US Senate leaders recently conceded there is no chance of passing a climate bill this year. While the scientific evidence of the damage caused by greenhouse gases remains solid, the political will and public support for passing federal legislation to address the problem are melting faster than ice cubes on a July afternoon. What's cooking here?
There are many theories about why action on global warming is going nowhere politically. Grist blogger David Roberts makes the case that the failure of federal legislation is due in part to abuse of the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate, as well as the structure of the Senate itself, which gives disproportionate power to smaller rural states (like Wyoming) far from coastline states (like Maryland, Virginia, California, etc.) that are most at risk from sea level rise.
Meanwhile, New York Times writer Andrew Revkin argues that it was President Obama’s lack of leadership on climate issues that doomed Congressional legislation. Revkin speculates that perhaps only a Republican president acting with a Democratic majority Congress will be able to swing enough Republican votes to get climate legislation through the Senate.
Revkin cites a 2007 article in the journal Environmental Protection that found: “Over the last four decades, almost 70 percent of major federal environmental protection legislation has been brought about by the combination of a Republican president and an all-Democratic Congress.”
I don’t know if that formula has any merit. But I do know that public opinion polling on global warming has shown some disturbing results that go far beyond Congressional politics, and are something that everyone who wants action on climate change must grapple with more seriously.
A January 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that dealing with global warming ranked dead last on the public’s list of top priorities for government – and that it kept falling lower. “Just 28% consider (climate change) a top priority, the lowest measure for any issue tested in the survey,” the Pew Research Center wrote. “Since 2007, when the item was first included on the priorities list, dealing with global warming has consistently ranked at or near the bottom. Even so, the percentage that now says addressing global warming should be a top priority has fallen 10 points from 2007, when 38% considered it a top priority.”
By contrast, the economy (at 83 percent) and jobs (at 81 percent) ranked at the very top of the public’s list of priorities. This makes sense, given the recession and the economic anxieties that grip so many families these days.
So here’s the key: How to link these high and low priorities? Right now, it is clear that people see no connection between the economy and global warming. Or they have bought into industry propaganda that reducing greenhouse gases will wreck the economy. Some may have been bamboozled by the "climategate" dustup (in which global warming deniers used unfortunate emails from a few British scientists to try to smear and distort the real scientific consensus).
There is a bigger issue here. To win the debate over global warming –- and pass national legislation –- advocates will have to convince the public that the future of the nation’s economy and their future jobs are inextricably linked to breaking our addiction to fossil fuels. They need to understand that employment linked to high pollution fuels like petroleum are jobs that can’t last, because the fuels are inherently limited in supply, and the damage that they cause (such as the spill in the Gulf of Mexico) is not sustainable.
Maybe it will take an oil price shock and dwindling supplies to deliver that message. Perhaps it will be explosive growth in green energy technologies, like wind power or electric cars, that will turn the heads of the public.
But I think the political tipping point for climate change legislation will come when average folks pull up to the gas pump and mutter to themselves: “I’m going to lose my shirt if I keep coming here.”
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo purchased from iStockphoto.com)