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How Hot Does it Need to Get before Washington Listens to the Public?

J. Mijin Cha

A new poll finds that nearly 80 percent of Americans think global warming is occurring and will be a significant problem if nothing is done to address it. Among those surveyed, the AP-GfK poll found that over 60 percent of people who trust scientists a little or not at all said that temperatures were increasing -- a 14 point jump from 2009. The poll also found that large majorities across the political spectrum believe that the planet is warming. Eighty-three percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans, and 77 percent of Independents say temperatures are rising.

Yet, while the change in belief among those that are skeptical of science is noteworthy, large majorities of Americans have believed in climate change for years. The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has been tracking attitudes and perceptions on climate change since 2007 and their polls show that while support fluctuates, a solid majority of Americans both believe in climate change and want action to address it. This time period includes a change of administration and a deep recession.

The desire of the majority of Americans is not reflected in Congressional or Presidential actions, however. We still do not have a meaningful climate policy. The latest international climate conference was largely a bust. Important support for the renewable energy industry still remains at risk of not being continued, even while fossil fuel incentives continue for an industry that is well developed. Climate change was so completely absent from the Presidential campaign that it started a whole campaign that tracked the climate silence. Even an incredible Superstorm didn’t result in meaningful climate action.

So, what gives? How can an issue that is important to the American public get so completed ignored by decisionmakers? One reason is, as our latest Explainer discusses, that when it comes to Congressional priorities, money talks and the priorities and concerns of monied interests get advanced. In this case, the oil and gas lobby completely dominate legislative priorities, due in large part to the hundreds of millions of dollars they spend on lobbying, campaign contributions, and advertising.

I think another reason is that climate change is a hugely complex and difficult issue, which makes it harder for advocates to coalesce around one idea or one political ask. To really address climate change, nearly everything about our economy and the way we live needs to change. We need to transition our energy supply from dirty to clean. We need to substantially cut down on how much energy we use and, in fact, how much we consume, in general. We need to change the way we grow and process our food. In short, there is little that does not need to change.

While the list is overwhelming, at least the public support for change is there. Smart policy, like a carbon tax and meaningful support for renewable energy development and expansion, will help transition our energy supply. Ending support for the fossil fuel industry and instead diverting that money to building out a transit network will provide alternatives to driving and save households money. Moving away from factory farming and supporting local food sources will help diversify and strengthen our food supply.

Now, we just need to get decisionmakers to  stop listening to the money and act on behalf of the public. In the end, that may be an even bigger challenge than completely upending our way of living.