On October 22, 2009, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released the results of a survey that showed some remarkable findings: Between 2008 and 2009 there was a large drop in the percentage of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the average world temperature has been rising over the past few decades. Of those Americans polled in April, 2008, 71% believed in strong evidence for global warming. By early fall, 2009 that number had dropped to 57%! Similarly, the proportion of Americans who think human activities (like burning fossil fuels) are to blame for global warming decreased from 47% to 36% in the same short time.¹
I refuse to believe that Americans can’t read the yearly average Earth temperature data. They must be able to see a direct correlation between the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and rising global temperature.² Yet there are still those who maintain (hold out hope?) that there is good science indicating that global warming is cyclical, out of our control and inevitable.
What has changed? Why do fewer Americans believe in global warming? I can think of three possible explanations for the declining numbers of believers:
1. The Economy
Understandably, the economic downturn has become the focus for many Americans. When faced with job losses, disappearing retirement funds, and worse, people necessarily hunker down and concentrate on the economics of survival. In early 2009, climate change worries plummeted in perceived political importance compared to job-loss and economic concerns.
What I don’t understand is how changing short-term needs and concerns could alter one’s perception of what is actually happening to our planet. Even though many Americans are struggling with major economic woes, why did they suddenly stop believing the earth is warming?
Perhaps humans can only take so much stress. Maybe it is easier to doubt scientific evidence that is only going to make our lives that much more uncertain, scary and complicated. If we have a failing world economy and an uncertain future on our planet, where is there hope? If it takes everything we have to stay afloat, must we worry about our carbon dioxide emissions as well?
2. Politics, As Usual
The Pew report found large partisan differences in, 1) beliefs about solid evidence to support global warming and, 2) the severity of the problem: In October 2009, 14% of Republicans compared with 49% of Democrats viewed global warming as a very serious problem. Those characterizing themselves as more liberal were more likely to consider the warming problem very serious — 70% of liberal Democrats vs. 10% of conservative Republicans.
Likewise, the October report showed 83% of liberal Democrats believed in solid evidence to support global warming while only 32% of conservative Republicans did. The tabular data can be found here.
How can politics influence interpretation of scientific data? Money?
Perhaps there is a shared fundamental belief among more conservative Americans that spending money to solve a problem that might not exist is unwise. After all, it might just be a ruse of big government to collect more hard-earned American dollars. When those dollars are harder to come by, there is even less of a reason to let them go.
3. It’s Cold Out There!
A third reason why Americans might not believe the planet is warming is because in many places winters have come early and been more severe. Here in Western Massachusetts we had a monstrous ice storm last December. Several towns were without power for 10 days because there were so many ice-coated tree limbs downing power lines. And it was COLD.
For believers in global warming, the ice storm was just further evidence of increasingly frequent and severe storms caused by an unstable climate.
Maybe some people believe pockets of extreme, cold weather translate to a colder planet. Despite regional differences in temperature, September, 2009 was worldwide officially the second hottest September on record, following September, 2005.
A couple of years ago Greg Craven posted a decision grid on YouTube (“The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”) that was meant to convince us that inaction is an unacceptable choice as long as there is a chance that global warming is influenced by human activity. If there is even a minuscule chance that we are causing the polar ice caps to melt, then we must act, despite the economic cost. Craven points out that we don’t really need to argue about whether we influence global warming but rather whether the risks associated with doing nothing (global environmental, social, political, public health and economic catastrophes) are worth it.³ Craven’s updated video addresses some of the critiques of his original video.
What can we do?
This December, 191 leaders of states and governments will meet in Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Grassroots efforts, such as 350.org, are attempting to tell our leaders how important it is to craft a new, meaningful climate change treaty. October 24, 2009 was an international day of climate action. All over the world groups of people small and large came together to show our representatives how important it is for us to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a safe upper limit of 350 ppm. Currently CO2 is measured at about 387 ppm.
Here’s a sample of our local support as shown by jack-o-lanterns!
1. http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/556.pdf Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: “Modest Support for “Cap and Trade” Policy: FEWER AMERICANS SEE SOLID EVIDENCE OF GLOBAL WARMING,” Oct. 22, 2009
2. http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GlobalWarming/ NASA Earth Observatory: “Global Warming,” by Holli Riebeek • design by Robert Simmon • May 11, 2007