The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new Pew survey shows Americans might finally be getting serious about global warming

Pew Research Center is out with a new survey and, for the first time in years, it actually bodes well for those hoping climate change will finally become a policy priority in the United States.

The center asked a nationally representative pool of Americans which policy issues they believe should be a top priority for the Obama administration and newly appointed Congress this year. Only 38 percent of people said they thought global warming qualifies, which is almost low enough to make the issue the least important to the American public out of 23 responses. Only global trade, which 30 percent of respondents said was a top priority, was lower.

Terrorism and the economy, by contrast, are viewed as policy priorities for 2015 by 76 percent and 75 percent of the population, respectively. The list of issues that people think are more important than global warming is pretty long, as you can see in the chart below.

It should come as little surprise that so few people take global warming seriously in comparison to other issues. For at long as Pew has tracked which policies Americans say they care most about, global warming has registered at the very bottom of the list. But there's actually a silver lining to this year's results, and it isn't small.

That 38 percent is almost 10 full percentage points higher than it was last year, when only 29 percent of Americans said global warming should be a priority. The number had barely budged in recent years. In 2013, it was 28 percent. And back in 2009 it was even slightly higher: 30 percent. In fact, 38 percent of Americans haven't called the issue a top priority since 2007.

It's unclear what might have caused the sudden spike. One possibility is that the People's Climate March, in which hundreds of thousands of people walked the streets of New York City ahead of the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit, helped influence public opinion. But that seems unlikely to have nudged the entirety of the near ten point jump. Another possibility is that the growing pool of evidence that the planet is getting warmer—this past September was the hottest since, well, we don't even know—is bringing the issue to the front of peoples' minds. There's also the possibility the world's loudest proponents of climate change haven't been loud enough, or at least apocalyptic enough to be accurate, about the threat the issue poses to the planet.

No matter the cause, the increased understanding that global warming is an issue to be taken seriously, not only in classrooms and laboratories, but by lawmakers in the United States, is an encouraging sign. The people who are left: mainly Republicans, only 15 percent of whom take the issue seriously, according to Pew.