“In a political context, citizens might demand protection against a risk that threatens them today, tomorrow or next month. But if they perceive climate change as mostly a threat to future generations — if significant sea-level rises seem to be decades away — they are unlikely to have a sense of urgency,” Sunstein wrote for Bloomberg on Tuesday.
Sunstein was responsible for reviewing and collecting comments on various ozone and greenhouse gas emissions proposals before leaving his post atop the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs last year.
Many of the regulations Sunstein handled have worked their way into Obama's broader second-term climate push, which leans on executive action that doesn’t require the consent of Congress.
That regulatory approach has rankled conservatives and industry, who say it will damage the economy.
Many Republicans also question the scientific consensus that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, contribute to emissions that warm the planet.
One of the biggest hurdles to generating acceptance for policies that curb emissions, Sunstein said, is translating that scientific consensus into something tangible for most people.
Much of the problem is psychological, said Sunstein, who is now a professor at Harvard Law School.
“Climate change lacks other characteristics that spur public concern about risks. It is gradual rather than sudden. The idea of warmer climates doesn’t produce anger, revulsion or disgust,” he wrote.
He noted that climate change doesn’t have an “identifiable perpetrator,” such as a specific group of people, at which to direct outrage.
On top of that, scientists have avoided saying individual disasters, ones that might foster action, are caused directly by climate change.
They do say, however, that the effects of a warmer planet, such as rising sea levels, exacerbate storms like Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast last fall.
“To be sure, many scientists think that climate change makes extreme weather events, such as Hurricane Sandy, substantially more likely. But it is hard to prove that climate change ‘caused’ any particular event, and as a result, the association tends to be at best speculative in many people’s minds,” Sunstein said.