The Battle over Public Opinion on Climate is Over

Nature

It is a moment of intense worry, elated excitement, and political doubt for so many of us who care desperately about making progress on climate change.

Carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and globally are once again estimated to be on the rise following several years of decline, and new scientific studies indicate that the effects of global warming may be occurring at a faster pace than previously thought.

The uptick in emissions occurs even as United Nations scientists warned last year that emissions need to be cut 50 percent by 2030 and entirely by mid-century in order to avoid potentially catastrophic impacts from rising seas, drought and extreme weather.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to move forward with plans to withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations climate treaty and to roll back regulations intended to cut emissions from power plants and cars.

The details of a proposed Green New Deal, announced this week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, are sure to elevate the political agenda status of climate change and be celebrated by political progressives. But we should be wary about what the Green New Deal will do to the already contentious political debate over climate change.

As confounding as the current political situation might seem, however, there is a glimmer of hope. The decades-long struggle by scientists and environmentalists to build broad-based public support for cutting greenhouse emissions is finally over. Science has won.

According to a December 2018 survey conducted by Yale University, 62 percent of Americans now say that global warming is human-caused, and 72 percent say that global warming is either personally very important or somewhat important to them. When asked, a similar proportion (69 percent) answer that they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming, and about three in 10 (29 percent) are “very worried” about it, the highest level since the question was first asked in 2008.

At least 60 percent of Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans say they support a variety of emissions-reducing and clean energy policies such as a carbon tax, restricting coal power plant emissions, and government investment in energy innovation. At the local level, in all but a few congressional districts, analysis by Yale indicates that a majority of constituents back similar measures.

Grassroots activism is also ascendant. Not since the first Earth Day in 1970 has the country witnessed a similar scale and intensity of environmental activism.

Tens of thousands of Americans have participated in protests against new oil and gas projects and in marches demanding policy action.

At the start of this year, dozens of young people helped Rep. Ocasio-Cortez catapult her proposed Green New Deal into national focus by organizing a sit-in outside of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s offices, urging her to support the proposal.

Few Americans have yet to hear much about the Green New Deal, and their opinions are likely to change once political leaders start talking about the proposal. But when told about the details of the plan in the December 2018 Yale survey, more than 90 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of moderate Republicans said that they would be inclined to support such a bill.

Remarkably, even 57 percent of conservative Republicans responded favorably when asked about the package of proposals, which the survey question defined as generating 100 percent of the nation’s electricity from clean, renewable energy, upgrading the energy grid, buildings, transportation and infrastructure, investing in clean energy research and development, and providing job training for a new “green economy.”

But a galvanized public is not sufficient. History suggests that shifts in polling and the rise of mass movements are at best only able to create windows of opportunity for policy change to happen.

Once those moments arrive, it is behind-the-scenes negotiation, coalition building and the careful crafting of policy that enables legislative passage.

If the U.S. is going to achieve a carbon-free economy by 2050, a pivot towards policy pragmatism will be needed that at first will likely be more incremental, than transformative.

A TIME FOR POLICY REALISM

Three broad principles should guide the pivot to policy pragmatism.

First, divided party control of government and intense hyper-partisanship are likely to endure for many years to come. Even if following the 2020 elections, Democrats recapture the White House and Senate, history suggests that their victory will be temporary. Since 1968, Democrats have controlled the executive and legislative branches for a total of eight years out of 50.

To survive swings in party control, any climate and energy policy must be able to unify support from progressives and centrists and also win backing from at least some conservatives.

If we apply this principle to the Green New Deal, we can start to see that despite current excitement, the Green New Deal is likely to have deeply challenging consequences for how we think and talk about climate and energy policy moving forward, turning policy action into a contentious, litmus test for political leaders.

The Ocasio-Markey plan pairs the goal of zeroing out greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity and transportations sectors with longstanding progressive causes that include creating a government job program, increasing unionization, providing universal health insurance, reducing income inequality, and combating gender and racial discrimination (goals that were not mentioned in the December 2018 Yale survey).

With this new re-framing, actions to address climate change not only mean fully transitioning away from a fossil-fuel dependent society in a matter of decades, already a tough sell for conservatives and many centrists, but this historically unprecedented transition is now only achievable by shape shifting the U.S. into a social democracy.

Second, given the sizable lobbying advantage of the fossil fuel industry and its allies, successful legislation will not only need the backing of Republicans but also support from at least a few major industry members.

In the cases of health care reform and tobacco regulation, after decades of effort, historic bills passed because a pragmatic coalition of leaders granted concessions to long-standing industry opponents. A similar strategy is likely to apply to future climate change legislation.

Third, to have a chance of rapidly decarbonizing the U.S. economy, future legislation must also target innovation, cost reduction and deployment across a broad range of low-carbon technologies, not just wind, solar and batteries. 

Congress should follow the leaders of California, Massachusetts and New York who have adopted or proposed a zero-carbon electricity grid that combines wind and solar with nuclear energy, hydropower and carbon capture. A technology-neutral strategy will also be crucial to decarbonizing the transportation, agricultural, and manufacturing sectors.

Once a range of low-carbon innovations are available across sectors that make moving off of fossil fuels cheaper and easier, much of the political motivation to distort science or exaggerate costs as a means to forestall action is likely to subside.

Successfully applying these principles, which enable Democrats and Republicans to support action for different reasons, is not a pipe dream. They were proven to work during the first two years of the Trump presidency.

Little-noticed victories included bipartisan bills, passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Trump, that provided tax credits for renewable energy and carbon capture and storage as part of the 2018 Federal budget bill, and that created regulatory and research support for advanced nuclear energy to move forward to market.

The bipartisan sponsors of these measures included Democratic lawmakers wanting to see action on climate change and their Republican colleagues mainly concerned about keeping the U.S. at the forefront of energy innovation at an affordable cost.

Some of these Republicans likely also recognized that ignoring the calls by scientists to act on climate change is no longer a politically viable response.

Divided party control of government is not likely to go away any time soon, and each year we get closer to running out the clock on our ability to manage the threats posed by global warming.

Shifting public sentiment, rising activism and election campaigns will continue to pressure lawmakers to act.

Yet political success in Washington ultimately depends on crafting policies that appeal to both Democratic and Republican lawmakers but for different reasons.

The battle for public opinion is over. The time is now to pivot to policy pragmatism.

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