April 20, 2009

No One Cares about the Environment

Elizabeth Kolbert is bummed. In an essay in the current issue of the New Yorker, she decries the government's collective shrug when faced with the looming catastrophe of climate change. On the one hand, "[t]o do something meaningful about global warming will require legislation even more far-reaching than the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act" while on the other "there are plenty of reasons to wonder whether serious steps to reduce carbon emissions will be taken this year or, indeed, ever."

Making matters worse, Americans don't quite seem ready to take to the streets over climate change:
Three and a half decades ago, when the nation's key environmental laws were approved, politicians were responding to the mood of the country. Today, the situation is largely reversed. Polls show that voters regard the environment in general, and climate change in particular, as, at best, middling concerns. In a recent survey, the Pew Research Center asked Americans about their priorities for Congress and the new President. "Dealing with global warming" ranked at the bottom of a list of twenty choices, far below "strengthening the nation's economy" and "reducing health-care costs," and even below dealing with unspecified "global trade issues." The recession seems to have dampened the nation's enthusiasm for any measure that could affect -- or, perhaps just as important, be portrayed as affecting -- people's pocketbooks. Last month, when Gallup asked Americans whether "protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth," only forty-two per cent said yes. This was the lowest proportion in the twenty-five years since the firm started asking the question. Results like these do not make action on climate change any less imperative. But -- especially since opponents can be counted on to spend tens of millions of dollars on lobbying -- they do make it that much less likely.
Climate change is turning out to be too diffuse a threat to mobilize around (for many Americans anyway). On top of that, many of the solutions involve changing the way we live -- never a popular thing to advocate for. During the Cold War, one of the main public (if not outright propagandistic) justifications for our conflict with the Soviet Union was "to protect the American way of life." To fight climate change, that's exactly what we can't do.

Meanwhile, I don't know if a poll question that asks about "dealing with climate change" quite captures the immediacy of the crisis. It also presumes that the poll-taker knows what it means to "deal" with climate change. If questions were posed a bit differently, such as asking, "Should the government take action to prevent catastrophic crop failures" or "act against the threatened destruction of coastal cities" you just might get a more positive response. Of course, you'd also be accused of fear-mongering by the other side (to which I would respond that it takes one to know one).

In the end, it's all a question of how hard President Obama is going to push to pass a climate bill. If he goes all out, both in his salesmanship to the American people as well as to Congress, it's clear that you can't write it off the possibility of success. Almost every speech Obama has given includes references to climate change and how addressing it is fundamental to the future of the country and the economy. He's marking Earth Day in Iowa and will undoubtedly repeat those themes in his speech. My hope is that in his effort to get climate change legislation passed we'll see the same pattern we've been seeing with him all along -- a weak start followed by a strong, and commanding, finish. One thing's for sure, the stakes couldn't be higher. If the public starts to understand that, everything changes.

Photo by Vineus used under a CC license

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Blogger Robert de Neufville said...

You're right, of course, that a poll question asking about climate change in those vague terms is poorly designed—a social scientist would be pilloried for that kind of survey design—but I am afraid it may accurately capture our collective apathy. It doesn't matter how we respond to a fuller description of the problem, but rather how we respond to the most simplistic version of it. Because unless Obama or someone else decides they can make political hay by using environmental issues to scare people, it's the simplistic version we're going to get. Come to think of it, maybe a little political fear-mongering is precisely what is needed at this point...

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