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.”

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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.

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