Vol.4 No.7: July 19, 2010
Why the Going is Tough for High-Cost Legislation on Climate Change
By Amy Kaleita, Ph.D., Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies, Pacific Research Institute
For those favoring legislation on climate change, these should be the best of times. The Democrats, typically the party of the greens, are in control at the federal level. The BP disaster in the Gulf might, under other circumstances, be a motivator for major changes to rules affecting oil drilling and consumption. Several investigative committees have largely cleared the scientists involved in last November’s “Climategate” scandal of any major wrongdoing. But none of that is translating into any movement on climate policy, and that scandal is part of the reason.
Recent independent reviews have not found any major violations on the part of the researchers whose communications went public in the Climategate saga. Those reviews, however, focused for the most part on narrowly defined ethical issues. Perhaps it is not technically unethical for scientists to attempt to influence the peer-review process in their favor – indeed, as noted by some science historians, this happens all the time in publishing science results, regardless of discipline or topic—but that certainly doesn’t give the public confidence that we are getting the full story.
In the months since Climategate, evidence has surfaced that some of the claims in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report were exaggerations based on insufficient research, and intentionally included for the purpose of highlighting potential and negative consequences. That is particularly true of the claim that the Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035. All those things are having an effect.
Gallup polls show that a record-high 41 percent of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated. Rasumussen polling in April revealed that 59 percent of voters believe that it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming.
Meanwhile, unlike previous similar disasters, the BP oil spill has not galvanized public or political support for major environmental legislation, climate or otherwise. In fact, while the environmental consequences of the current spill are real and significant, the focus has been more on the economic impact.
At the same time, the “green movement” as a marketing campaign for products from cars to kitchen cleaners remains strong, and blogs and websites devoted to sustainable living abound. Despite the skepticism on climate change, evidence shows that Americans are interested in protecting the environment, and are willing to make personal choices that reflect that value.
Almost half of Americans, 48 percent, say they will likely buy an alternative-energy car in the next decade. A Harris poll from the summer of 2009 found that “most people have taken some steps to reduce or limit their use of electricity and paper. Many others have taken steps to recycle computers, cell phones or other electronic devices, switched from bottled water to tap water, taken steps to reduce their water consumption, made their homes more energy efficient, or bought a more energy efficient car.” In fact, only 13 percent of those polled were taking no steps to preserve the environment.
Another reason for the lack of political action on the climate front is that the Obama administration and the Democratically-controlled Congress have burned a lot of political capital on health care legislation. Even after softening widespread disdain, more than half of the voting public nationwide, 53 percent, favor repeal of this measure, according to a July Rasmussen poll.
Rasmussen data from June reveal that more than half of voters believe the health care bill will increase the federal deficit and increase health care costs. Especially in this economy, many people are not excited about policies that will add to personal and national debt and expenses. In a June poll, 52 percent of voters say they are not willing to pay more in taxes and utility costs to generate cleaner energy and fight global warming.
These developments should be instructive for legislators, journalists, taxpayers and policy advocates in particular. Some, like popular environmentalist Bill McKibben, claim that the biggest problem in protecting the environment is that Americans lack the political will to act. But the evidence suggests that, among the public at large, individuals are willing to make their own environmentally friendly choices, a pathway that ultimately may be more feasible and effective. Demands for high-cost climate legislation are clearly not popular, especially at a time when many households are struggling to make ends meet.