23 October 2009

Polling & AGW

Megan McArdle | Polling Mysteries

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.
Here'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.

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.


  1. Isn't it likely that this simply reflects the relative temperatures of those years? I know the science says that our personal observations of the temperature are irrelevant, but based on my conversations with people over the years, I think a lot of people put more weight on the weather they observe. The last three years have been pretty noticeably colder than normal around these parts -- not just relatively cold compared to the previous few years, but as cold as I can remember it in my lifetime. I'm wouldn't be surprised if some people look at that and say "Global warming? What the heck are you talking about?"

  2. Good thinking.

    I wonder if some people may be even more susceptible to current weather conditions. Is there more fear about global warming in July than in February? To 'Indian Summers' affect AGW fears?