As if in response to David Roberts’ point that "[t]here is nothing close to the public or political support necessary to pass the kind of sweeping policies necessary to eliminate America’s emissions," Pew is out with a new poll saying just that.

Kevin Drum (via Andy Revkin) has the details:

Global warming, once again, ranks as the lowest priority from a list of 20, and the more general category of "protecting the environment" fell 15 percentage points from last year.

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And as if that’s not bad enough, Revkin also points to a new Rasmussen poll, which finds that 44% of U.S. voters don’t believe humans are the cause of global warming, compared to only 41% who do. That’s even worse than last year’s results.

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Somehow, those numbers don’t surprise me. Leaving aside the fact that, thanks to the contingencies of history, the developed world has ended up occupying the parts of the planet likely to be affected least by climate change, the whole phenomenon is too vague and amorphous for most Americans to focus on. It just doesn’t feel real to many people. After all, the weather is weird. Sometimes it’s warm. Sometimes it’s cold. Sometimes it rains.

In fact, I’m willing to bet the poll numbers for global warming will wax and wane in correlation with the temperature in any given year (just like a president’s approval rating correlates pretty well with perceptions about the economy). Is it cold this year? Support will fall. A beastly hot summer? Up go the poll numbers.

Meanwhile, we as a society aren’t particularly good with the whole science thing in general. Let’s look at some numbers from a National Science Foundation poll back in 2004.

  • Only 40% of Americans know that the universe began with the Big Bang.
  • Fully half don’t believe in evolution (with 1 in 5 entirely "unaware" of the concept at all).
  • 58% of Americans think lasers focus sound waves rather than light. Lasers! Didn’t these people see Star Wars?!
  • And capping it all off: 29% of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

What part of Americans’ confusion regarding anthropogenic climate change is hard to understand? Even the concept of the scientific method is understood by only a fraction of our society. This all is why Joe Romm is running a pool on the nature of the near-term catastrophes required to turn Americans’ climate change doubts into certainty.

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And, tellingly, the partisan split is huge, with 59% of Democrats saying climate change is caused by humans, while only 21% of Republican agree. And why should they? Climate skepticism has been a cornerstone of Bush Republicanism for eight years — and so far it looks like many in the GOP will continue to use it as a rallying cry.

If there’s any hope in these recent climate poll numbers, it comes from a figure buried in Rasmussen’s poll. They found that 64% of American voters believe climate change, whatever the cause, to be at least a "somewhat serious" problem (41% say it’s "very serious"). So we may not rank the issue very high at the moment, and we may not be sure why it’s happening, but a solid majority of us are ready to be persuaded.

And President Obama has left little doubt that we’ll be hearing a lot about climate change in the months and years ahead. If anyone can move public opinion on the issue, it’s going to be him, don’t you think?