Will Hurricane Sandy be the wake-up call that Americans need to finally recognize that rapid climate change is already upon us and the rest of the world? Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist, told the Los Angeles Times it may be a galvanizing event, “a Cuyahoga River moment for climate change.” The superstorm, Mann says, “has galvanized attention to this issue and the role that climate change may be playing with regard to the intensification of extreme weather.” Cleveland’s Cuyohaga River infamously caught fire in 1969, setting off a wave of water-pollution control activities.
On the other hand, maybe not. The Onion reported last week on a new study that concluded the only way Americans will pay attention to climate change is if Julia Roberts is killed by a hurricane. (In 2010 the Onion “reported” on a CGD study that found climate change “may still be a problem” despite the lack of US public concern.)
Joking aside, Americans lag behind other nations’ understanding of the issue and urgency. Pointing out that poor people in distant lands will be hurt first and worst by climate change does little to motivate concern. If we Americans won’t push our politicians to act on climate issues on the basis of the mounting evidence of an urgent problem at home, it’s not surprising that unprecedented flooding in Pakistan over the past three years, including major floods just last month, barely register on the American consciousness.
A 2009 World Public Opinion (WPO) poll asked people how high a priority their government should make climate change, with 10 being a very high priority. The average across 18 nations was 7.28. The highest mean levels were in Mexico (9.09), China (8.86), Turkey (8.34), and Great Britain (8.20). Only three had means below six. The lowest of these was the United States (4.71), followed by the Palestinian territories and Iraq. The same poll found that people around the world disapprove of how the United States has addressed climate change—and name it the country having the worst effect on the world’s environment.
Americans’ lower level of concern is not a result of being less at risk to the impacts of rapid global warming. In a startling interactive map showing the results of a path-breaking CGD study by David Wheeler comparing vulnerability to climate change across 233 countries, the United State ranks 25th in terms of direct risks from extreme weather events like Sandy. When the ability to cope with extreme weather is included to produce an overall vulnerability score, the US risk profile drops but still falls well within the top third of nations.
Why the disconnect? The answer lies partly the outsize role of money in American politics. Investigative reporter Lee Fang at The Nation has described how the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other fossil-fuel interests were quick to take advantage of the opening when the US Supreme Court struck down campaign finance laws in the Citizens United decision. His article details how money from US and foreign oil companies was funneled through the API during the 2010 midterm elections to defeat members of Congress who were inclined to act on climate change and replace them with Tea Party climate deniers.
Similar tactics during this election have kept climate change out of the dialogue. Fang points to the API-created “Vote Energy” media campaign and other activity aimed at shaping US public opinion that helped to make “energy” a top-line campaign issue for candidates from both parties, but with no mention of climate risk. During the second presidential debate, Obama and Romney competed to show themselves as the friendliest candidate to stepped-up coal, oil, and gas extraction in the United States, activities incompatible with sensible climate action.
There are likely many reasons why so many Americans find it hard to believe that human activity is changing the environment for the worse. The reasons are complicated and unclear—sometimes entwined with religious beliefs or related to conspiracy theories. What seems clear, though, is that climate has become a polarized issue and that changing minds is a slow process. I’m hoping it won’t take another superstorm like Sandy or another summer of forest fires and crop-destroying drought to get climate action on American’s political agenda.
Encouragingly, a recent report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found large positive movement across a range of questions related to the understanding of climate change. Americans’ belief in the reality of global warming has increased by 13 percentage points over the past two and a half years, from 57 percent in January 2010 to 70 percent in September 2012. More than half of Americans (58 percent) say they are “somewhat” or “very worried,” the highest level since November 2008. And that was before Sandy hit.
With luck and an increased dose of courage from our leaders, US public opinion—and the politicians who both shape and depend upon it—will overcome the power of corporate cash and reach the point where there is enough recognition of the urgent need for action that new ideas will find an opening. When and if that happens, CGD has some to offer, starting with the forthcoming book by Aaditya Matoo and Arvind Subramanian, Greenprint: A New Approach to Cooperation on Climate Change.