Even as the scientific evidence of climate change and its damaging effects is growing, American public opinion is moving in the other direction. A Pew Research Center survey released in October 2009 found a “sharp decline” in the percentage of Americans who see solid evidence of rising global temperatures – 57% v. 71% of respondents 18 months earlier – and fewer see global warming as a serious threat – 35% compared to 44% in April 2008. Younger people, however, are now far more likely than older Americans to see global warming as a very serious problem – among those aged 18-29, 46% today, versus 41% in 2008 say global warming is a very serious problem. The Pew survey found that a majority of Americans – 56% – favor the U.S. joining with other countries to set standards to address climate change and about half favor limits on carbon emissions.
A recent Financial Times/Harris Poll in the United States and the five largest European countries finds that Americans under 65 are less likely than Europeans to see climate change as a major threat, While large majorities of people over 65 in all six countries see climate change as posing a threat to the world, fewer Americans (27%), than people in Britain (31%), France (46%), Italy (49%) or Spain (35%) see it as a “large threat.”
There is one related issue, however, on which Americans are more likely to feel strongly. Fully 83% of Americans under 65 believe the United States needs to reduce oil and gas imports from other countries. Those who feel this way about their country in the other five countries vary from 50% in France to 71% in Italy.
Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change and considered an expert on public opinion on global warming, said that as the economy pushes issues like climate change farther from the top of the public’s priorities, framing action on climate change in terms of energy security and green job creation is a good strategy.
If you’d read New York Times columnist Paul Krugman in the past week, you might find conflicting answers to the question, “Is it easy to be green”? Economist Krugman, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics last year, maintained in his September 24th column that It’s Easy Being Green. His argument is that saving the planet would not kill the economy, as many opponents of climate change legislation maintain. Instead, he says, studies suggest that by eliminating practices that waste huge amounts of fossil fuels but don’t add to our standard of living, consumers could actually save money. Secondly, he reports, analysis shows that restrictions imposed by the House’s cap-and-trade climate bill, the Waxman-Markey act, on greenhouse gases would cost the average family only about $160 a year in 2020.
A few days later, however, Krugman was feeling despair over the fate of the climate. One scientific report after another predicts imminent environmental catastrophes linked to global warming and the effects of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. “In a rational world, then”, he postulates, “the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern. But it manifestly isn’t. Why not?” Because as Al Gore said, the truth is too inconvenient. Climate change warnings are inconvenient for all of us with our all too human lifespan short-sightedness and particularly for the megaindustries with armies of lobbyists in place to protect the status quo.
While the climate threat is worse than we care to admit, the economic cost of addressing the issue is lower than we fear. “So the time for action is now. O.K., strictly speaking it’s long past. But better late than never.”
Four decades ago, the environment emerged as a public and political cause in response to growing awareness of the threats posed by air and water pollution and unabated population growth. In recent years, it has stormed back into the public consciousness—this time fueled largely by worldwide scientific consensus on the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change; concern over the depletion of natural resources and nonrenewable energy sources; and growing recognition that the choices we make today will determine the quality of life for those generations yet to come.
Brian Helmuth photo
Yet, as biologist Brian Helmuth writes in Miller-McCune magazine, for some people, “the idea of global climate change seems like a far-away concept, an idea dreamt up by scientists in their laboratories. That some still talk about ‘belief’ — a matter of faith more so than facts — in findings that have long been accepted by the scientific community speaks volumes about the general public’s understanding and acceptance of global climate change”.
Helmuth goes on to explain how studying changes in the animals and plants around us can help scientists predict the effects of climate change, and makes the point that only by working collaboratively, with policymakers, scientists, the business community, can we plan for a future we can all live with.