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When Hope is the Enemy of Change

The environment is having a rough go of things in the polls.

A Pew survey in January showed a precipitous 15-point decline in the number of American adults who describe global warming as a ‘top priority’. Meanwhile, a Gallup poll released last month showed a record number of Americans — 41 percent — who claimed that the seriousness of global warming is ‘generally exaggerated’. And just last week, a Rasmussen poll had likely voters increasingly skeptical of the idea that global warming is manmade. (Although Rasmussen’s results were quite out of step with other agencies’ polling on the issue, they nevertheless represented a substantial decline from Rasmussen’s previous polling of this question).

The conventional wisdom — which I do not necessarily dispute — is that when the economy declines, so does concern over global warming. People have other things on their minds, like losing their jobs or 401K’s. They also may suffer from a sort of bad-news fatigue (there is still plenty of bad news on the environment).

The environment, however, may have another problem as well. Because of Barack Obama’s election, many Americans assume that the environment is getting better, whether or not it actually is.

That is the result suggested by a Gallup poll released yesterday. Fully 41 percent of Americans now think the environment is getting better; this is up from 26 percent just last year.

When I first saw this result, I assumed the change was mostly triggered by conservatives, who are either tired of talking about environmental protection or are spending too much time reading George F. Will and his misleading interpretations of climate science. Alternatively, people may simply have short memories. Last year, 2008, was cooler than most recent ones, particularly in North America (see map above), although still very warm historically.

This environmental optimism is not being driven by conservatives, however: Republicans are essentially no more likely to take an optimistic position on the environment than they were a year earlier. Rather, it is being driven by independents and, especially, Democrats:

Note the 25-point jump in the number of Democrats who think the environment is getting better, which is paralleled by an 18-point bounce among unaffiliated voters. This is accompanied, not coincidentally, by extremely high expectations for what Barack Obama will be able to accomplish on behalf of the environment.

The environment, we should pause to mention, has caught a couple of breaks recently. The global economic slowdown has lowered the rate of industrial production, and therefore slowed the rate of increase in carbon output. Americans were driving less throughout most of 2008 (the trend has yet to really reverse itself in spite of a significant abatement in gas prices).

The Obama administration, moreover, has done some good for the environment through the powers of the Executive Branch — giving the EPA greater authority to regulate carbon, while permitting states greater latitude to regulate vehicle emissions. The stimulus package passed in February included significant funding for green energy development, although much less than some advocates were hoping for.

These actions, however, even if successful, merely mean that the environment is getting worse less quickly, not that it’s actually improving. Yes, perhaps, that is a semantic distinction to the average American responding to one of these polls; it is certainly not one to the planet.

I think there is something else here, however, and it is potentially very dangerous to the Administration. Namely, there is the risk that Americans assume — by Obama’s mere presence in the White House — that more is being done to help the environment than actually is. “This was the moment”, Obama told the country in a speech last June after winning the Democratic nomination, “when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. Some Americans may be taking that too literally.

Passing cap-and-trade — or carbon tax — legislation is not going to be easy in this economic environment, with Republicans like John McCain having begun campaigning against it, Blue Dog democrats expressing skepticism, and innumerate editorials in small-town newspapers bemoaning its effect on local businesses. There may be risks to advocates of environmental reform in attempting to scare the public into submission — but for the time being, there are probably greater risks in complacency.

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