Climate Movement

Is a U.S. (or worldwide) climate movement possible? Could it have the vigor and intensity of the 1970’s anti-war movement in the U.S.? That’s the question I will explore in this essay, which is a work in progress for now.

Nous Sommes le Climat

Approximately 400,000 protestors turned out for the People’s Climate March on September 21, 2015 in New York City. Motivating this number of individuals to attend from across the U.S. was a tremendous achievement by the hundreds of organizations involved. But why, when climate change is such an important issue, was this number so much smaller than recent demonstrations for far less important causes?

A case in point is the demonstration against the Charlie Hebdo terrorism in Paris on January 11, 2015, which had around 2 million participants. The population of France is a about a fifth of the United States’, and the demonstration occurred four days after the shootings, so there wasn’t much time to organize it. Yet attendance was about five times that of the People’s Climate March, though, at least in this writer’s opinion, terrorism is a much less serious problem than climate disruption. The reason for the disparity is that people consider terrorism an immediate personal threat, but they don’t feel that climate change will affect them much, personally.

Numerous polls show that a substantial majority of Americans accept the reality of global warming: they acknowledge that it is happening and is caused by human activity. But polls also show that Americans do not find climate disruption to be very important to them personally. Most people feel that the effects of global warming will be distant enough in time and space so they won’t be much personally affected. This may be true for older folks.

According to polls summarized in the book Cheap and Clean: How Americans Think about Energy in the Age of Global Warming, by Stephen Ansolabehere and David M. Konisky, the median monthly amount Americans would be willing to pay to “solve global warming” (!) is five dollars. (p. 165.) Only 5% of Americans would be willing to pay $50 monthly, down from 19% in 2006. 30% of the population is unwilling to pay anything – not one red cent – to “solve” global warming.

Ideology Trumps Science

Another problem is that many American’s views on scientific subjects are informed more by ideology than science.

Work With Public Opinion, Not Against It

The Cheap and Clean book is about Americans’ views on energy, as sampled in extensive polling over many years. A central conclusion of the book is that Americans’ opinions on types of energy sources are determined largely by perceived harms and costs. The public thinks that solar and wind energy is cheap, and we should let that one slide, at least until it becomes true in the fairly near future.

But the public’s negative opinion of coal is based not on its climate-change impacts but on its health effects. Mercury, particulates, NoX, and ozone are “harms” figuring strongly in the costs vs. harms public-opinion trade-offs, but global warming is not. The same is true for other energy sources: solar and wind are perceived as clean, while nuclear energy is perceived as toxic and dangerous, even though it has little global-warming impact.

Is a Climate Movement a Good Strategy?

Global warming has been on the environmental radar screen for the last twenty years. In spite of environmentalists’ shrill tocsin, it has remained low on Americans’ priorities. The issue just does not resonate with the majority. Instead of an overall climate movement we ought to conduct carefully targeted campaigns on sub-issues, such as the following:

  • Coal: no new coal plants. The Sierra Club is doing a great job on this.
  • Natural gas: this is the hardest nut to crack, and the biggest economic competition for renewables. We need to fight on all fronts, making it difficult to build new gas-fired power plants, to do fracking, to build gas pipelines, to install natural-gas appliances in homes. We need to end all subsidies for natural gas.
  • Renewables: the key to getting more electricity from renewable power is to make it attractive for investors to fund renewable projects. Assuring demand by upping renewable portfolio standards will help. The government can’t do very much to increase investment.
  • Oil: switching to electric cars is the key to progress in this sector.
  • Electricity: keeping demand level or reducing it while we switch to renewables is vital, to avoid building more natural-gas plants that will be difficult to shut down later. And we need regulatory policies that encourage development of a “smart grid” and storage that can accommodate the rapid supply changes resulting from wind and solar generation.
  • Buildings and appliances that use less energy will play an important role. One AIA estimate is that buildings account for 48% of greenhouse gas emissions, on the demand side.
  • Industries still use a great deal of energy, and emit significant greenhouse gases. Regulation in this area can help.

Many of these smaller campaigns can be justified on other than global-warming grounds. Fracking, for example, is used to produce most natural gas in the U.S. Fracking uses a lot of water; injection of fracking wastewater pollutes drinking aquifers and has been shown to cause earthquakes. Fracking is an issue that has traction with the public at large because of the harm it causes people now.

There are economic reasons behind the above campaigns as well. Saving energy saves money, and investments in energy-efficient homes and appliances will pay off in the long run. Building renewable-energy infrastructure creates good jobs and stimulates the economy.

We should keep the climate issue front and center, but shouldn’t put all of our resources in this area into building a climate movement. Other approaches will be more efficient and effective.