If you don’t regard global warming as a serious problem, your company is growing. According to the survey jockeys at Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who think global warming is “very serious” or “somewhat serious” has declined since 2006 (from 79 percent to 65 percent). While a firm majority still considers global warming to be very or somewhat serious, the numbers show that public alarm over the topic has receded over a period during which the scientific, journalistic, and political consensus on the topic has surged the other way.
Over the same 8-year period, fewer respondents agree that the earth is warming and fewer agree that human activity causes warming. These figures must give cognitive whiplash to those who dismiss the public as a herd of easily driven sheep. The scientific establishment, the press, and politicians have a flimsy grasp of mass opinion.
Americans’ blasé and wishy-washy attitudes toward global warming may be related to the positive short-term effects of environmental policies that they observe daily. Our air and water is cleaner than it was a generation ago, as the federal government likes to crow, we’re recycling more and we’ve cleaned up more of the designated Superfund sites. Even U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have declined, though not by the margin that will undo the harm predicted by global warming theorists. Most Americans have witnessed social and technological progress in their lifetimes and they see evidence of future progress, so they’re optimistic. It’s only human nature that they might reject the apocalyptic impulse.
What else has nudged America’s global-warming opinion needle in the direction of the doubters and I-don’t-care crowd? Perhaps opinions on global warming are driven by the volume of press coverage, not necessarily the content. Today volume is down: A Nexis search of the five top newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times) shows that 2,286 pieces mentioned global warming in 2006, compared to 1,353 in 2013. That’s a measurable decline, but great enough to move opinion? I doubt it.
Or maybe the public conserves its supply of “concern” and rations it out when the pollsters come knocking. Intense worries about Topic A are displaced by intense worries about Topic B when events conspire to bring its profile higher. Call it crisis fatigue — your mind can handle only so much at a time. For example, 2006 was a time of a thriving economy. If you needed to worry about the cataclysmic, you couldn’t do better than worry about the planet frying on its own skillet. Soon after that survey, the prospect of losing your home and job became very possible. As President Obama likes to say, the economy is the top concern on Americans’ mind right now. Yet the Pew polls don’t seem to support the idea that people have limited supplies of concern.
Another possibility — not measurable with data because I can’t find any — is that the more rollicking a debate is, the more invested in it some respondents become. But a debate doesn’t rollick unless it’s full-throated and two-sided. In winning the argument, global warming theorists and their allies have sort of smothered it. Even their foes are cowed. When critics sing the opposition, it’s usually to the tune of, “Your Models Have Failed to Accurately Predict Temperatures” or “We Can Cope With Global Warming with Smart Research.” As the temperature (sorry!) of the debate has declined, perhaps the accompanying sense of urgency has cooled a few degrees, even among its believers. Or at least that’s my theory.
Like other global crises embraced by the masses, global warming has become normalized. When I was growing up, my generation was convinced that life would end in nuclear vapor, and except for a monthly nightmare about it, we carried on with our daily routines. Like the depletion of the Social Security fund or the eventual dimming of the sun, the apocalypse predicted by global warming theorists seems too distant to the average citizen to maintain any loyalty to it as an immediate threat. Also, greenhouse gas emissions are too global to be easily limited. The United Nations has trouble agreeing on what take-out to order when sessions go overtime. How can anybody expect the world to agree on who gets to emit what? I’d love to see a Pew survey pose a question like this: “Have global warming predictions convinced you that the coming devastation is so unstoppable that you’ve given up thinking about it?” Respondents would agree and cry at the same time.
Back to human nature: When we are very young, we think death is something that happens to other people. As we grow older, we concede that, yes, we’ll die, too, but it won’t be for a long time. Sometime in our 40s or 50s, as friends and family our age die, we begin to accept death’s imminence. By the time we’re in our 70s, we’re so obsessed with our mortality that we can’t believe younger people are so reckless. If a global warming apocalypse is really in the cards, we’re probably reacting to it as a typical 50-year-old would to actuarial evidence about his own coming demise. Yeah, yeah, let’s talk about something a little more topical.