The public – even the Republican public – is getting more worried about climate change, but its growing concern may not be enough to prod Congress to act.
Americans swing like a pendulum when it comes to climate change. Between 2000 and 2007, about 60 percent of Americans believed that it was caused by people,
according to Gallup’s polling. But the denial machine kicked in with full force, and the public, which struggles to understand complex data, began to back off. Belief that carbon pollution causes climate change fell, reaching a low of 50 percent in 2010.
But then the trend reversed. Americans shed their skepticism. Their belief in human causation moved back up from 50 percent to 57 percent between 2010 and 2014. And although opinion on climate change remains polarized along party lines, even Republicans shifted their views.
It’s hard to say what caused concern to rise, but there has been plenty of evidence to notice. Ordinary people are more likely to notice economically-damaging extremes of weather, such as Hurricane Sandy, or the fact that much of the West now faces record drought. Scientists point out the statistical evidence, for example that
2014 was the warmest year on record and all of the 10 hottest years in history have come after 1998.
Last week, an
important new study was released that confirmed the shift in opinion and shows that concern over climate change continues to grow. The poll was conducted by the New York Times, along with Stanford University. It showed that a large majority (78 percent) of Americans now see climate change as a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem for the U.S. And half of Republicans now support action to limit global warming, a large and rapid jump from 41 percent who were concerned in 2014, according to Gallup.
The latest NYT/Stanford poll is entirely consistent with what American Sustainable Business Council found in
polling small business owners about climate change last summer. Small business owners are a pragmatic bunch, resistant to partisan extremism. A plurality identify as Republicans, and few consider themselves to be environmentalists. Yet 53 percent of the business owners polled think extreme weather has, or will have, a negative effect on their businesses. 64 percent of owners believe government regulation is needed to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. This majority prevails across party lines, with Republicans supporting regulation by 55 percent.
At this point, voters want their elected leaders to accept the science of climate change and promote new forms of energy that don’t damage the environment: According to the NYT/Stanford poll, voters are much more likely to vote for candidates who accept the reality of climate change and propose practical solutions:
Data from NYT/Stanford poll.
Unfortunately, despite the strong voter sentiment for action on climate change, it’s hard to see how progress can be made. Just as this latest poll was released, the Koch brothers announced their plan to raise and
spend $889 million on the 2016 election. This spending surpasses the totals recently spent by the entire Republican party ($682 million in 2012), and by Democrats as well ($648 million). It makes the Kochs a political party in all but name.
The Kochs are expected to use their war chest to punish Republican candidates who are not sufficiently conservative. They will make it all but impossible for a responsible candidate who wants to heed the voters on climate change to get on the November ballot. Sometimes the will of the voters just isn’t enough.
David Brodwin is a Co-founder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. This article appeared in U.S. News & World Report February 2, 2014.