Poll Finds Americans More Confused About Climate

| Fri Oct. 23, 2009 10:17 AM EDT

This is, uh, a bit of a concern: A Pew poll released on Thursday finds the number of Americans concerned about climate change has declined—and the number of global warming skeptics has increased.

Thirty-five percent of those polled agreed that global warming was a serious problem—a nine-point drop from April 2008, when 44 percent of respondents agreed. Worse, though, is the number of skeptics. Just 57 percent think that there is "solid evidence" that the earth is warming, down from 71 percent just a year and a half ago. Only 36 percent think that the warming is due to human activity, down from 47 percent.

The decline has been sharpest among people who identify as political independents: Only 53 percent of independents see solid evidence of global warming, down from 75 percent in April 2008. Republicans were already highly skeptical—now only 35 percent of Republicans believe that global temperatures are rising, down 14 percent from the last poll. And that's just the objective question of whether they're rising: only 18 percent think that any warming that may be happening is caused by human activity.

But fewer Democrats think the planet is warming, too—75 percent today compared to 83 percent last year and 91 percent in August 2006. And only 50 percent of self-identified Democrats believe the warming is due to human activity.

Oh, my.

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All of this comes, of course, as the Senate is preparing to take up climate change legislation. The poll also found that the majority of those polled – 55 percent -- had heard nothing about cap-and-trade. Only 14 percent said they had heard "a lot" about cap-and-trade.

Perhaps the most interesting, and politically relevant, point I would draw from the data is that those who identified as Republican or independent indicated that they were more familiar with cap-and-trade than Democrats. Twenty percent of Republicans and 17 percent of independents said they "heard a lot about" cap-and-trade, compared to just 8 percent of Democrats.

Self-identified conservative Republicans reported hearing the most – 28 percent said they had heard a lot about the policy. Twenty-four percent of people who believe that there is "no solid evidence of global warming" have heard a lot about cap and trade, compared to just 10 percent among those who think that climate change is actually happening. Part of the reason this is true, I suspect, is because environmentalists and congressional advocates for climate change legislation have avoided the term "cap-and-trade" as much as possible. Instead of talking about cap-and-trade, they talk about green jobs, a clean energy economy, pollution reduction, etc. Buoyed by survey data much like this that suggests that "cap-and-trade" is confusing and scary and people would rather hear about positive plans, they've shunned the term cap-and-trade. Take, for example, the Kerry-Boxer bill in the Senate, which eschews all talk of "cap-and-trade" and instead outlines a "Global Warming Pollution Reduction and Investment" program. Republicans in Congress and their friends in the conservative think-tank world, meanwhile, have owned conversation of cap-and-trade, more often referring to it as "cap-and-tax" (see: Republican Majority Leader Rep. John Boehner, Sen. James Inhofe, Wall Street Journal editorial page, Sarah Palin, Competitive Enterprise Institute ...). They've successfully painted the idea of "cap-and-trade" it as an evil scheme that will cost Americans millions.

But as other recent polls have found, Americans largely support the goals of a cap-and-trade plan, even if they don't know what it exactly that term means. They like clean energy, they want to reduce pollution, and they don't like dependence on foreign energy sources. In many ways, I think this new Pew poll shows that Republicans, conservatives, and climate change skeptics are dominating in the language battle, though Americans still support the goals of an emissions reduction plan.

The declining figures on people who believe that climate change is evening happening, however, is the distressing part of this survey. And skeptics in Congress and outside are latching on to the new poll. Fox News, for example, headlined their piece, "Americans No Longer Swallowing Global Warming Dogma."

All of this shows that the road to passing legislation really isn't getting any easier as time goes by.