Maybe it’s because the healthcare debate has been getting so hot lately. Maybe the battle cries generated by Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth are inconveniently echoing off into the distance. Maybe Americans are simply reeling from the recession, and don’t have time these days to worry about rising sea levels. Whatever it is, it seems that a lot of Americans are setting climate change to cool on the backburner. A sobering study released last week by The Pew Research Center suggests that Americans are less concerned today about climate change than they were 18 months ago. And by a significant margin, too. According to the study, only 35% of Americans today consider global warming a “very serious problem.” Compare that to 44% in April 2008.

More? Oh, okay: In April 2008, 71% of Americans believed there was “solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades,” and 47% believed human activity was causing climate change. By October 2009, only 57% of Americans believed there was “solid evidence” of warming, and a mere 36% chalked the warming up to human activity.

Interestingly, climate change skepticism seems to have flourished across party lines during the past two years. The position shift was “particularly pronounced” among independents, but struck republicans (down from 49% in 2008 to 35% today) and democrats (down from 83% to 75%) in not-so-unequal measures, though the baseline for republican belief in climate change is, as ever, much lower than that for democrats.

Speaking at the International Federation of Environmental Journalists Congress this week in Delhi, Time Magazine environmental reporter Bryan Walsh called the Pew poll a “damning one.”  

“There’s been a notable backslide in public concern over global warming in the U.S.,” Walsh told international peers. “We assumed that after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s groundbreaking assessment in 2007, the scientific case on global warming was definitively closed. But not every American has heard the message.”

Walsh also highlighted the incredibly irony that “during the very same time period when Americans elected officials who said they would combat global warming, concern over the problem—even belief in the basic science of climate change—has declined.” Man's got a point. We emerge from 8 years of anti-science under the Bush administration, and then promptly decide to ignore the overwhelming majority of the world’s greatest scientific minds on climate change? Really?

Strangest of all, though, were the study’s findings on American attitudes toward cap and trade emissions policy. While Pew found “little awareness” amongst Americans of what cap and trade policy even is, it revealed that “half of Americans favor setting limits on carbon emissions and making companies pay for their emissions, even if this may lead to higher energy prices.” And get this: more than half of Americans (56%!) want the US to work with other countries at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December to set emissions standards as part of an international climate treaty.

So go figure. We don’t believe in climate change, but we’re willing to pay up in order to cap emissions (during tough economic times, to boot), and we want to set emissions standards with the world as our witness, in just two months. We’re a strange breed, we are.