The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to look at the (political) science behind climate change

An oil rig and pump jack in Midland, Tex., in October.
An oil rig and pump jack in Midland, Tex., in October. (Jacob Ford/AP)
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This year, California recorded its deadliest wildfire in state history. The combined intensity and duration of the Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans’ tropical storms and hurricanes reached a new recorded high. A group of researchers reported that worldwide fossil-fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to hit 37.1 billion tons in 2018, yet another annual record.

It’s time to take a clear-eyed look at the science behind these developments — the political science.

The data show that, for all the evidence that climate change is real, manmade and dangerous, and despite wide public acceptance of those propositions, people in the United States do not necessarily want to stop climate change, in the sense of being willing to pay the cost — which is the only sense that really matters.

“The public’s level of concern about climate change has not risen meaningfully over the past two decades, and addressing the problem with government action ranks among one of the lowest priorities for Americans,” according to a comprehensive review of public opinion literature published in 2017 by Patrick J. Egan of New York University and Megan Mullin of Duke University.

More powerful hurricanes are one of many signs of climate change, and those who deny it are complicit in the destruction, meteorologist Eric Holthaus says. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome, Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

In a series of open-ended Gallup surveys this year asking Americans to name the “most important problem facing the country,” environmental issues never scored above 3 percent.

Even before the recent riots against President Emmanuel Macron’s climate-change-related fuel tax hike in France, there was a quieter backlash of sorts in the United States: Anti-fossil-fuel referendums lost in Colorado, Washington state and Arizona during last month’s elections.

Undoubtedly, there have been well-funded efforts to sow climate-change skepticism in recent decades, as Egan and Mullin note. President Trump is now amplifying that message. This could not have helped the climate-change movement, even if scholars have yet to identify a “causal link” between such campaigns and individual attitudes, according to Egan and Mullin.

Of course, the climate-change movement was not exactly silent during recent history. What’s crucial, after accounting for the battle between the movement and its opponents, is the inherent nature of climate change as a political issue: It requires voters to accept “up-front costs that, if successful, will stave off never-to-be experienced long-term damage — policy for which election-oriented politicians can easily foresee receiving blame instead of credit,” Egan and Mullin note.

Slashing carbon emissions is a cause that “has no core constituency with a concentrated interest in policy change,” while “a majority of people benefit from arrangements that cause” climate change.

The United States, with its multiple veto points for various regional and economic interests, tends to postpone dealing with long-range crises even more than most democracies, as our failure to shore up the solvency of federal entitlement programs shows.

Climate change and environmentalism more broadly have gotten caught up in the partisan polarization corroding U.S. politics, with support for “green” policy increasingly a badge of Democratic Party loyalty, and opposition to it defining what it means to be Republican.

A Pew Research Center study this year found that the public ranked climate change 18th out of 19 possible top priorities for the Congress and Trump, with 46 percent choosing it. However, this was an average that included 68 percent of Democrats and only 18 percent of Republicans.

Democratic concern does not necessarily translate into support for specific, costly policies, however. Washington, a deep blue state, rejected a state-level carbon tax in a 2016 initiative and did so again in 2018, by large margins each time.

The most politically feasible climate-change proposals, Egan told me in an email, may be those which “address the problem in a more piecemeal and thus less visible fashion,” such as raising automobile fuel economy standards, or, at the state level, requiring that a minimum share of energy come from low-emission renewable sources.

It didn’t work in Arizona, where 69 percent of voters, obviously including Democrats and independents, opposed a measure this year that would have required utilities to derive 50 percent of electricity from renewables by 2030.

In California, though, voters this year did retain the state’s 12-cent per gallon gas-tax increase, which was enacted in 2017, possibly because Gov. Jerry Brown (D) defended it as a way to pay for better highways, not to fight climate change.

Macron might not be facing violence in the streets now if he had packaged his tax hike as something other than a climate measure, or if he had proposed to rebate the revenue collected, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has done with his new carbon tax.

Either way, the larger point — the inconvenient truth, you might say — remains. It’s not easy to persuade citizens of a democracy to accept real financial sacrifice in the here and now for the sake of a diffuse benefit in the future.

Another of 2018’s lessons, therefore, is that the climate-change movement faces a democratic deficit. It must either overcome that deficit or fail.

Read more from Charles Lane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

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