U.S. climate indifference at odds with surging risk

Climate Voices

U.S. climate indifference at odds with surging risk

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Is this summer’s extreme weather just another way that Mother Nature is telling us that it no longer matters what we think?

America has celebrated its independence in dark and dusty times before; during the Civil War, two World Wars, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. And, of course, there were millions of enslaved Black Americans and persecuted Indigenous Americans for whom the holiday had no meaning.

Sadly, July 4, 2023, may be the beginning of a new and miserable era of Independence Days marred now not by mustard gas or cannon balls but by eye-watering smoke, heat domes, and savage summer storms.

But will it be enough to finally engage a majority of Americans to take climate change seriously?

Americans do not see climate change as a key issue

According to recent Pew Research Center polling, 71% of Americans do not believe climate change is a top priority or, worse, believe that it should actually be downgraded as a priority. Of the top 21 national issues included on the Pew survey, climate change ranks 17th out of 21.

Of the top 21 national issues included on the Pew survey, climate change ranks 17th out of 21.

The overwhelming power of public opinion

And that poses a considerable challenge to American climate action. Princeton University Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo has written extensively on how Abraham Lincoln believed “public sentiment is everything.” Four years before that fateful conflict, Lincoln reflected that “whoever can change public opinion can change the government.”

Populism, not the heavy hand of a central authority, is generally how important stuff is accomplished in America. Public opinion, not top-down mandates from British kings, is why we celebrate July 4th. It is why America is different from Europe, China, Japan, or Russia.

It is one reason a battle for the hearts and minds of America is raging, and no one is happy. Oil companies think they are being persecuted by the “Woke Mob.” At the same time, climate activists are immensely frustrated by their mostly failed efforts to rally Americans to what they see as a no-brainer crisis.

The moral majority

But as both sides have learned, gaining public opinion is very hard. The patrician educator, A. Lawrence Lowell wrote that “public opinion” must do more than convince the majority: Public opinion “must be such that while the minority may not share it, they feel bound, by conviction, not by fear, to accept it.”

People power

But rarely is everyone happy. Consider this week’s Supreme Court decision to end the affirmative action-based acceptance practices at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. A majority of Americans — particularly Asian Americans — had come to oppose affirmative action as a tool of social policy.

A history of repeal

This is not new. The same was true for the no-alcohol laws of Prohibition, the civil rights-depriving laws of Jim Crow, and laws that denied women the right to vote.

These laws had fervent support, but ultimately public opinion turned against them. Public opinion, wrote the abolitionist Charles Sumner, cannot be suppressed by “statutes and edicts.”

Our climate paradox

And that is a problem with climate action in America. While science has spoken, the American public has not. Because most Americans still do not believe climate change is a significant public issue, no amount of elite whining at Davos, the Aspen Institute, or the op-ed pages of The New York Times will change this.

While science has spoken, the American public has not.

What will change public opinion is more hellish-weather weeks as described by Climate & Capital’s Kari Huus in her story on Texas sizzling in a heat dome. Texas is waking up to climate reality and is moving faster than any state to adopt renewable energy, despite efforts by a fossil fuel-addled governor to block the development of renewable energy — or allow air conditioning in prisons.

The renewable energy majority

Public opinion is forming, and it likes or at least can live with the transition to renewable energy. A Pew poll says 75% of Americans support renewable energy development.

This will not change. There is no more of a chance that Texas will walk away from wind and solar than Americans in the 19th century rejecting coal and oil.

What will move the needle will be more weeks like this week, when hundreds of millions of Americans suffer through heat, smoke and floods. Or when more property insurers no longer insure homes as they are doing in California. (See our story on State Farm). Or when each new storm pulverizes not some distant community but yours.

The baffling mind of public opinion

How and when public opinion will shift, no one knows. “Public opinion deals with indirect, unseen, and puzzling facts,” wrote the legendary 20th-century columnist Walter Lippmann. “The pictures inside the heads of human beings … of their needs, purposes, and relationships … are acted upon without much regard for logic, consistency, or even accuracy.”

So as Americans gather this week to shape public opinion at millions of July 4 barbecues, the question is do Americans still have the luxury of time to wait for public opinion to form on whether climate change matters? Or is this summer’s extreme weather just another way that Mother Nature is telling us that it no longer matters what we think.

Written by

Peter McKillop

Peter McKillop is the founder of Climate & Capital Media, a mission-driven information platform exploring the business and finance of climate change.