Posted by: davepidgeon | November 18, 2009

TRAIL TUNES: How to win the climate change debate

The Fat Old Sun

Public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. (Ever. / flickr) / CC BY 2.0

Over at Yale Environment 360, the fellas point out the latest Pew Research Center poll about global warming shows increasing skepticism about the science of global warming:

On its face, the news was not good: Belief that global warming is occurring had declined from 71 percent in April of 2008 to 56 percent in October (2009) — an astonishing drop in just 18 months. The belief that global warming is human-caused declined from 47 percent to 36 percent.

Well, slap me and say: “Why aren’t you shocked?” Because I’m not. And I have a theory, but I’ll let Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the authors of Yale Environment 360, take first crack at explaining why the downslide is occurring:

Political psychology can help us answer these questions. First, climate change seems tailor-made to be a low priority for most people. The threat is distant in both time and space. It is difficult to visualize. And it is difficult to identify a clearly defined enemy. Coal executives may deny that global warming exists, but at the end of the day they’re just in it for a buck, not hiding in caves in Pakistan plotting new and exotic ways to kill us.

Second, the dominant climate change solutions run up against established ideologies and identities. Consider the psychological concept of “system justification.” System justification theory builds upon earlier work on ego justification and group justification to suggest that many people have a psychological need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be. This need manifests itself, not surprisingly, in the strong tendency to perceive existing social relations as fair, legitimate, and desirable, even in contexts in which those relations substantively disadvantage the person involved.

Yeah, okay. I’ll agree to the extent that climate change legislation remains a low priority for most Americans during the current economic slog and that a psychological need to maintain the status quo (because change is … AHHHHH! … scary) plays a role, but after five years of political journalism, I can tell you there is only one thing in the current political atmosphere that’s going to force positive climate change legislation.

Melting is your destiny

The chunk of a glacier floating along. (Irargerich / flickr) / CC BY 2.0

If you want to save the glaciers of Montana, the polar bears of the Arctic, to stop the encroachment of southern climes on northern latitudes, then hear me out on this one …

MONEY. You have to make this about money. Cha-ching.

And I’m not talking about tossing a bunch of funding at solutions to the problem. I’m talking about what’s in American wallets – your meat-and-potatoes Americans, your urban dwelling Americans, your till the fields Americans, your two-car garage suburban Americans.

We’re a pocketbook-issue population right now, which is precisely why Barack Obama occupies the White House and not John McCain. The economy remained the top priority for voters, and it still does as unemployment has jumped to 10 percent, the highest rate in a generation. And if advocates for reversing man-made global warming want to see this country take positive steps against climate change, then the rhetoric can’t be about “OH MY GOD, THE PLANET IS DYING!” That just won’t sell. Not in this political world.

What will sell is how taking steps like increased fuel efficiency in automobiles or using energy-efficient appliances will save American taxpayers of any socioeconomic class money. You have to make the message about that.

Let me give you a representative story from my personal experience. I’ve never doubted the need for positive environmental legislation, but what solidified my point-of-view was a 500-mile trip home to Pennsylvania after visiting my parents.

We took my fiancé’s car and left my parents home near Cincinnati, Ohio, with half a tank of gas. She drives a Toyota Echo, a fuel-efficient car discontinued by Toyota back in 2005. Just after passing the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border, we filled up with regular unleaded (and this was back when gas cost close to $3.50 a gallon) for about $25. We made it home to Lancaster, Pa., a journey of about 500 miles, with half a tank of gas, about the same amount we had in Cincinnati.

One fill up … 500 miles of driving through August heat with the A.C. blasting … $25. Used to take me two fill ups with my sedan and cost me nearly $50 to $60 for a one-way trip. Now, I’ll never buy another car that doesn’t get at least 40 mpg on a highway.

But I rarely, if ever, do I hear this sort of economical message from those proposing climate change legislation and behavior. I do often hear doom and gloom, which after a while no matter how right environmentalists are, starts to sound like hyperbolic scare tactics to the American public, who then tune out.

There’s also the see-no evil syndrome. Most people living in surburban Dallas won’t see a massive Alaskan glacier turned to fluid during their life time. The senior citizen in Boca Raton enjoying a Florida retirement most likely won’t see a polar bear stranded in the middle of an Arctic sea, adrift on a piece of iceberg like an ice cube in a warm soft drink. Vacationers at Ocean City, Md., aren’t going to develop skin cancer with one summer afternoon at the beach. If they don’t see the effects of global warming, and if temperatures are rising by one or two degrees on average, they don’t immediately sense it or care about it.

But they do care about their wealth. We’re a capitalistic society, and I think the anti-global warming advocates need to cater their message to a broad audience desperate these days to find ways to save money in their daily lives. Other wise, the messages melt away into a pool of ignored political waters.

Today’s Trail Tunes comes from Beck, who penned a song about global warming:


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