Climate change continues to be a touchstone issue in US politics, one that casts a harsh, sharp light not only on a bitterly divided, “dysfunctional” US Congress, but on the state of the United States’ system of representative democracy, and even more broadly, on the interface between science and policy.
Repeated attempts to enact national climate change legislation – whether a revenue-neutral tax on carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, a nationwide emissions cap-and-trade scheme, a national renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS), stricter air pollution and environmental regulations, or higher energy efficiency standards – have all run up against fierce opposition among Congressional representatives, as well as well-funded public relations campaigns from the fossil fuel, utility and other industry lobbies and media agents.
Yet broad public support for climate and clean energy policies continues strong among the US populace. Nearly 90% of Americans (87%) say that global warming and the development of clean energy sources should be priorities for the US president and Congress, according to results from a nationwide survey conducted by 4C – the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and the Yale Center for Climate Change Communication.
CO2 In The Atmosphere: 400 PPM And Rising
The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere – the majority of which results from human burning of fossil fuels – has now topped 400 parts per million (ppm), a “grim” level not seen for millions of years.
Having quickly breached the 350º ppm threshold established by climate scientists as a tipping point heralding an era of “dangerous, irreversible climate change,” the global rise in anthropogenic CO2 emissions continues unabated.
Even a 2ºC rise in global mean temperature could cause catastrophic rises in sea levels of 6-7 meters (23 feet) that could wipe out major cities, such as London, Miami, New York, Shanghai and Tokyo, former Royal Dutch Shell senior executive Ian Dunlop and policy planner and scholar Tapio Kannien recently told attendees at high-level meetings and panel discussions at UN headquarters in New York City earlier this month.
Yet more alarming is that based on current trends we are on track to experience global warming of 4ºC or more, according to the latest research, Dunlop and Kannien pointed out, and that could result in sea level rises of as much as 70 meters (230 feet), not to mention numerous and varied other fundamentally disruptive effects on ecosystems, economies and societies.
Business as Usual: Who’s Going To Bear The Costs?
Clearly, the climate science community believes that when it comes to burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, continuing on a “business as usual” course will have disastrous consequences.
We will see atmospheric CO2 concentrations surpass 450 ppm in a matter of decades, which will mean more frequent and intense extreme weather events – including more destructive tropical storms, floods and droughts – and a disruptive, though more gradual longer term shift in regional weather patterns, climate and environmental conditions, Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann stated in a recent Democracy Now! interview.
“Whether you’re talking about human health, food resources, water resources, national security – across the board, if we continue to burn fossil fuels and elevate greenhouse gas concentrations the cost to society is going to be far greater than any cost of action.”
Eliminating burning of fossil fuels as quickly as possible is seen as imperative if such scenarios are to be avoided. That would essentially entail shutting down the fossil fuel industry – the energy “engine” of the modern, industrial era – and that seems even less likely than successfully enacting US campaign finance, lobbying, banking industry or offshore finance and tax reform.
Nonetheless, “a large majority of Americans (87%, down 5 percentage points since Fall 2012) say the president and the Congress should make developing sources of clean energy a ‘very high’ (26%), ‘high’ (32%), or medium priority (28%). Few say it should be a low priority (12%),” according to 4C and the Yale Center for Climate Change Communications’ report, “Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies in April 2013.”
Also among the report’s highlights:
- Most Americans (70%, down 7 points since Fall 2012) say global warming should be a “very high” (16%), “high” (26%), or “medium priority” (29%) for the president and Congress. Three in ten (28%) say it should be a low priority.
- Six in ten Americans (59%) say the U.S. should reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do. Relatively few (10%) say the U.S. should reduce its emissions only if other industrialized and/or developing countries do – and only 6 percent of Americans say the U.S. should not reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
- Americans say that corporations and industry (70%), citizens themselves (63%), the U.S. Congress (57%), and the President (52%) should be doing more to address global warming.
Moreover, a majority of Americans support:
- Providing tax rebates for people who purchase energy-efficient vehicles or solar panels (71%)
- Funding more research into renewable energy sources (70%)
- Regulating CO2 as a pollutant (68%)
- Requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and using the money to pay down the national debt (61%)
- Eliminating all subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry (59%)
- Expanding offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the U.S. coast (58%)
- Requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year (55%)
Support for some of these policies has fallen over the past few years, the report authors note, however:
- Half of Americans (50%) have never heard of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the Canada tar sands to Texas. Moreover, few Americans say they are following the issue closely (18%). However, among those Americans who have heard of the Keystone pipeline, about two in three support the project (63%)
- Asked their level of support for a “revenue neutral tax swap that would reduce the annual taxes paid by all Americans while increasing the amount they pay annually for energy (such as gasoline and electricity) by the same total amount,” fewer than half of Americans say they would support the tax if the money raised from the tax were used to: reduce the federal income tax (45%); reduce the federal payroll tax (44%); give a tax refund to every American household (43%)
This latest report also highlights the divisiveness of climate change and clean energy in US politics:
- Democrats and Republicans are divided on the extent to which the president and Congress should address global warming and developing clean energy. While six in ten Democrats (59%) say global warming should be a “high” or “very high” priority for President Obama and Congress, far fewer Republicans agree (22%). However, about half of Republicans (52%) say it should be at least a “medium” level priority
- Similarly, when it comes to the president and Congress making the development of clean energy a priority, a majority of Democrats (69%) say it should be at least a “high” priority, whereas only 43 percent of Republicans agree. However, most Republicans say it should be at least a “medium” priority (81%). The majority of Independents say it should be a “high” or “very high” priority (61%).