Energy & Environmental Policy

Repackaging the Climate Change Debate


If Americans are confused about anything lately, it seems that climate change and global warming are probably somewhere at the top of that list. While Republicans are set up as the enemies of climate regulation and Democrats as the defenders of the environment, survey data shows that many Americans are skeptical about climate change, especially the idea of anthropogenic climate change, and they come from both sides.

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press have conducted a survey on opinions about global warming every year since 2006. While the first three surveys showed between 71 and 79 percent of Americans thought there was “solid evidence the earth is warming,” this dropped to 57 percent in 2009 and stayed at 59 percent in 2010. Another 2010 survey showed that this is a partisan divide: 79 percent of Democrats believe in solid evidence for global warming, while only 56 percent of independents and 38 percents of Republicans would agree.

Even when belief in the evidence of global warming was high, people were confused as to why this was occurring. In all five years of the study, those believing global warming is anthropogenic, or due to human activity, was never high and has dropped considerably, starting in 2006 at 50 percent and ending in 2010 at 34 percent. Those believing it is due to natural patterns has dropped marginally but remained about the same, between 16 and 23 percent. The “I don’t know” group has been at 6 percent every year except 2007, when it was 10 percent.

Clearly, the drop in belief of global warming and climate change has largely come from the group who sees evidence of anthropogenic climate damage. Why? Perhaps because the hard, scientific evidence is more vague than people would like – in 2006 only 59 percent thought that scientists agreed that climate change was man-made, dropping to 44 percent in 2010. We could speculate all day, but it’s not immediately evident why this drop has occurred.

Interestingly, many feel that global warming is a problem, and at times this group outnumbers the group who sees hard evidence for global warming. In 2006 and 2007, the percentage answering that global warming was a very or somewhat serious problem mirrored the percentage who believed in solid evidence for global warming. In 2008 through 2010, however, those who thought it was a very or somewhat serious problem was greater than those who believed in the evidence: 2 percent more in 2008, 8 percent more in 2009, and 4 percent more in 2010. This is a non-partisan trend too – in 2010, all three political groupings had higher percentages of people who believed global warming was a problem than believers in global warming.

Why would you view global warming as a problem if you’re not even sure it exists?

In California, many coastal communities that have been unwilling to adopt or support climate change mitigation or adaptation legislation are now incorporating adaptation practices into their city planning. They have seen rising tides, flooding streets, eroding beaches, and they want to make sure their properties and businesses are safe.

For some, adopting adaptation as a focal point of city planning does not mean they believe in climate change or see a need for state-wide, national or international legislation. For many, it means they see the effects of global warming, but are not prepared to blame it on people. And for a few, it means they have shifted their thinking entirely.

What does this mean for adaptation?

If people are less convinced by the idea that our activities as human beings are producing climate change, and that skepticism is producing a decrease in the numbers of people who are willing to support projects and funding to remedy the results of climate change, perhaps we should uncouple the arguments.

If rich Californians in Newport Beach can believe that adaptation is a necessity without believing in anthropogenic climate change, isn’t the policy and activity result the same as leading them to believe in it? Is it conceivable that we could lead our society and voters to accept the idea that adaptation is a necessity and climate change is real without engaging them on the argument concerning the emissions we produce and the resources we use?

Obviously, mitigation is important, and we would need to continue working to create an understanding that anthropogenic climate change is real and creates a need for us to change our lifestyles and our industries. However, it seems important to be able to address adaptation, both here and elsewhere, with the support of voters from both parties. It also seems important that an awareness of climate change become a part of our society and planning, something that might facilitate the next step toward undertaking major mitigation legislation.

In short, there are drawbacks, but repackaging the climate change debate to separate the argument that change is happening from the argument that change is happening because of us seems like a good first step to turn back the tide of conservatism that is threatening our existing environmental agencies and legislation.

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