U.S. Public Opinion on Global Warming

by Reihan Salam

The Pew Research Center finds that 69 percent of Americans believe that there is solid evidence of global warming. This is lower than the 79 percent that embraced this view in 2006, but it is higher than the 57 percent that embraced it in 2009. And while 41 percent thought it was a very serious problem and 33 percent thought it was a somewhat serious problem in 2006, the share has drifted down to 33 percent for very serious and 32 percent for somewhat serious. Not surprisingly, there is a partisan divide on the issue, with 87 percent of Democrats being convinced that global warming is real and only 44 percent of Republicans, and in turn 57 percent of Democrats believing that global warming is primarily caused by human activity as opposed to 19 percent of Republicans. (One wonders if these gaps would shrink if money were on the line.)

This reminded me of a recent Roger Pielke Jr. column, in which he lamented the fixation of climate activists on climate skeptics:

Studies of the relationship of public opinion and political action on a wide range of subjects show nothing unique or very interesting about the state of public opinion on climate change. Significant policy action has occurred on other issues with less public support on many occasions (as I documented in my recent book, The Climate Fix). Instead of motivating further support for action, efforts to intensify public opinion through apocalyptic visions or appeals to authority, have instead led to a loss of trust in campaigning scientists and a deep politicization of the climate issue. Citing the ample evidence of the ineffectiveness of such approaches, Dan Kahan complains of climate campaigners: “They keep pounding the data, and with a rhetorical hammer that drives home all the symbolism that generates distrust and resistance in larger parts of the population … Why?”

Pielke has long argued that the real obstacle to effective action on climate change is the appeal of cheap energy in a world in which 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity while 2.8 billion rely on wood, crop waste, dung, and other biomass to meet their energy needs. Rather than lambaste climate skeptics for championing cheap energy, he calls for a climate policy agenda centered on promoting the development of cheaper-than-coal zero-emissions technologies, on the grounds that measures that raise the price of energy will inevitably go down to defeat.