The Washington Post

The public’s interest in climate change is waning

The global warming conundrum has been on full display over the past 24 hours. Even as one of the nation's most prominent climate scientists has decided to retire in order to become a full-time activist, a new Pew Research poll suggests public interest and intensity with the issue is waning.

James E. Hansen, who directs the Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York City, has been warning policymakers about the threat of climate change since 1988. And while he remains one of the nation's most outspoken activists on global warming, he decided he needed to pursue the cause full time rather than juggle his outside activities with a full-time job.

Hansen's retirement comes as a new poll out Tuesday suggests he -- as well as President Obama, who has identified climate change as one of his top second-term priorities -- face a major challenge in convincing the public of the urgency of the issue.

A new Pew poll shows the percentage who say that global warming is a "very serious" problem has slipped six points since October.

While Pew reported an identical uptick in the number calling it “somewhat serious”--meaning that more than six in 10 respondents still call climate change somewhat or very serious -- the decline in those who describe it in dire terms means that public attitudes are now around where they were in 2010, close to the lowest level of concern in eight years on the issue.

In short: the American public wants elected officials to do something about global warming, but only a fraction of these citizens are willing to prioritize the issue. In an e-mail Tuesday, Hansen wrote that forcing the federal government to act on the matter "is difficult," even if activists make an appeal to the courts.

"It likely requires public pressure," he wrote. "As in the case of civil rights, the courts do not get too far ahead of public opinion. That is why it is so important to clarify the communications, and our failure as a scientific community to communicate clearly the urgency of actions to stabilize climate."

Capital Insight survey research analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

RELATED: 8 things you should know about the Keystone XL project 

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
What can babies teach students?
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
A veteran finds healing on a dog sled
Play Videos
A fighter pilot helmet with 360 degrees of sky
Is fencing the answer to brain health?
Scenes from Brazil's Carajás Railway
Play Videos
How a hacker group came to Washington
The woman behind the Nats’ presidents ‘Star Wars’ makeover
How hackers can control your car from miles away
Play Videos
Philadelphia's real signature sandwich
Full disclosure: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 ghoul
Europe's migrant crisis, explained
Next Story
Chris Cillizza · April 2, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.