Out of sight, out of mind

The call to save our wounded planet has packed millions into movie theaters, spawned political action groups and even inspired a current Tropicana orange juice marketing campaign. But a recent national survey of attitudes about global warming suggests that over the past few years a growing number of Americans have changed their minds about the importance of climate change, and fewer now believe it even exists.

The Pew Research Center for People and the Press found in October that just 35 percent of adults across the country see global warming as a "very serious problem," down from 44 percent in April of last year and 45 percent at the start of 2007. Meanwhile, 32 percent say global warming is not even a "somewhat serious problem," up from 24 percent last year and just 20 percent two and a half years ago.

Though down 8 percent from last year, a solid 65 percent of respondents told Pew in October that global warming is either a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem.

Over the last 18 months, meanwhile, the number of people who believe there is solid evidence that the planet is heating up dropped from 71 percent to a much slimmer 57 percent majority. Skepticism grew among both those who identify as Democrats (three-quarters of whom still say the planet is warming) and Republicans (nearly two-thirds of whom say it's not), but the greatest shift occurred among independent voters — a 22-point slide from 75 percent support last year to just 53 percent today.

"It's scary," says Bill Patzert, a climatologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and a believer in evidence that the planet is warming. "There's been a movement away from concern about global warming on the part of the general public, but in the long term — over the next half-century and beyond — it is probably the most compelling issue in terms of the survival of civilization."

It would be far too early, however, for opponents of government restriction on corporate carbon emissions to celebrate. Despite receding concern about climate change, the Pew survey found that half of Americans support taxing and limiting carbon emissions, even if it means higher energy prices, while 11 percent are still on the fence.

Support for cap and trade policies comes despite very low awareness — just 14 percent of those surveyed said they've heard a lot about proposals, while 55 percent reported hearing "nothing at all" about it. Only 36 percent believed that global warming is surely caused by human activity (down from 47 percent the previous three years).

Conservative Republicans, found Pew, are the only political group with majority opposition to carbon restrictions; only 60 percent of that subgroup is opposed.

Meanwhile, an October CNN poll found greater national support for a cap and trade policy; six people in 10 were in favor overall.

In August, 58 percent of respondents to an ABC/Washington Post survey said they would support cap and trade even if it raised their monthly electricity bills by $10 per month, but support dropped to 39 percent when the cost of going green climbed to $25 per month. A month earlier, 44 percent were comfortable with a $25 price jump, while 80 percent said they felt the federal government should regulate the release of greenhouse gases, even if it increased prices of goods.

Jim Stewart, an Earth Day Los Angeles organizer and co-chair of the Sierra Club Angeles Chapter's Global Warming, Air Quality and Energy Committee, believes that recent cooler temperatures and a backlash against cap and trade fanned by conservative media and energy producers have muddied the waters of public opinion.

He also points out that reluctance to accept the problem of global warming is heating up most among white males living in the country's red-state middle, where, according to Pew data, many are likely to fear higher energy costs and loss of traditional energy and transportation sector jobs.

"One of the things I've been very disappointed with is the apparent success of coal companies aligning with rural utilities to oppose the Waxman-Markey `cap and trade` bill," says Stewart.

Among West Coast environmental activists, "we're so much more energized this year with the election of Obama and the selection of Secretary `of Energy Steven` Chu. Now we have an opportunity for the U.S. to make a difference in the whole global scene," adds Stewart.

Pew found 56 percent of Americans favored the United States joining with other countries to set global standards for addressing climate change.

But if worries about global warming are on the decline, other polls suggest that health care and the economy are uppermost in people's minds. A September Bloomberg poll of adults nationwide found that seven of 10 ranked those issues as the most important facing the country, while only 2 percent named global warming. Health care and the economy also dominated a CBS News poll last month.

"The economy is a big part of it," says Patzert. "The last 18 months have been a shocker. There's a reaction by people that if we sink all this money into energy technology and the environment that it's going to slow down the recovery. So a lot of this is fear and self-interest. The greatest threat to the whole movement and doing anything positive is the status quo. And the more uncertain times become, the more people seem to stick to the status quo."

The Pew survey does not rate other issues, but did identify significant differences in attitudes about climate change among geographic regions and age groups.

Despite declining concern about climate change, the number of people ages 18 to 29 who said global warming is a "very serious problem" increased from 41 percent in April 2008 to 46 percent last month. Conversely, the number of those 65 and older in the "very serious" category fell precipitously from 41 percent in 2008 to just one in four this fall, the steepest drop of any age group.

The sharpest regional decline in belief that evidence supports climate change occurred in the West's mountain states, where the number of believers shrank from 75 percent last year to only 44 percent in October.

In the Pacific region, the number of those who say there is solid evidence for global warming dropped by 13 points but remains at 65 percent — among the highest in the nation.

"While other things may seem more compelling today, I think climate change is definitely still on everybody's radar screen," says Patzert.

A version of this story first appeared in the Pasadena Weekly.

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