Who is holding up the war on global warming? You may be surprised

Who is holding up the war on global warming? You may be surprised
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The good news is that the American public finally appears to accept that global warming is a problem. The bad news is that a substantial percentage of the public is unwilling to pay much to do anything about it. At first glance these may seem to be contradictory messages. But the public may be reacting to the initial symptoms of a warming planet rather than the dire consequences envisioned by the scientific community if global warming remains unchecked.

This explanation is supported by recent findings that a majority of Americans believe that the weather-related disasters we have been experiencing are becoming more severe and that the main culprit is a warmer global climate. But what the public foresees for the future is unclear. The outlook may be unambiguous to climatologists. But does the public buy into what the science shows about the implications of failure to reduce greenhouse emissions?

If the answer to this question is “no,” then it may help explain why a substantial share of the public gives such low priority to efforts to address longer-term climate change risk. Many people simply do not yet believe that continued procrastination will likely have catastrophic consequences for society and the environment. Perhaps a well-paid opposition has been more successful in sowing doubt than we had feared. 

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There are, of course, several factors contributing to the current intransigence: A belief either that a technological “fix” will save the day or that government will impose the costs on someone else. Both explanations involve a lot of wishful thinking, fueled by a lack of understanding about the inertia in the physical, technological and political-economic systems.

But in any event, if the adage “to see is to believe” plays a dominant role in shaping public attitudes, we are in trouble. Due to lags in the climate system, it will take decades for many of the effects of today’s emissions to play themselves out. By then, we will likely have committed the planet to much of the damage we fear the most.

Most troublesome is that, if the public is fixated on what they can see on a given day, season or year, they will be vulnerable to the machinations of those who see cold snaps as confirming that global warming is a ruse. They argue that short-term deviations are explained by the natural variability in local weather.

For example, a U.S. senator once brought a snowball on to the Senate floor as proof that climate change is a hoax. That year (2015) turned out to be the hottest in recorded history until that time.

So, what has the public seen to date? The government provides an exhaustive accounting of deaths, direct economic losses and other impacts for natural disasters whose frequency and intensity are associated with climate warming. Those disasters include heat waves, severe storms, hurricanes, droughts, floods, wildfires, famines and sea level rise. Accounts of such events are also increasingly reaching the public eye, either when people look out their kitchen windows or when they turn on the evening news. What is stunning is how fast damages have risen over the past four decades.

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What they cannot see, however, is the relentless and mounting toll if procrastination continues. Unfortunately, this information seldom escapes the scientists’ laboratory, and hence, reports of their findings fail to penetrate the public consciousness. But the day of reckoning cannot be forestalled forever. The clock is ticking.

So what can we do? Much has been written about the need for better communication and better education. Those are no-brainers. But there is other work to be done, including addressing this fundamental question: What is driving current public attitudes about climate change? That’s where we need to focus more of our resources. Good natural science is critical, but so is research into the behavioral science behind the public’s attitudes.

Public opinion isn’t the only barrier to action. Lawmakers need to play a far greater role in combatting this existential challenge. They naturally carefully judge the mood of the public, with eyes on polls that reflect their electability. When a sufficient fraction of their constituents tilt towards action, they will be happy to jump to the front of the parade. Hopefully, when that finally happens it will not be too late.

Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  Henry Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former Co-Director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.