Sort by

How Do We Make Climate Change a Priority?

J. Mijin Cha

Last week, I wrote about how strong majorities of Americans not only believe the climate is changing but also that human activity is causing it. Congressional inaction, therefore, ignores the priorities and concerns of the majority. However, while the oil and gas lobby does heavily influence Congress’ actions, is its inaction also a result of the lack of climate change policy as a priority for most Americans? Does belief in climate change and its causes also mean that addressing the issue is a priority?

National polling on priorities consistently shows jobs and the economy as the top concern among Americans by significant margins. For example, in a Bloomberg poll earlier this month, 34 percent named unemployment and jobs as the most important issue facing the country now. The federal deficit came in a distant second with 19 percent naming it as the most important issue. An NPR poll from late October 2012 showed 57 percent said economic issues would be most likely to affect their vote for president. Fiscal issues came in second at 16 percent.

These polls, however, did not include climate change as a priority option. When climate change or energy was included in a 2010 poll on Congressional priorities, 72 percent said job creation was a crucial issue while 36 percent said energy was a “crucial” issue and 31 percent said the same for the environment. However, 53 percent said both energy and the environment were “important” issues.

The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication’s September 2012 poll specifically on climate change seems to support the idea that action on climate change is somewhat important. Seventy-seven percent think that global warming should be a priority for the President and for Congress. Within that, 43 percent think it should be a “high” or “very high” priority. The support for clean energy is even higher with 69 percent saying it should be a high or very high priority and 23 percent saying it should be a medium priority.

These results seem to indicate that Americans do prioritize climate change action, but not nearly as much as economic concerns. Instinctively, this makes sense as climate change is often portrayed as a cursory or independent concern. In other words, climate change is a separate and distinct issue that requires separate and distinct solutions. In reality, instead of being independent of other issues, climate change is inextricably intertwined with them. There is literally no aspect of our economy that won’t be affected by climate change. If economic issues are a top priority, then action on climate change should be one of the solutions.

To make action on climate change more of a priority, we should consistently make these links clear. For example, transitioning our energy sources from dirty to green is an economic issue, as well as a climate issue. Expanding renewable energy production is an excellent jobs program. It also creates more jobs than expanding fracking or other forms of extreme energy. Implementing a carbon tax is a far more effective way to reduce the deficit than austerity measures, in addition to helping fight climate change, and so on.

Making climate change a top priority will take more than a messaging effort, but it’s not a bad start.