Elisabeth Rosenthal’s good piece in the Times on why climate change has fallen off the radar screen has received a couple of interesting follow-up posts, including from Plumer. He points to the Senate and the recession as the core reasons for our indifference, but I’m a bit skeptical. Senate rules as currently configured make it impossible to pass meaningful climate change, but I don’t think that’s a core reason for a lack of discussion on the topic in society at large. I don’t particularly buy the recession as being overly important either. It’s true that our major environmental legislation passed at a time of economic success, but while we’ve had ups and downs economically since 1973, public support of not only environmental but most progressive legislation has declined since then. Plumer does point to some interesting evidence on the correlation between economic decline and belief in global warming. But as a historian, I’d argue we have to see these issues in the larger context of national and international happenings over a period of time. Data like this has limited explanatory power in a historical vacuum.
Rather, I tend to agree with some of the people Rosenthal interviewed. We have a culture built upon conspicuous consumption combined with a predilection for that consumption to be things that are very large and climate damaging–SUVs, giant houses in exurban developments, private jets, etc. As we have democratized conspicuous consumption through credit, it has made people awfully touchy about criticizing the 21st century American dream. Combine that with the problems scientists have in making statements of certainty, the wicked media campaign by corporations opposed to climate change legislation, and the problems Plumer mentions and we have a perfect storm of climate change denial.