean energy and jobs, I’d suggest this is nothing new. It will also be interesting to see how public attitudes change once the next El Nino hits. Things are weird enough this winter that it may serve to ‘prime’ people’s concern.

    • Anteaus says:

      “It will also be interesting to see how public attitudes change once the next El Nino hits”

      I might succinctly point out that it is that style of language in Climategate emails which has largely discredited the Cambridge team. Hoping that a red herring will swing opinion your way is hardly the attitude of a responsible scientist.

      -and yes, carbon controls are supported by a percentage of the public largely because they associate them with environmental protection, i.e. green policies. Which in fact they have nothing whatsoever to do with. One can be green without being a warmist. But, some warmist policies threaten environmental disaster.

  3. Bob Koss says:

    I find myself unable to place any confidence in what a social scientist has to say regarding economic recovery.

    I think a more current and better assessment can be found here.

  4. JeffN says:

    Kyoto was unanimously rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1997- a time of budget surpluses, low unemployment, and Al Gore a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. It died because it was a deeply flawed non-solution, and the movement has been trying to revive it ever since. It’s silly to pretend that “economic concerns” are to blame for what is now coming up on 15 years of policy failure.
    What the movement can do, however, is recognize that economic growth is a prerequisite to meaningful environmental policy changes. It’s true that only people with money will pay more for energy. That’s not a surprise.
    And the movement can look seriously at proposing rational solutions- even when they have money, people won’t pay more for energy unless it accomplishes something. What wont cut it in this atmosphere of fiscal prudence, for example, is initiating a trade dispute with China (as the president promised on Tuesday) over solar panels- a technology that is too expensive and inefficient for almost any economic situation.

  5. hunter says:

    AGW is dying because it is a social mania whose time has passed. Like the Millerites stuck on the roof in the meet Jesus robes, AGW believers are having to rationalize away the inconvenient reality that no matter how many times AGW promoters re-rationalize it, the predictions just are not coming true.
    Can we now move on to deal with real problems by way of real solutions?
    Not one AGW community pushed policy has worked at all as advertised.
    Are the believers ready to admit this and move on?

    • survivalwriter says:

      Hunter: “no matter how many times AGW promoters re-rationalize it, the predictions just are not coming true..”

      Really? Did you pay attention to last year’s global weather happenings? Record floods, droughts, winter storm accumulations, and tornadoes. Do you remember what happened in Vermont from the hurricanes, from MA to tornadoes (a place that hardly ever experiences them), an arctic summer now almost sea-ice-free? If anything, the predictions of occurrences of what would happen form AGW have exceeded predictions.

      And then this: “Not one AGW community pushed policy has worked at all as advertised” — and what policies would those be? Because the last I checked, the US government has been unable to pass a single piece of legislation addressing the issue of AGW. There is NO policy….that’s probably why it hasn’t worked. It would have to pass first.

  6. Louise says:

    Keith – a potential future post for you could be on why and how the USA is becoming increasingly isolated in it’s view (politicians and general public but not scientists) of AGW. I’m UK based and, considering GWPF is based here, don’t see anywhere near the ‘public’s continuing backslide on climate change’ that you describe here.
    We too have suffered economic woes and are possibly entering yet another recession period.

    • JeffN says:

      Well, Louise, except that people in the UK are rapidly abandoning the AGW movement as even the Guardian acknowledges-

      So, I guess, backsliding is in the eyes of the beholder. How are things going with all the billions spent on wind power in the UK so far?
      “, 9 Jan 2012 Wind power is ‘crippling expensive’ and preventing the UK from effectively reducing carbon emissions, says a new report.”

      Oh. Well. You go girl- everything’s awesome for the CAGW movement in the UK!

    • harrywr2 says:

      I’m UK based and, considering GWPF is based here, don’t see anywhere near the ‘public’s continuing backslide on climate change’ that you describe here.

      If I substituted the words ‘energy security’ for ‘climate change’ in every speech any UK politician has given in the last 10 years I would end up with the same policy prescription.

      By US Standards the coal mine productivity levels in the UK can only be described as ‘awful’. (It’s not the miners fault, the remaining minable seams are becoming thinner and deeper)

      Hence, the discussion of whether or not to burn ‘inexpensively extractable’ coal in the UK always ends up with the same answer. What inexpensively extractable coal?

      The discussion in the UK is therefore a question of whether or not to go with windmills and solar panels or nuclear power plants as you don’t have ‘cheap coal’ left.

      In the US Mid West we have ‘inexpensively extractable’ coal, we also at the moment have an abundance of ‘inexpensively extractable’ natural gas.

  7. Fred says:

    Other things besides the economy affect public perception of global warming. Lack of evidence for global warming theory is the real elephant in the room. Continued passage of time with no perceptible warming and recurrent appearances of scientific studies contradicting the theory are also eroding support. My guess is that support for global warming is lower now, with unemployment at 8.5% than it was in 2008 when it was around 10%.

  8. Steven Schuman says:

    I think Alcoholics Anonymous has a serenity prayer which asks us to accept what we can’t change. Since no politician will promote depopulation or deindustrialization and alternative energy even if it didn’t cost more, could not supply the large quantity of power needed by the modern world, there isn’t much to do. Can you imagine if we actually agreed to reducing C02 by 40% by 2020, what that would mean. Sorry, but you can only have electricity four days a week and drive your car every other day. Please schedule airline travel 2 years in advance as half of all flights will be cancelled. The slogans about a green future were nice, but the reality not so.

  9. EdG says:

    “What is causing the public’s continuing backslide on climate change?”

    Crying wolf has inevitable consequences, particularly with a ‘wolf’ like CAGW and incredible ‘cryers’ like the Team and their cheerleaders.

    Western societies can no longer afford delusions this costly and ineffective, particularly when the central theme of it all is nothing but a UN global welfare scheme.

    In the meantime, more serious people are reading this:

    “No Need to Panic About Global Warming

    There’s no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to ‘decarbonize’ the world’s economy.”

  10. Jeff Norris says:

    Awhile back you said
    “If nothing else, the pipeline protesters have succeeded in breathing life into a moribund climate movement. They’ve also helped inject climate change into the political and public discourse.”
    I said at the time you were engaging in wishful thinking. The public will have to feel comfortable about the economy for several years before AGW will regain its previous status but by then according to the most vocal proponents it should be too late.

  11. Regarding the State of the Union address, David Roberts says, “Of course a rousing bit of truth-telling on climate change would have been nice.”

    Here are five “inconvenient truths” that President Obama had might have brought to everyone’s attention:

    1. Carbon dioxide comprises about four one-hundredths of one percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.

    2. Water vapor comprises about two percent of the Earth’s atmosphere.

    3. Carbon dioxide and water vapor are both greenhouse gases in that each gas reacts to infrared radiation in such a manner as to generate heat in the atmosphere.

    4. The heat-generating effect of water vapor is about eight times stronger than the heat-generating effect of carbon dioxide on a molecule by molecule basis.

    5. In totality, on a world wide basis, the heat-generating effect of water vapor in the atmospere is many thousands of times stronger than the heat-generating effect of carbon dioxide.

  12. Russell Seitz says:

    Watts Up With That? offers the gibberings of amateur statisticians and the grotesqueries of K-Street shills modulated with hypocrisy of an amperage Al Gore might envy.

    Who can complain of Forbes lack of a science editor when Watts lends consistent hilarity to his cargo cult climatology by delegating science editing to a building contractor from the Solomon Islands-

    It certainly illustrate the wisdom of theForbes Thought Of The Day prefacing this column on the web:

    “ So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence. ” — George Bernard Shaw

  13. Max boykoff says:

    as you know, my Guardian opinion piece from a few weeks ago furthers Matt Nisbet’s points here:

    thanks Keith.

  14. NewYorkJ says:

    Missed in the analysis of the Pew poll was the fact that those who say the environment should be a “top priorty” fell by 14 points, or 1 point more than climate change. That lends more support for the idea that the economy critically influences concern for environment issues is looking back to Jan. 2001. That was at the end of the tech surge. But in 2 years, the environmental concern number dropped from 63 to 39, before rebounding to 57 at the peak of the housing bubble (there is no corresponding number available for global warming from the Pew survey for those earlier years).

    At the same time, there are other surveys that indicate most changes in global warming skepticism have been among political conservatives, which suggests more than simple economic reasons, such as a media surge of “skeptic” material among Fox News and other outlets…or maybe one believes only conservatives have been negatively affected by the economy. It could be when one starts to do something about the problem (however modest), which has happened in the U.K., or the U.S. during with the national cap and trade push, cap and trade in CA, EPA regulation, and green energy initiatives, there tends to be a surge in media material promoting “skepticism”. Almost anyone living in Australia can tell you that.

  15. David in Cal says:

    My guess is that people are less worried about global warming for these reasons:

    1. The globe stopped warming. See–Cycle-25-need-worry-NASA-scientists-right-Thames-freezing-again.html To be precise, there’s been no warming for the last 15 years.

    2. The released “Climategate” e-mails show a certain amount of naughty behavior by leading climate scientists.

    3. It’s become more widely recognized that the various proposed “solutions” are not only extremely expensive, but they’re not sufficient to solve the problem if the warmists are correct.

    4. More and more scientific papers are being published which cast doubt on the “concensus” view.

  16. keith Kloor says:

    David in Cal (and others citing Sunday’s Daily Mail article),

    You should be aware of the Met office’s response [] to David Rose’s article, especially this:

    This article includes numerous errors in the reporting of published peer reviewed science undertaken by the Met Office Hadley Centre and for Mr. Rose to suggest that the latest global temperatures available show no warming in the last 15 years is entirely misleading.

    Despite the Met Office having spoken to David Rose ahead of the publication of the story, he has chosen to not fully include the answers we gave him to questions around decadal projections produced by the Met Office or his belief that we have seen no warming since 1997.

    • David in Cal says:

      Thanks for pointing out the Met office response. The Met office argues that the long-term warming trend hasn’t ended. I tend to agree. I expect warming to pick up again, whether or not man’s activity is the primary cause.

      My point was that there has been essentially no warming during the last 15 years, something the Met Office doesn’t dispute. And, the graph in my link clearly shows no warming between 1997 – 2011. It’s been my experience working with natural catastrophes that people tend to attribute long-term characteristics to short-term events. I think people react to the recent lack of warming. And, the recent lack of warming means that the projections made in the middle to late 1990′s have turned out to be inaccurate. It’s only natural that a bunch of missed predictions would lower peoples’ confidence in the models used.

  17. NewYorkJ says:

    In 30 years, “skeptics” will point to articles like the DailyMail piece and claim “what do scientists know? 30 years ago, they predicted cooling”.

  18. Jack Hughes says:

    @KK – we are witnessing climate-change-change.