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You will probably soon hear about a number of new and old polls about climate change and the American public. If you care about climate change, they will be frustrating.
These polls often find that most Americans are worried about climate change. (Six out of 10 Americans are “worried,” according to Yale.) Depending on how firms ask the question, they sometimes even find a majority of Americans are concerned. (Pew finds 45 percent are “worried a great deal”; the same Yale poll found only 20 percent were “very worried.”)
If you include a partisan watchword in a question, people start answering through a different frame. They give the answer that matches their affiliation—their societal “team”—even if they may harbor doubts about it. There is a vast partisan disagreement, for instance, on the question of whether scientists near-unanimously agree that human industrial activity is causing global warming. (They do; nearly every study finds unanimity on this issue among scientists. But only 13 percent of self-identified conservative Republicans think that’s the case, as compared to 55 percent of liberal Democrats.)
When you leave partisan politics, however, larger majorities appear. Eighty-nine percent and 83 percent of Americans, respectively, support building more solar and wind plants.
When you hear these numbers, they can prompt a certain amount of internal wailing. The Earth is dying. The science is clear. It’s so easy and obvious. So why can’t politicians understand that?
A lot of people know about climate change, and a lot of people think it is generally bad. But they do not change their votes because of it. Americans may change their vote because of economic fear, or defense policy, or to protect their property or social privileges. But they do not vote because the ice caps are melting. This is the heart of the climate issue.
Climate is an exceptionally hard issue for only one party to “own.” Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions—a process that experts call decarbonization—is much more daunting than just implementing the Clean Power Plan. If we want to stave off dangerous climate change, the United States may need to adjust its energy policy, its tax policy, its foreign policy, its transportation policy, and its industrial policy in the coming years and decades. Historically, changing all those elements together, in the face of a difficult but necessary policy outcome, has been a bipartisan affair.