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America’s Indifference to Climate Change


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.

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  • I haven’t read the article yet, so I have to ask: did she make the point that the American Dream is currently on life support? That it’s been funded for nearly forty years on credit cards and mortgages? And that this may all change…too late, I wager…from sheer economic force?

  • catclub

    Propose a law saying the NAVY cannot act on so-called climate change and you will get pushback.

  • Jim

    This has never seemed that hard of a question. A truly robust climate change bill will result in negative short-term effects for most taxpayers with an upside that a) will primarily bear fruit after current taxpayers are dead and b) is of a “worse would’ve happened if not for” variety. Not a rhetorical question at all — is this a bad assessment of climate change legislation as a general rule? Kevin Drum said it was a public policy problem from hell the other day, and I’m inclined to agree.

    • Maybe, but that’s no different from other nations. The question is why America lags behind.

      • wengler

        I think American elites feel a lot more insulated from their inaction than their European counterparts. This is a big country after all, and unlike say the Dutch, a lot of this country will just shrug their shoulders if the ocean were to go up a foot.

        Europeans also don’t have a 30 year war waged against the federal government by any of their major political parties. Even where devolution is popular, it doesn’t take on the same sort of dynamic as denying scientific evidence in favor of political ideology.

        • Um, about a half of the country lives in the zone that would be directly impacted by an average foot rise in sea levels, so while that’s not to say they wouldn’t be concerned pre-rise, they’d damned well be whinging after the fact.

    • Josephus

      It is a tough one but there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in grid upgrades and energy efficiency efforts that is quite low cost and easily implemented. Amory Lovins has some great material (a bit dated now) on negawatts here.
      I feel like a properly crafted bill – i.e., one focusing in the short term on the low-hanging fruit and mitigating impacts in populations that spend a considerable proportion of their income on energy, and in the long term on an energy provision paradigm shift – might not have that adverse an impact and certainly would bring substantial benefits within my lifetime. (full disclosure: I’m in my 30’s)

  • Josephus

    Statements of certainty are a big issue with science communication. People often don’t know intuitively how to process probabilities, conditional statements… and forget trying to explain the distinction between risks, variability, and uncertainty, especially with varying usage in different social and natural science disciplines.

    As a chemical risk assessor, I’ve run into the same sort of communication issues as climate scientists, albeit on a much smaller scale. I have a pet theory that taking hold of the language of criminal courts especially “weight of evidence” propositions and using them in targeted communication might help. At least your average “Law & Order” viewer might be marginally more likely to understand what’s happening and what’s at stake. I’m sure my theory is dead-ass wrong… but I’d rather be hopeful than glum!

    • wengler

      When combined with a media filter that tend to emphasize worst-case scenarios this is also pretty problematic. This is very much along the line of ‘x will give you cancer’ one month and ‘y will prevent cancer’.

      The problem is both journalists and readers have problems assigning appropriate value to reports and tend to treat everything the same way, whether it is a peer-reviewed academic report or a slipshod money-driven survey out of a corporate institute. And since the broadcast media is so compromised in the US, the latter message gets a lot of airtime.

      • Part of this problem, I think, is the short attention span the media imposes on news.

        Let’s take a hypothetical off your “X gives/prevents cancer”

        If you read reports carefully, the science behind either of those stories is pretty specific. Usually, that factor will prevent a specific type of cancer, or cause a small family of them (say skin cancers)

        There are no blanket causes/preventions, yet the summary reports in the news rarely highlight that fact, relying on readers who are interested to read ahead.

        Trouble with that, the stories end up being quoted by people who want to appear well-read on a topic in rebuttal to someone else’s argument.

        That ends up being the more powerful take away.

        • Josephus

          I agree that news stories are often incomplete and badly wrought foundations for arguments (especially scientific ones), and are super-problematic when they rather than the more qualified and subtle underlying findings drive public conversation. Worse are the stories that come from the bowels of pure misinformation. [Case in point: the Very Important news host and pundit obsession with getting federal deficits under control when (a) official unemployment numbers register over 9%, (b) 10 year yields on treasuries are at historical lows, and (c) the deficits are symptoms of the recession rather than being truly exogenous.] But these two types of information (imprecise and inaccurate, respectively) get blended up into a goulash of Stupid that’s hard to combat.

          Public knowledge about climate change seems to be suffering wildly from this.

          • The difference with climate change is that the information is out there in a palatable a coherent presentation, which is why denialists with an agenda have worked so hard to dissemble it.

  • c u n d gulag

    Maybe if we made it a defense priority, then you might, might see some action.

    Because never mind oil and gas, we’ll soon be having wars over clean, potable water.

    The US is semi-ok as far as water is concerned(except for the SW and SoCal), but thanks to usurious World Bank agreements, we’ve got a lot of countries where we own outright, or have to defend, that nations water rights.

    I’ve said it before – this planet is due for a massive cleansing.
    And air and water are a lot less negotiable than gold, oil, silver, or diamonds. You can make a deal with the tax man, you can make a deal to trade so-and-so for this-and-that, but in the heirarchy of needs, air and water are pretty much non-negotiable.

    • Jay Schiavone

      You liberals claim to be so concerned about jobs, but you refuse to accept that it isn’t possible to create jobs while you regulate resource consumption or pollution (and of course taxes!) We can fix the air and water issues when we get to them.
      Okay, that’s facetious. But check comment #2 to Rosenthal’s Times commentary to get virtually the same message. And it’s important that comment #2 was published (online) because it makes a point that Ms. Rosenthal politely elides in her piece. But we may forgive Ms. Rosenthal for her omission since no one wants to be identified as a job killer.

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