As Republican presidential candidates have amassed to begin the gauntlet of debate leading up to the bid for the next conservative challenger to the White House, the environment, or specifically global warming, has gotten its fair share of frontage. Almost unanimously, the GOP candidates’ attacks at the authenticity of climate change have been as adamant as they are consistent. However, new polling suggests that the air time they have afforded environmental topics could be working against them, actually increasing the percentage of Americans that believe the earth is warming. How carefully do the candidates have to tread in order to navigate through a populace that feels more comfortable supporting the idea of climate change?
A new Reuters/Ipsos poll claims that the number of Americans that believe the temperature of the earth is rising increased from 75% in 2010 to a current 83% as of mid-September. The poll came at a surprising time given the country’s continued economic torment. Results ran counter to the dampening affect that the onset of the recession had on environmental concerns. Historically, concern for the environment has been more popular when Americans had extra money to devote to it.
When searching for a cause the poll points to the media talking points of Republican hopefuls that have returned the issue of climate change to the limelight, causing more people to readdress the issue on their own. The poll also points to the fact that 2010 tied 2005 as one of the warmest years on record, followed by a 2011 that has been wrought with droughts in the south and damaging hurricanes in the east (with over 10 natural disasters resulting in economic losses of $1 billion or more).
Candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann may have thought they were doing their cause a favor by giving climate change opponents some space to have their message broadcast on a louder stage, but it turns out that all of their shouting at the rain caused more people to give serious thought about an important issue while proving how small the contingent of doubters actually is. Their problem runs even deeper given that the poll found that of those that believe the earth is growing warmer, 71% of them think it is either partly or mostly due to humanity’s hand with only 27% of them believing the change to merely be the response to naturally evolving conditions. If this poll is any indication, the clear majority of Americans do not buy into the notion that we have no part to play in the evolution of the climate.
So Deniers Are Lonely, But Does it Matter?
While flagrant opposition to the notion of global warming may not make many friends in a room, that may not be much of a problem for Republicans in 2012. If anything, polls like this can be used as advice to stray away from large sweeping statements about the non-existence of climate change. At the same time, for as much as the poll displays the American acceptance of global warming, there is no indication that all of those 83% (or even most of them) think it is enough of a problem to do anything about.
For the environment to become a key issue in the upcoming election, there has to be candidates and resulting voters willing to take steps to actually address the issue and create results. One colleague of mine said to me, “When it comes to actually taking on the environment, most people view environmental progress at the federal level as taking the form of either more taxes or more regulation.” I think this is basically true. At the very least, it means more spending which, most voters would agree, we can decidedly not afford any more of at this point. At the fragile state of our economy, no matter what one believes about the prospect of “green jobs” chances are that real environmental progress will cost more jobs than it will create in the short term and it is all too likely that Americans are still more interested in working than cleaning up shop.
Beyond funding for research with some garnish of energy diversification to create job opportunities, it would be surprising if either side raises the environment as a material issue unless the economy sees drastic improvement over the course of the next 12 months. Despite the pledges of support that President Obama has made to the environment, his track record of successful measures is nothing to brag about and with the deficit on the minds of so many Americans he is unlikely to draw attention to anything that he cannot find a convincing way to pay for.
For Help, Look Closer to Home
When it comes to the immediate future, the best hope of sustainability proponents could be for the government to not lose any ground. Things like leaving EPA regulation and authority intact, continuing on with the phase out of incandescent light bulbs and pushing forward with the raising of CAFE standards for automobiles could be time better spent than trying to trailblaze on visions that Americans may not be willing to pay for anyway.
For actually implementing change, local efforts could prove to be the most productive over the next year. If so many Americans really do believe that climate change is a real phenomenon with material consequences that reaching out to people nearby stands a good chance of finding others that agree. Either at the neighborhood or municipal scale, pockets of support could guide more time, energy and funding to making considerable dents in local issues. We’ve made significant progress in the realm of cutting down on paper waste without government intervention. At the end of the day, the goal is for more Americans to alter their daily routines in ways that acknowledge sustainability. There is no reason why that needs to wait for a federal send off.
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