I consider myself unique among college students in that I always find the time to cook. As much as I cook and as much as I (usually) succeed at it, I’m not immune to the occasional kitchen disaster. So when a rogue chunk of bread goes missing, falling into the oven while I roast potatoes, I am blissfully unaware of the impending series of unfortunate events. Take that rapidly forming lump of charcoal, add a little bit of olive oil dripping from a baking sheet, and the result? A small yet substantial plume of smoke leading to the panicked opening of windows, turning on of fans and a close call with a now-unattended sauté pan… you get the point. So as my smoke alarm started to chime, one of my three housemates – the usual handyman of the house – stayed firmly put in his chair, even voicing his refusal to break focus on the Game of Thrones season premiere. Once I had managed to resolve this culinary crisis, I snappily asked my roommate to better consider his priorities when disaster is unfolding in front of him. Now, consider that story as it applies to climate change and the current science we know.
The first anthropogenic climate change model was presented in the late 1890s, and started to find its way into mainstream science several decades later. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, scientists and environmental activists alike touted the new idea that humanity could drastically alter our own climate. Enter the IPCC, UNFCCC, Kyoto Protocol, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and other players throughout the next thirty or forty years, and all the while, energy consumption and emissions are increasing further. Arrive to 2014, where 97% of experts and their peer-reviewed research agrees that human activity is having substantial negative impacts on this lovely floating rock we call a home. The information is there, it has quasi-universal support. So why are fewer Americans than ever concerned about climate change and the environment?
A recent Gallup poll showed that 51% of Americans worry about climate change “a little/not at all.” 31% worry about the quality of the environment “a great deal.” While Gallup admits that climate change and quality of the environment have usually ranked lower on the “average” American’s list of concerns, the number of Americans expressing a great deal of worry for these two categories is lower than in the past. In fact, climate change ranks dead last among environmental issues, and at the same levels reported when Gallup first asked about climate change in 1989. Almost a quarter of Americns are skeptical of climate change altogether.
Why the disconnect? Demographics don’t seem to matter, nor education; rates are similar across the board for people who have and have not completed postsecondary education. The fact that the average citizen seems to express so little concern is a major obstacle to environmental advocates and policymakers alike; we simply need more public support in order to bring about more effective legislation. There is no easy answer that explains away this phenomenon. Some of it, of course, may be accounted for by media discourse, especially by conservative efforts to discredit climate scientists and their work. As with many issues, views on climate change in the US are becoming increasingly polarized, whereas the ratio of people whose opinion fell onto a middle ground has decreased markedly, concern over climate change has thus become either a non-issue for some or a crisis for others.
Regardless, the information provided by the IPCC and through scientific research stress the potential need for new strategies in the climate change debate. Although the environmental calamities associated with climate change are important, educating people on the economic and social benefits of more sustainable business practices, more efficient energy systems, etc., could ultimately result in wider support for good climate policy, despite the variation in reasoning. Addressing climate change is not the destruction of America’s economy as many purport it to be, nor is it a zero-sum game. It is time to consider the benefits associated with an improved, green economy and business practices.