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Can Climate Polls Tell Us Anything Useful?

There are any number of ways to read (and, yes, spin) this latest Washington Post/ABC poll on Obama and global warming. Take the headline figure: Americans now only barely approve of the president's handling of climate change, 45 percent to 39 percent, which is down dramatically from his 61-29 approvals back in April. Is that because people genuinely don't want him to deal with the issue? Or is it just a reflection of the fact that the public's getting cranky at Obama for all sorts of loosely related reasons (the economy's still dismal, the health care debate's taking a Three Stooges-esque turn, etc.)?

My hunch, though I can't say for sure, is the latter. On the specific issue of capping greenhouse gases, public opinion has stayed pretty stable over the years. About 65 percent of respondents think the federal government should regulate carbon from power plants, cars, and factories—in fact, 55 percent would support that even if it meant a $25/month increase in their energy bills. (And note that that's at the high end of what's actually projected: The CBO, EIA, and EPA all estimate that the House cap-and-trade bill would raise energy prices by just $7-$13/month per household.)

Meanwhile, one thing that's really unpopular is the idea of sending aid to developing countries—a measure that's integral to any international climate deal. By 57 percent to 39 percent, Americans loathe the notion of the United States and other wealthy countries chipping in for a $10-billion-per-year climate fund. (It's possible those numbers would be different if pollsters explained that much of that "aid" would come from private financing under a carbon-trading regime, but who knows?) Expect conservatives to pursue this line in the coming months. Earlier today, House Republican Joe Barton could be seen working the isolationist angle with his quip that, "We don't have an icecap in Texas."

The most unsettling aspect of the poll, I think, is the fact that public distrust for climate scientists is creeping up pretty significantly—some 40 percent of Americans now place little or no faith in what scientists say about the environment. Most of this newfound scorn is coming from Republicans, many of whom, presumably, have been hearing Rush Limbaugh and friends prattle on about "Climategate" for weeks. Still, it's a bad sign, and while the natural impulse is to blame a denial industry that's been smearing scientists for years, it's impossible to downplay that those East Anglia e-mails were a p.r. debacle.

On the other hand, does any of that matter for policy debates? That's less clear. Apart from a few longtime Republican skeptics, no one in Congress is really obsessing over the e-mails. And, as Dan Weiss notes, Americans have been deeply confused about whether or not there's a scientific consensus on climate change for more than a decade—and yet majorities still favor clamping down on greenhouse gases. Public opinion can be odd.