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The Environmental Inverted Pyramid

This chart, adopted from a very interesting new survey (.pdf) of 2,164 American adults on climate policy, reveals part of the problem that advocates of more aggressive measures to curb climate change may be encountering as they seek to push forward initiatives like cap-and-trade.

The survey, conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, reveals that Americans are concerned about global warming in the abstract — but perhaps only in the abstract. Just 32 percent of Americans think global warming will harm them “a great deal” or a “a moderate amount” personally. The further we get out from the individual, however, the more impactful people think climate change will tend to be: more impactful on their families than themselves; more impactful on their communities than their families; more impactful on their country than their communities; more impactful than other counties than on the United States; more impactful on future generations than the present one, and finally, more impactful on plants and animals than on humans.

These beliefs are not necessarily irrational. Climate change probably will have more impact on the developing world than the developed one, and it almost certainly will have more impact on our children than it does on ourselves.

Nevertheless, the fact that fewer than a third of Americans are worried about the effects that climate change will have on them personally strikes me as significant. Although more aggressive policy responses on climate change generally poll fairly well, they are also often the first things to be sacrificed in Americans’ minds when something else intervenes, such as a recession or higher energy prices. Advocates of cap-and-trade may need to find ways to personalize the terms of the debate.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.