Belief in Climate Change Heats Up, But Will Action Follow

parched corn fieldAs unfortunate and costly as the rash of American droughts is proving to be, the small silver lining is that more Americans are pairing these adverse effects with the possibility of a warming climate. While greater acceptance of climate change is a progressive step, it is not necessarily indicative of the following, and arguably more important, step of decisive and constructive actions that amount to meaningful change in stemming actions that contribute to a hotter planet. As we pace through an increasingly warm decade, the question remains of how much do we have to turn up the heat before we try and take ourselves out of the oven.

A rising portion of American citizens are drawing a correlation between the unusually hot summer and the effects of climate change. Businessweek recently reported on a University of Texas poll that shows a broad rebound climate change belief following the summer season of record temperatures and drought. According to the UT poll, belief in climate change has risen to 70% of Americans with considerable additions coming from the Southern and Midwestern states that this summer’s dry heat has left char broiled.

Unfortunately, the turnaround is the latest indication that there are many Americans that need to be persuaded by the effects of the problem rather than the problem statement. Following the nation’s heavy snows of 2010, belief in climate changed had dropped to a low of 52%. To many it seemed understandably strange for a warming plant to make so much snow. The misconception rested in the expectation of cold weather rather than erratic weather events. By the time the following mild winter had passed the gauge had already risen back to 65%.

Even with more believers it remains to be seen whether it will turn into actions that promote change. In the past, climate change belief and environmental progress are not necessarily directly correlated. While belief in climate change may be the result of warmer weather, support for societal change towards sustainability are more closely linked with economic prosperity. The crew over at Triple Pundit recently remarked on the same trend evidenced by marketing dollars spent on green campaigns, citing improvement in stronger economic times. Efficiency, on the other hand, has a tendency to be induced when conditions threaten societal norms with higher prices. When the country’s coffers are full, more people are willing to pay a bit more to be ecologically responsible. When times are lean, focus shifts to trimming household costs. While downtimes can draw American attention away from paying a premium for green products it can still cause people to use less.

Making the Most of the Worst of Times

These times represent the best opportunity to change our cultural trajectory and we have had some degree of success with the chances of the previous decade. In 1970 the Arab Oil Embargo forced America to reassess its energy use from the cars we drive to what we use to heat our homes. The Department of Energy was created along with a series of efficiency standards on hot water heaters, furnaces and household appliances that have helped maintain a consistent degree of average energy usage in homes over the past 40 years.

2007 marked the peak of demand for coal used in domestic power generation. While power consumption in general declined with the onset of the recession in 2008, coal fired plants have yet to see the rebound that other forms of energy had realized. Coal usage continues to decline as cheaper natural gas combined with new pollution laws from the EPA make coal less and less attractive.

The residential construction market, arguably one of the worst-hit industries in America, saw tremendous contraction of 54% between 2008 and 2011. However, according to the research arm of McGraw Hill, green construction remained constant throughout the same time period to emerge as a larger percentage of overall construction practices. Similar results can be found for the size of our new homes (notably smaller than pre-recession levels) as well as the size and efficiency of our new cars.

The Warm Road to Change

Helping people connect the eventual effects of climate change to their personal lives has always been a challenge for sustainability proponents. As long as the possibility of negative change remains beyond the immediate present, the idea of American innovation and scientific ingenuity remains attractive enough to convince people that we will find an easy solution before things get really bad. This time, nature provided many more people with a first hand taste of what the future may bring.

The full effects of the drought have yet to hit most of the country. As yields of corn (and eventually wheat if rain patterns don’t change for the better) fall the rise in its price can ripple through the entirety of our food chain. As noted by experts like Michael Pollan, corn stands as the cornerstone to our food supply, finding its way into a vast array of items normally found on the shelves in the supermarket. Corn also serves as the feedstock for our nation’s ethanol that is required to make up 10-15% of gasoline sold in the country. Higher corn prices will telegraph to the gas pump and in turn affect everything transported by truck—which in the U.S. is most consumer products.

Americans could shortly have realities that give them every reason to take a bolder step towards sustainability. Rising food prices could certainly make people think more carefully when filling up their shopping cart, but will it translate into consideration for how they live and contribute to a changing climate? Hopefully we will see more counties working to stem water through more efficient household fixtures and curtailing needless irrigation. That would be the easiest dot to connect, which has broader benefits as well. As a country we use an enormous amount of energy to bring clean water to people and take the dirty water away for treatment. More impressive would be a renewed support for cleaner energy and more fuel for the fire of depressing our use of coal. While we are being hopeful, perhaps we can finally get a comprehensive energy plan for the U.S.?

It’s Hot. We Need More Fans!

The worrisome facet to all of this is that there are some who still don’t get it and insist on pushing in the opposite direction. They fall into the same pattern of treating the symptoms instead of assessing the problem. I came across an article in the Huffington Post that highlighted farmers and scientists who, when confronted with these effects of climate change, draw the first conclusion of having to breed produce and livestock that can better withstand drought and survive on less water. I realize that people have to make a living, but this kind of reaction misses the entire point.

“Across American agriculture, farmers and crop scientists have concluded that it’s too late to fight climate change. They need to adapt to it with a new generation of hardier animals and plants specially engineered to survive, and even thrive, in intense heat, with little rain.”

Judging by the polling it is the farmers and crop scientists that have been among the last to get on board. If this is necessary for the point we find ourselves at then so be it, but it cannot replace grounded, long term solutions that address the underlying issue of sustainability which we have already waited too long to enact.

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