Megan McArdle | Polling MysteriesHere's a third explanation: We modulate our worries to some baseline level. Fear of global warming has been displaced by other fears. Or we only have a fixed amount of caring about problems to do, and in the last year more people feel like they've done something to make the world better (elect Obama*) so they are giving themselves a break about taking on some other problems like the environment. Or we have a set amount of moral righteousness to expend, and now people are using theirs on causes like health care reform or tea partying or economic populism, and there's less leftover for environmentalism.
Also in the WTF category, Pew says there was a fourteen point drop in the number of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that anthropogenic global warming is real. I mean, maybe 45 million Americans spent the last year reviewing the scientific evidence on Global Warming and changed their minds. Certainly, a lot of laid-off workers have soem time on their hands. But this doesn't really seem a spectacularly likely explanation of the phenomenon.
I can only come up with two explanations for this phenomenon: one, that many Americans are happy to embrace a symbolic belief in global warming as long as there is no danger that anyone will do anything about it. The other is that Americans don't know what they want, and also, enjoy messing with pollster's minds.
I'm not explaining this well, but I've got nothing left in the tanks after a grueling week, so a little slack if you please.
I think a lot of people may have something like this going through their heads: "I've already help defeat the existential threat of racism, so I don't need to confront the existential threat of environmental collapse. I've done my part." Or maybe: "I'm working to help the uninsured, so somebody else can work to help the polar bears." They don't think these things consciously, but they may manifest themselves in peoples changed beliefs about whether catastrophic anthropogenic global warming exists at all.
PS Here's Pew's overview of their report, which includes the chart above.
* Updated to add: The first half of McArdle's post is about how people have suddenly soured on Obama over the last month or so, but still, they felt pretty proud of themselves for electing him in the first place. I don't have time to go looking for the details now, but his favorability score rocketed between his election and his inauguration. The act of becoming president did wonders for him even among many people who didn't want him to become president.