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Americans Don’t Care about Climate Change

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Environmentalism as an active political movement with the ability to create major change has declined to its weakest point in several decades, with the failure to pass the cap and trade bill a shock to the movement’s leading organizations and a sign that their multi-decade strategy of expertise, lobbying, and fundraising was not working. That said, surveys show people still care about the environment. But they don’t care about climate change (or more accurately, they care about it less than all other major environmental issues). So the chances of really doing anything to stop it seem increasingly remote.

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  • joe from Lowell

    Environmentalism as an active political movement with the ability to create major change has declined to its weakest point in several decades

    …and yet, the most significant environmental legislation in decades was passed in the 2009-2010 Congress, and major policy victories continue to come down the pipe from executive action. Nothing down on alternative energy in the 70s, for example, can hold a candle to the Recovery Act; Obama’s CAFE standards increase is far beyond what the environmental movement was pushing for in Congress in 2001, etc, etc.

    Perhaps the perceived weakness of the single-issue environmental lobby is a consequence of, and is hidden by, their success at getting large portions of their agenda adopted as part of mainstream liberalism.

    • We’ve had this argument before and there’s no reason to rehash it, but the fact that environmental organizations themselves are freaking out and have very little sense of how to go forward suggests that they certainly don’t agree with you.

      I’ll accept the possibility that you have good points on this and certainly I’d like to be wrong.

      • joe from Lowell

        The fact that environmental organization are freaking out is not particularly good evidence that the problem is with the loss of environmental policy, as opposed to the loss of clout by single-issue environmental organizations.

        During the alleged golden age of the environmental movement, you could be a good liberal or Democrat and not give a second thought to environmentalism.

        In the 21st century, a Recovery Act without a major environmental component is unthinkable, and even the labor unions are getting on board.

        • If anything, I’d say the single issue organizations working on the local level are doing OK. It’s the big national organizations working on a variety of issues that believe themselves in trouble.

          • joe from Lowell

            That’s an important point – a lot of environmental action is happening on the local level, and the politics are very different than national environmental politics.

        • rea

          I rather suspect that even though there have been some real legislative and regulatory accomplishments, environmental groups are freaking out, as should we all, because the whole freakin’ globe is spiraling off into environmental disaster, in a way that makes all the accomplishments look like drops in a bucket.

          • joe from Lowell

            Sure, but that goes to the scale of the issues, not the relative influence of the movement.

            If all of the projections about climate change were to be cut in half tomorrow, would the environmental movement instantly count as more powerful?

  • joe from Lowell

    I look at the options given in that poll, and I notice that all of the other items are about the consequences of environmental damage – water pollution, drinking water pollution, loss of rain forest, etc. – while “climate change” is the only one that is about the cause of environmental damage.

    I don’t doubt that “combined sewer overflows” would poll lower than “contamination of water by human waste.”

    Perhaps the lesson is to talk more about Hurricane Sandy, sea level rise, drought, and the other consequences of global warming.

  • Gwen

    I’m reminded of SimCity 2000. Any time there would be a flood event, the “newspaper” screen would pop up with a lovely headline like “Wring out the children.”

    “Wring out the children” — our new national motto?

    (It’s better than “Cantankerous” or “Naysayers Say Nay.”)

  • DrDick

    I think part of the problem is the incremental nature of climate change and people have not yet gotten used to idea that it is happening and having adverse impacts right now. Much of the fire behind the earlier initiatives is that they addressed existing problems of long standing, that were clear an apparent problems in the present (dead Great Lakes, rivers burning, and cities with unbreathable air).

    • tsam

      Even after acknowledgement that these were crises, there was still a daily battle to do anything about it.

      • DrDick

        Exactly, and there the impacts were clear and obvious to anyone. With climate change it is much less so, though there are pretty clear impacts for those of us paying attention. Another problem is the way the media, and some scientists talk about the problem. It gets cast as something that will not really be a problem for decades (though California the the American South may beg to differ right now) and it is much harder for people to get excited about things that “might happen” after they are dead and much easier to pretend it is not happening. I think that if current trends continue, people may become much more aware and concerned.

    • Barry Freed

      Just wait until the Middle Class and Upper Middle Class can’t ski in the continental US anymore. It’s been a long time for me but I hear it’s been shit in the NE (though we did get a lot of snow this past winter). I suppose the 1% will always have Gstaad.

      • DrDick

        I think the rising price of food might catch their attention a bit before that happens.

        • gmack

          If you accept the idea that significant policy shifts are driven by the interests of the extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, then I’d bet that the loss of ski resorts will be a more decisive factor.

    • NewishLawyer

      This is my view. Issues with climate change are happening now but we can be in denial about them because we have all been told that the really bad stuff (New York flooding, Cleveland becoming coastal property) won’t happen until we are long gone from the world.

      • Linnaeus

        Cleveland becoming coastal property

        I’d say that Cleveland already is coastal, and has been so since 1796.

        • rea

          And if the ocean reaches Cleveland (elevation 653 ft.), St. Louis will be under 200 ft. of water

        • Steve LaBonne

          But it will cease to be after Lake Erie dwindles to Erie Creek.

          • jazzbumpa

            Great Lake levels are the highest they’ve been in years.

            Erie less than Michigan and Superior, but still up.

            • Linnaeus

              True, but that’s a short term thing due to the ice cover from the hard winter. Long term, there will be problems.

            • NonyNony

              Only until Arizona forces us to send the lake’s water to them.

  • We should have an “Americans don’t care about ______” open thread.

    Here’s mine: Americans don’t care about torture.

    Maybe even its own blog: “Stuff Americans Don’t Care About.”

    • tsam

      Poverty

    • Barry Freed

      Americans.

    • NewishLawyer

      Hectoring moralizers who tell them that they are bad and should feel bad?

      • No, we’re TOTALLY into that, actually.

        • TrexPushups

          It is growth industry. Fortunes have and continue to be made. The key is to tell conservative Americans that it is the other Americans who should feel bad and they should feel good for judging them. You make less money if you do it the other way around.

    • joe from Lowell

      Sprawl.

      Nobody gives a fig about sprawl. At all.

      • njorl

        Pro sprawl people care about it.

    • Gwen

      fancy book learnin

    • LFC

      This may seem a bit of a nonsequitur, but thinking about this part of the thread leads me to the following observation:

      We’re all participants in a global economic system that generates inequalities and to some extent perpetuates extreme poverty; however, our collective responsibility for this seems much less direct than our collective responsibility for, say, drone strikes, even though the number of (needlessly) shortened lives caused by poverty is considerably higher than that caused by drones. I acknowledge that there is a moral difference betw. (1) killing (or torturing, for that matter) someone, and (2) participating (and, often, effectively acquiescing) in a system that fails to prevent the poverty-related deaths of large numbers of people each year; but the moral difference is probably not quite as stark or significant as many believe.

    • KmCO

      Awareness and perspective.

    • wengler

      Americans don’t care about anything. They’ve systematically and thoroughly disarmed themselves from the critical thinking skills they’ll need to continue to exist in the 21st century.

  • xq

    None of the other issues asked about are politically controversial, at least not in a highly public way.

  • Two big changes on the plus side:

    1. Mitigation costs nothing. So says IPCC WG3; more precisely. 0.06% off the growth rate, which is just noise over 40 years. They are using prices for wind and solar twice those at which PPAs are being signed today in the US. Cost trends in wind and solar mean that the next IPCC report will show large savings. There is no free rider problem in mitigation – it pays the USA to mitigate whatever China and the EU do, and vice versa.

    Of course, overcoming the vested interests in fossil fuels is a big deal in itself. But economically, the playing field (or all-in wrestling ring) is now flat, not uphill. Elon Musk and Warren Buffett stand to make as much money from the energy transition as the Kochs will lose.

    2. Germany. The example of a large and successful industrial economy committing itself to phasing out fossil fuels, and slowly getting there, refutes the meme that it can’t be done. That’s why so much effort is deployed by the right-wing noise machine to convince Americans that Germans stagger under crippling electricity bills from their unaffordable renewable subsidies, along with constant power cuts from these fickle sources. Quite untrue.

    • UserGoogol

      The fact that solar power is getting very cheap is in itself a pretty good sign. It’s quite plausible that within the near future solar will be cheaper than fossil fuels. That won’t automatically solve things, but it’ll certainly help a lot.

      • njorl

        Solar power is very expensive and will not be cheaper than fossil fuel burning in the near future unless externality costs are assessed.

        • Balls. Since when do unsupported factoids have credibility here? Look here for (necessarily out-of-date) systematic data on US utility solar from Mark Bolinger at LBL and NREL. Austin signed a 20-year solar PPA at 5c/kwh, under 8c/kwh factoring back the tax breaks (which for comparison you also have to do for fossil fuels).

          • njorl

            The US DoE agrees with me.

            Solar fluff pieces agree with you.

          • Rob in CT

            Seriously, you’re wrong here.

            I’ve got solar panels on my roof (as you know, if you remember a particular old RBC thread). It’s nice. They went up in 2012. The project was *heavily* subsidized (more than 50%) and will still take ~10 years to break even.

            No, just no. Things are improving and I am hopeful, but asserting parity right now or right around the corner is just wishful bullshitting.

            • Malaclypse

              Yes, but for the comparison to be valid, you need to ask how long until a coal plant reaches breakeven. You can’t simply compare operating costs to capital investment.

              • njorl

                The question to ask, is, how much electricity will be generated for what cost over the lifetime of the source. You must be sure to include all relevant costs – financing, decommission, cost to taxpayers for subsidies etc. Right now, the cost of carbon capture is not considered relevant, unfortunately.

                Even then, it’s not a perfect calculation. Some electricity is more valuable than other electricity. Nuclear and coal generated electricity is less valuable because it can’t economically respond to demand. Solar an wind are less valuable because they are less dependable. Hydro and gas are reliable and flexible, so they are considered to be more valuable than their kWHr/$ ratio would indicate.

              • Rob in CT

                Sure, but there’s more to it than even that.

                If you’ve read James before, and I have, he’s pie in the sky on solar. I like solar, and I want to believe that it’s ready to grab serious market share, but it’s just not there yet. Soon, hopefully. Maybe in the next 10 years.

      • Brett

        A lot of the drop in panel costs is coming from heavily subsidized Chinese production of them. It’s not really reliable as a guide to how cheap producing them actually is, and we have no idea if or when the Chinese central and local governments will pull funding.

        • Oh dear. How come the costs of non-Chinese producers like First Solar and SunPower are also falling? Capital is cheap in China – and ought to be, because of the very high savings rate.

      • wengler

        The price itself isn’t going to matter much until the energy monopolies give up their resistance to distributed power production. Industrial solar and wind installations will never be able to produce the same amount of power in one place as the fossil fuel burning industry. The true advantage of these systems can’t be realized until they are distributed.

    • Davis X. Machina
      • Brett

        And they’ll burn through a lot of imported natural gas as well if they move away from burning coal. But maybe they will get to a mostly solar/wind grid someday, assuming the law requiring it doesn’t get exception-ed to death.

      • njorl

        Not just a lot, more.
        Because they are closing down nuclear plants, they are burning more coal. Far from phasing out fossil fuels, Germany has decided to reverse course and increase their usage.

        • Nonsense. It’s simply a (questionable) priority: nuclear first, then coal. The often-cited new coal plants coming on stream were decided before Fukushima and the accelerated nuclear phaseout. German hard coal consumption in the first half of 2014 was down 6.9%, lignite 3.9%. Longer-term trend here: a slow decline since 2000.

          • njorl

            Your first link is pointless.
            Your second link shows that Germany has consistently increased coal burning since 2009. I was only expecting an increase since 2011, when the Fukushima earthquake occurred. It seems to indicate that Germany’s ramped up coal usage is due to more than their anti-nuclear policy.

            • joe from Lowell

              Your second link shows that Germany has consistently increased coal burning since 2009.

              …from the artificially low level caused by the Great Recession.

              …to a level that is still lower than 2008.

              • njorl

                Germany did not suffer nearly the recession that other countries did. Their electricity consumption flattened, it did not decline significantly.
                Electricity consumption by year for Germany in billions of kWHr:
                2007 524.6
                2008 549.1
                2009 549.1
                2010 547.3
                2011 547.3
                2012 544.5

                Their coal usage bottomed out in 2009. They increased coal usage since then, despite their electricity usage decreasing.

    • Francis

      “Mitigation costs nothing” To society, yes; to the utilities, no. What happens to their cost structure when my use drops dramatically or even reverses and I want to get paid? They still have enormous fixed costs that need to be covered every month. And if I’m joined by a few million of my fellow Angelenos, they now need to make new investments in the reversible storage of electrons.

      I’m way behind on what the CPUC is doing about this. (If anyone has any useful advice on how best to go rooftop solar in SoCal, I’d love to hear it. And as I’m now the in-house counsel for a company with an enormous electric bill, advice on industrial rooftop solar would be welcome.) But Jim I think you need to be honest about the various barriers — both legitimate and rent-seeking — that exist to developing effective mitigation, even in California.

      • Tehanu

        The utilities all have solar incentive programs under the California Solar Initiative umbrella — at least the investor-owned utilities, i.e., SCE, PG&E, SDG&E. I’m not quite as sure about municipal utilities like the LADWP. That company with the enormous electric bill undoubtedly has an “Account Manager” at the utility whose job it is to help you get the most out of their programs and services, and in my experience they are fairly helpful folks. There’s info about the programs online of course. I don’t know exactly how much the solar incentives (“rebates”) are worth, but I do know that things like signing up for demand response programs (where you reduce usage intermittently) get incredibly huge reductions on bills for businesses (not so much for residential though).

  • Barry Freed

    Wow, I actually have a comment in moderation and it has no links in it. But it does have a four letter word. Weird.

    (Ok, now it no longer says “awaiting moderation” – I’m not sure what happened there)

    • Gregor Sansa

      Well, shit. I don’t know what happened there.

      (This comment did not get sent to moderation.)

      • Autonomous Coward

        If Barry’s comments are getting modded and mine aren’t we’re through the looking glass on this one. He actually posts useful things.

        Cock balls tits arse fuck shit.

    • wengler

      Fuck that shit.

      • Linnaeus

        Pabst Blue Ribbon!

  • oldmunni

    Non-english speaking nations are better at climate change stuff, right? Perhaps we just need to hope the US hastens its descent into anarchy and irrelevance, and the rest of the world can go about fixing the problem?

  • Aimai

    I think its ridiculous to talk about what “Americans” care about, or don’t care about, as though there is a one to one correlation between an issue, what people know about it, what they think they can do about it, and what they can actually affect through ordinary channels of interaction, politics, and protest. Climate change is an enormously complex issue which has been obfuscated and politicized beyond imagination. Most people don’t understand it and, to the extent they do understand it, may assume that things that are global in scale are beyond the scope of what one person, or even an entire country of people, can effect. Its overwhelming and has been presented as overwhelming. And it concerns something so enormous–the climate, for christ’s sake: the ocean, the air, the atmosphere, the lakes, the drought, storms, the tidal surge–that the average person simply can’t take it in.

    You can talk to people one on one and help them understand the issues and bring it down to something they can see, feel, grasp, fear, and attempt to ameliorate but its still far from clear how the individual gets from “drought is bad for me and my state” to “lets do something about the polar icecaps!” The two systems are just kept too far apart in people’s imagination and the knock on effect of “doing something” is too arcane and may not redound to the benefit of the actor.

    With previous environmental “causes”–whether clean air and water or save the dolphins–it was possible to present people with a problem and a solution simultaneously and they could see (or thought they could see) the benefit to their actions in the short term. Climate Change simply isn’t like that. To the extent that they know something about it they are frightened but their fear and anxiety has not been given a clear direction–a pathway that they can understand, walk down, and a goal they think they can reach.

  • A. Wade

    Other things Americans don’t care about(because like “climate change they don’t exist outside the imagination of liberals):

    1. white privilege.
    2. sodomite marriage
    3. the rights of illegal immigrants
    4. racist police
    5. unions

    America is rejecting liberalism. The Democrat Party has no future.

    • Malaclypse

      Speaking as a liberal, Dagney, few things fill me with more of a sense of hopeless dread than the idea of Republicans speaking out about sodomy and racism.

    • joe from Lowell

      Your party has lost five out of the last six elections. You’re reduced to buying billboards in black neighborhoods with the wrong date for election day on them.

      And it’s only going to get worse for you.

      • Malaclypse

        You’re reduced to buying billboards in black neighborhoods with the wrong date for election day on them.

        Well, that, plus this.

        But I’m sure Dagney can tell us why bearing false witness against liberals is God’s will. It probably has to do with sodomy.

    • wengler

      I’ve never been to a sodomite marriage but it sounds fun.

      • rea

        I hear they don’t treat guests well . . .

        • Gregor Sansa

          +2

          • Malaclypse

            And a pillar of salt.

            • Lee Rudolph

              Wasting away again in MargaritavilleSodom,
              Searching for my lost pillar of salt…

    • “2. sodomite marriage”

      Anyone who has ever engaged in, or received, fellatio or cunnilingus is a sodomite. Probably doesn’t include you, though, as you’re unlikely to have gotten that close to another person before.

      • rea

        Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.

    • Murc

      The Democrat Party has no future.

      I’m unfamiliar with this party of which you speak. Could you tell me more about them?

  • parsimon

    With previous environmental “causes”–whether clean air and water or save the dolphins–it was possible to present people with a problem and a solution simultaneously and they could see (or thought they could see) the benefit to their actions in the short term. Climate Change simply isn’t like that. To the extent that they know something about it they are frightened but their fear and anxiety has not been given a clear direction–a pathway that they can understand, walk down, and a goal they think they can reach.

    “in the short term” is key here: people in western industrialized societies have been trained to think in the short term. I disagree, though, that people have not been given a clear path they can walk down: proposals abound, and goals can be reached.

    I fear that some significant number of people honestly don’t care about the future of the planet. Don’t care. This sounds plaintive, but look again at the environmental issues at the bottom of the list in the OP’s linked post: they’re longer-term, more abstract issues. Loss of tropical rain forests, extinction of (other) species, climate change. Those things *don’t involve me* or my immediate children.

    I’m verging on considering this a moral failing, frankly. I find it disgusting.

    So. What are the chances of appealing to the public at large in moral terms?

  • Area Man

    So poll says that a clear majority of Americans care about climate change, and your conclusion is that Americans don’t care about climate change?

    I should think that the real lesson here is that Americans care about environmental issues far more so than elite opinion would have anyone believe. Also note that most of the other choices are things that would freak people out right now if they were occurring. Pollution of drinking water? Yeah, that’s going to get a high score, but it’s silly to normalize the other responses against this.

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