Concern over Global Warming is on the rise, while global temperature rise has abated. Why?

Posted on April 17, 2013 by

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Unfortunately I don’t have a good answer.  But I think our understanding of political economy has to include a realization that there is often a disconnect between what we might consider the facts and what is reflected in public opinion and therefore turned into public policy.  For example, why do so many Americans support an increase in the minimum wage when we know it results in significantly decreased opportunity to the most disadvantaged in our society? Few (if any) of those supporting a minimum wage increase want to increase teenage minority unemployment, yet that is what will happen.

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So back to global warming.  Gallup’s latest polling results show American’s concern over global warming is on the rise, despite the plateau in the temperature data over the last 15 years or so.  The Economist reported,

The mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzles in climate science just now. It does not mean global warming is a delusion. Flat though they are, temperatures in the first decade of the 21st century remain almost 1°C above their level in the first decade of the 20th. But the puzzle does need explaining.”

Reuters also highlights the lack of warming, and the report was picked up by the Drudge Report, ensuring millions have seen it.  So why is concern over Global Warming on the rise?  Of course there are people on the left who deny the results highlighted in the reports linked above, and offer alternative explanations–perhaps these are shaping public policy?  Or, is the issue of global warming now a hopelessly political issue such that public opinion simply reflects the public attitudes for or against politicians?  It is interesting that concern over global warming hit its low in Gallup’s poll in the 2010 time period, when Tea Party politics were able to shift the political debate towards spending and the national debt.  One could suspect that perhaps President Obama is able to manipulate public opinion masterfully, since he has made doing something about global warming a major part of his 2nd term agenda.  Yet Gallup reports that it is support among Republicans that is causing the uptick.  It seems unlikely that Republicans are embracing President Obama’s agenda.  Or it could be simply the economic explanation that tastes for concern over global warming (and in environmental issues in general) is a luxury good; as our income increases and the worst of the recession seems behind us, we begin to indulge our luxury preferences.

So what do we make of this?  Not too much, except for my initial point:  We can’t rely on data to convince public opinion of the strength of our positions (with respect to any issue).  Yes, we must have data–but we have to have an argument that goes beyond the data to the heart.  Yes its an uphill climb, but its what we have to do.

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