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Where Does the Country Stand on Climate Change?

A new Pew Research Center poll gives us a clearer picture of where the country stands on global warming. According to the poll, the country’s stance on global warming has pretty much stayed the same during the last year. About 59 percent of Americans say there is “solid evidence” that the earth is warming, up slightly from this time last year, when 57 percent of Americans said the same thing. Fewer Americans, 34 percent, believe that the earth is warming as a result of human activity, though that number is essentially the same as last year’s 36 percent.

But one of the most interesting things the poll shows us is how Americans’ views of global warming have changed over time. The data show that between April 2008 and October 2009 — a period that included the passage of a cap-and-trade bill in the House and the beginning of debate on a similar bill in the Senate — the percentage of Americans who believe there is “solid evidence” that the earth is warming fell drastically. In April 2008, 71 percent of Americans believed the earth was warming; in October 2009 that number was 57 percent.

The poll gives us additional evidence that more Republicans than Democrats question climate science. About 79 percent of Democrats and just 38 percent of Republicans believe the earth is warming. Among Republicans who identify with the Tea Party, just 23 percent say there is solid evidence of climate change.

What does this tell us? Well, for one, it shows that Republicans have been successful in raising doubts about climate science. And it shows that climate change has become increasingly politicized. For the vast majority of Republicans, and for even more Tea Partiers, climate skepticism has become a key component of their political identity.

The drop in concern about global warming has occurred in both parties, to varying degrees. In April 2008, 49 percent of Republicans said there was solid evidence of climate change; in October 2009, that number dropped to 35 percent. Among Democrats, there was a smaller decline, but a decline nonetheless, from 83 percent to 75 percent. Independents were affected the most, going from 75 percent to 53 percent.

These numbers say a lot about how politics affects the way Americans think about an issue. These sort of debates (cap-and-trade, gay marriage, etc.) may force Americans to develop opinions on things that they just don’t think about on a day-to-day basis. That leaves them vulnerable to outside influence, regardless of party. While the party divides still exist (Republicans tend to be more skeptical, Democrats tend to believe the science and independents are more easily swayed), it’s likely that opinions will continue to change.

And there’s another issue at play in many of these debates that often gets ignored: cost. One of the most common criticisms of cap-and-trade is that it will upend the economy and lead to higher electricity bills. During the House cap-and-trade debate, Republicans were not shy about raising these concerns. I’d wager that much of the change in opinion about the science has a lot to do with fears about the economics.

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