Yet the solitary drop in concern for global warming should not be that surprising. The perception of risk is clearly tied to immediacy. The Gallup survey found that the number of Americans who think the effects of global warming have already begun has dropped and, though the change was not statistically significant, so has the number of people who think warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. On the other, the four environmental issues that incite the highest levels of public concern all have to do with water, which may be driven by the severe drought currently afflicting the western and southeastern United States, or recent reports about drinking water contamination in major cities around the country.

At any rate, it would be rash to argue that the media alone dictate the public’s perception of global warming. In a recent Q&A with Yale Environment 360, Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes about climate for The New Yorker, argued that it takes a “very, very palpable” event—such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005— to get both the press and the public engaged. (As an interesting aside, Kolbert also said that a lack of faith in science is a major obstacle – a point on which Tom Yulsman at the Center for Environmental Journalism disagrees.)

At his Prometheus blog, University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke, Jr. noted that public opinion has actually remained “remarkably stable” over the last decade. He suggested that:

Rather than seeing public opinion as a something to move as a prerequisite to action on certain climate policies, perhaps it is time for the experts to instead shape climate policies to fit the realities of public opinion. To paraphrase Walter Lippmann, the goal of politics is not to get everyone to think alike, but rather, to get people who think differently to act alike.

Pielke has a point. Gallup’s own “bottom line” is that the majority of Americans still believe global warming is real and that “it will be important to see whether the 2009 [survey] findings hold up in next year’s update of the annual environmental survey.”

Still, this year’s results should be a reminder to climate reporters that they can always improve the accuracy of their stories and more carefully choose frames that engage, rather than repel, the public.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.