The Great Global Warming Disconnect

Do Americans believe in — or care about — climate change? It's not a yes-or-no question.

Hot, hot, hot.

Photographer: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

Fifty percent of Americans are now "concerned believers" in global warming. That's the finding of a new Gallup "cluster analysis" of responses to a poll conducted earlier this month. It's also a record -- although the percentage was actually pretty similar (49 percent) back in 2001, when the data series began. The analysis currently places 31 percent of U.S. adults in the "mixed middle" on climate change, and classifies 19 percent as "cool skeptics." 

If you prefer your polling data raw rather than analyzed in clusters and given nicknames, here's how Americans have responded to Gallup's questions since 1989 about their level of concern about global warming (Gallup didn't ask the question every year; the dotted lines in the chart represent years with no data):

U.S. Attitudes on Climate Change

How much do you personally worry about global warming or climate change?

Source: Gallup

From 2009 to 2014 the question mentioned only "global warming"; from 1989 to 2009 it was "the 'greenhouse effect' or global warming."

Public concern about global warming seems pretty high these days! A Quinnipiac University poll conducted this month backs this up: 73 percent of the registered voters polled said they were "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about climate change, and 63 percent said they didn't think President Donald Trump should "remove specific regulations intended to combat climate change." Yet another set of polling data, from the Yale Program on Climate Communication, found that in 2016 a majority of adults in every congressional district in the country thought the government should limit carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

So why is it that the president signed an executive order today that "begins unraveling a raft of rules and directives to combat climate change," including limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants? I guess you could attribute some of this disconnect between public opinion and executive action to the vagaries of the American electoral system, which often seems to promote extreme views over consensus-seeking and favors deep pockets over broad public sentiment. Then there's the president's understandable distrust in polls, his campaign pledges to bring back coal (which he almost certainly won't be able to do, but maybe he figures he'll get credit for trying), and the hard transition-team work that veteran anti-environmentalist Myron Ebell put in to shape administration policy on this topic.

But after looking through the polling data over the years, I have another thought that is not unrelated to the above reasons but seems worthy of separate consideration: Most Americans really aren't sure what to think about climate change. Yes, levels of concern are high right now, but that seems to be in large part a partisan reaction to who is in the White House. Just as climate-change skeptics grew in number in the early years of Barack Obama's presidency, climate worriers are coming out of the woodwork with Trump.

Over the past couple of decades, about 25 percent of Americans have consistently worried about climate change, and about 15 percent consistently dismissed it. The other 60 percent of the adult populace appears to be open to persuasion. Also, very few Americans see addressing climate change as their top priority. It shows up nowhere on Gallup's regular tally of what people think is the most important issue facing the country, while environmental and pollution-related topics were named by only 2 percent of those polled in February.

Here's another interesting polling result, from the Pew Research Center: Only 27 percent of U.S. adults agree with the statement that "almost all climate scientists agree that human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change." Now I guess we could quibble a little over the meaning of "almost all," but it is a well-established fact that about 97 percent of active climate scientists believe that human activity is the cause of recent global warming. This is in part testimony to the success of Ebell and his allies in deliberately sowing doubt. But it could also be a sign that the "scientific consensus" framing just intrinsically isn't all that persuasive. I'll admit, I'm biased here: I wrote a book about a scientific consensus that has largely unraveled, and I have watched with fascination (and eaten with satisfaction) as the scientific consensus over the merits and demerits of carbohydrates and fats has pretty much reversed itself. So the fact that 97 percent of the scientists in a field believe something is not in itself all that persuasive to me.

What is persuasive? This is a topic I hesitate to weigh in on because (a) people get so worked up about it and (b) I'm no expert, but here's what my thought process has looked like: More than a century ago, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius theorized that rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from industrial emissions would cause global temperatures to rise. Since then, carbon dioxide concentrations have risen, and so have temperatures. That's not proof that the two are linked but, over time, objections and alternatives to Arrhenius's hypothesis have tended to fall by the wayside.

Remember when the satellite temperature series maintained by John Christy and Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama at Huntsville didn't back up surface readings that showed rising temperatures? I do, because I wrote an article about them for the Birmingham News in the early 1990s. Not long after that, the satellite temperatures began showing a clear upward trend. Remember the surface warming pause that lasted from the late 1990s to 2013? That seems to have ended, with new global temperature records set in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Remember the theory that increased sunspot activity was warming the earth? That unraveled when new data showed that sunspot activity hadn't increased.

Global temperatures have been on an upward trend since the early 1900s. The best explanation currently available is that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels have been the main cause. I'm pretty sure a great majority of Americans (75 percent? More?) would agree with those assertions. Beyond that, there's lots of uncertainty and debate about what will happen next, whether warming is such a terrible thing, whether the positive impact of increased carbon dioxide concentrations on plant growth is something to cheer about, how to weigh time and uncertainty in climate cost/benefit analyses, and so on and on.

I pay more heed to the alarmists on climate change than I used to, because it seems like they've been right more often than the skeptics have, but I get why people still have doubts and differing opinions, and why they struggle to assign a priority to the issue. This is an issue where it makes sense for views to fall along a continuum -- and that seems to be exactly what the polls show is happening among American voters. Now if we could only get our politicians to think and talk that way, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.