For those who believe that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice, it is comforting to see that bend reflected in the polls. Over time, as public awareness of an outrage increases, tolerance for the status quo should diminish while the percentage of the population demanding change creeps up. With steady persistence, popular support for detrimental views will recede, ignorance will be undermined, and consensus around truth will solidify.
Unfortunately, with one of today’s most pressing public issues—climate change—things have not worked out so neatly. From the early 2000s through 2007, the year after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was released, public concern about global warming grew. The percentage of people who indicated in Gallup polls that they believed climate change would pose a “serious threat” to them within their lifetimes rose from 25 percent in 1998 to a high of 40 percent by the start of 2008.
Then came a bad turn. By 2010, the “serious threat” number had fallen back to 32 percent, erasing almost a decade of progress. A summary of polling data by two University of Connecticut professors notes that the percentage of Americans who agreed that “most scientists believe that the planet is warming” also took a nosedive, falling “by 13 points between March 2008 and March 2010—reaching the lowest level of support since the question was first asked in 1997.” In the aftermath of a sharp economic downturn—amid a furious counterattack by Fox News pundits, think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry, and Tea Party activists—a widespread wariness about the issue took hold in Washington, D.C. The mood persists to the present day.