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Ahead of the Election, Americans’ Climate Concerns Slosh

Measured in a long-running survey, American attitudes on global warming range from alarmed to dismissive, with some shifts over time. Credit Yale / George Mason University

Fresh analysis from a research group tracking voter views on global warming shows the country’s range of attitudes sloshing more than surging.

There was some drama on this issue as liberals and centrists sparred over the Democratic climate and energy platform in recent days. But given such findings, and now that Bernie Sanders has endorsed Hillary Clinton, don’t expect global warming to take center stage in the fall fight.

Since 2008, the “Six Americas” survey by researchers at Yale and George Mason University has provided a valuable running view of the range of American views on climate change and related issues. A new analysis in the context of the election, drawing on data from March, shows we’re going back in time, in essence.

Here’s one data point:

The proportion of Americans in the “alarmed” segment increased by five percentage points over the past year, and is now comparable to proportion found in the fall of 2008, when the segments were first identified and global warming concern was at a high point nationally.

You might initially get excited reading the opening lines in the section of the Yale report on voting plans:

As Americans decide which candidate to support in the upcoming presidential election, global warming, environmental protection and clean energy production are central to the decisions of some segments and largely irrelevant to others. More than 80 percent of the Alarmed say these issues will be very or extremely important in their voting decisions.

But read on for a dose of reality:

Among the Concerned, half (53 percent) consider environmental protection to be very or extremely important, and more than 40 percent consider clean energy and global warming the same. Among the remaining segments, however, global warming is the least important issue of the 23 assessed, and only a third or fewer say environmental protection and developing clean energy will be very or extremely important in their vote.

So despite the “scary boring” string of “warmest” temperature records of late (see “shifting baselines“), despite years of “worse than we thought” findings and messages, “meh” still wins the day.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t great opportunities for pursuing progress on clean energy and building community resilience. On both of these issues, there’s evidence that the United States has “no red-blue divide.”

But it does mean that centering rhetoric on the “climate crisis” may not do much more than energize those already alarmed (keeping in mind that this also energizes those at the “dismissive” end of the range).

Here’s a quick video commentary I pulled together illustrating my longstanding view that such surveys show a pattern similar to water sloshing in a shallow pan — with a lot of movement, but no change in depth. The video is also on Facebook here, so share away.

I first dug in on behavioral and social science research related to global warming views and responses in 2006, and it quickly became clear that this was the scariest body of science of all — topping ice-sheet instability and even calling into question the utility of my profession. Among many issues, “cultural cognition,” as Yale’s Dan Kahan and others have shown, means your cultural identity matters more than an objective assessment of “facts.”

Incidentally, the climate and energy factor in the presidential election will be a central focus of this week’s installment of “Our Warm Regards,” a new podcast on climate science and communication spearheaded by Slate’s blogging meteorologist Eric Holthaus and including the paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill (focused on past and future climate impacts on ecosystems) and yours truly.

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