What Do The American People Want? U.S. Action on Climate Change

American climate policy could use a bit of James Madison.

In a letter written in 1822, five years after leaving office, the fourth President of the United States cautioned that “A popular Government, without popular information … is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” A strong democracy, Madison argued, requires both knowledge and public opinion.

How has U.S. climate policy treated either? Not well.

In recent months, the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill – known as “ACES”, an acronym that captured early optimism, and now feels tired – has fragmented traditional political alliances. The Obama administration has endorsed it. The House narrowly passed it. And the 60 votes necessary in the Senate to overcome likely filibustering are still uncertain.

News Analysis


All the while, the bill has been watered-down. The bill faces serious delays and, quite possibly, no final action until at least 2010, well past December, when nations will meet to discuss Kyoto’s successor in Copenhagen – discussions that many consider a deadline.

The long-term targets in Waxman-Markey are strong, but its short-term provisions weak. (The recently introduced Senate bill has somewhat tougher early targets.) Furthermore, the approach has been built in a way to mimic the European model, despite warnings of a collapsed price on carbon and few demonstrable reductions in European greenhouse gas emissions.

Media coverage of the bill has focused primarily on politics and provisions. But details of the latter can be so wonky as to provoke narcolepsy. In discussing ACES, Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” recently feigned dozing off on his program. Through this discussion, the American public has been more or less neglected, at a time when the need for public engagement to secure political will has never been clearer.

In the nearly 200 years since he wrote this letter, Madison’s idea of an informed government has become a tenet of our democratic process. At the very least, we still believe that when politicians vote, they should vote with consideration of the citizens they are meant to represent. Such is the mandate of a deliberative democracy.

At such a moment as this, with a vote on what has the potential to be an historic energy reform and climate change bill, it seems Madison would stop to wonder about the American voter. What do they think about action on climate change? What of the current bill?

Let’s have a look.

A Public Convinced of a Need for Action

A few recent reports paint a detailed picture of the American electorate on climate, energy, and action. See here, here and here for the studies. The picture the polling figures collectively paint is varied, yet a few themes do emerge. The public, for instance, appears convinced of the science about our changing climate. They prefer clear, up-front costs for efficiency improvements to their cars and buildings to long-term, uncertain payments such as taxes on gasoline. Most interestingly, when it comes to action on climate change, voters don’t believe in each other. They believe instead in action by their government. Legislators, take note: Voters are depending on you.

But let’s start at the beginning. Consistent among the public opinion studies is the growing belief Americans hold in the need for U.S. action to reduce carbon emissions. In 2007 researcher Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale’s Project on Climate Change,* in conjunction with Gallup and Clearvision, released a study showing that 68 percent of Americans supported a measure that goes beyond Kyoto “to require the United States to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide 90 percent by the year 2050.” A more recent report from June of this year shows that support has grown by 10 percent, with nearly eight in 10 of those surveyed now favoring a reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

This view is shared across regions and between large blocks of bipartisan voters. As a base, a large majority of Americans believe that global warming is happening (71 percent) and that humans play a substantial role in that warming (69 percent). Concern is spread throughout the Midwest and South, though conviction in the reality of climate change remains strongest in the more liberal Northeast and West. Polls show a nation concerned about the issue, and largely supportive of action.

While action on climate change receives its strongest support from those identifying themselves as Democrats (92 percent), a majority of Independents (72 percent) and Republicans (66 percent) say they too support carbon reductions. A Zogby poll from August of this year, for instance, shows that 71 percent of likely voters support ACES, with a majority (54 percent) thinking the Senate should take action.

And yet a final vote in the Senate this calendar year seems a fading hope. With efforts to forge a consensus on health care and further stabilize the economy foremost on the agenda, much of the Obama administration’s energy and political capital appears spent.

Regional Interests in Conflict with Political Loyalties?

There is a saying that time is what prevents everything from happening at once. On today’s Capitol Hill, nothing could be more true. The battle over health care alone is likely to continue pushing other issues to the standby list, and closer to a congressional election year session.

Other concerns also may compromise the likelihood of a timely vote. Moderate Democrats from major coal and manufacturing states have expressed concerns that a bill limiting greenhouse gases would hurt American industry. These pressures are clear, for example, in states such as Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, each with one or two Democratic senators feeling strong tugs from home-state interests.

Meanwhile, and as with health care reform, Democratic strategists hope they can persuade such Republican senators as Richard Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine to support passage of a climate bill. Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, while fully “getting it” on climate change science, appears a likely “no” vote on the legislation now taking shape.

A key issue here involves differences between public concern and political leadership. If projected onto a map, public concern for action on U.S. carbon reductions would not resemble the 2000 and 2004 presidential election maps of a deep red interior with blue coastal trimming. Shades of blue – indicating support for climate change legislation – would be strongest in the Northeast and West, but not by a significant margin. Polling shows the Midwest and the Northeast essentially tied in their support of action on carbon reductions, at 82 and 81 percent, respectively.

The climate-action map, however, is different. As a result of how energy and environmental issues are seen affecting different regions of the country, and their local economies, some Republicans and Democrats are more inclined to cross party lines.

As Michele Betstil and Harriet Bulkeley, academics at Colorado State University and the University of Durham, have noted, the politics of climate change does more than disrupt our ecological balance: it also disrupts longstanding political alliances. In doing so, traditional Democratic and Republican alliances splinter, pitting friends against friends, and making allies of unlikely bedfellows.

Perhaps the most compelling mandate for government to move on the issue is the American voters’ conviction that effective action will come from political leadership, not from individual behavior.

In a study called “Climate Change in the American Mind” released by Yale and George Mason University, nearly 70 percent said they believe individual actions do in fact make a difference in managing global warming. And yet only 6 percent of Americans responding to that survey expressed confidence that humanity can and will reduce global warming. It’s not that voters don’t believe in themselves, it’s that they don’t believe in each other.

Rather, their hope, if not trust, is in initiatives by business and government. A majority said they believe that either corporations or businesses (76 percent ) and the U.S. Congress (67 percent) should do more to address global warming. Recall that a super-majority of voters (78 percent) said they want the U.S. government to act to reduce global warming.

The point here is not about costs, but about responsibility – responsibility to clarify the issue and then take action.

Pointillism and The Larger Picture

Polling is a bit like pointillism. One poll is like one dot on an otherwise large canvas. An opinion in isolation has little meaning. Its place in and contribution to the larger portrait of American opinion is uncertain. Moreover, challenges to methods and sampling can lead to questioning of how well any one figure represents the whole. Step back, however, and each point can slide vividly into place. Opinions cluster, trends emerge, and a portrait of an issue takes on greater clarity than before.

This is the case with climate change. Together, the polls cited above of American attitudes towards environment, energy, and action reflect a public convinced of the science, of the necessity for action, and of the responsibility of their government. This is the public information Madison referred to in his letter – the information legislators should be listening to as they evaluate competing political pressures.

Voters accept the human responsibility of climate change. Action must follow.

Majorities across parties and regions support U.S. action to reduce carbon emissions. While Democrats show stronger support, public opinion shows that it’s not simply a partisan issue.

Voters believe in their individual responsibility, but not in their collective potential for achieving meaningful greenhouse gas reductions. It may seem or even be contradictory, but that’s what the numbers say.

What they also say is that business and government should lead the way.

What, then, do Americans think? That it’s time for their leaders to lead.

To both the country and the UN, President Obama has indicated his strong support for limiting the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, and the administration has committed significant funding to expand production of green power in the U.S. His Executive Branch activities over these early months make his administration the most engaged and supportive on the issue of any modern U.S. president.

A slim majority in the House, voting largely along party lines, has passed a bill of real substance, albeit a bill not without its own flaws.

How it survives, and whether it can pass the Senate, remains to be seen, notwithstanding strong rhetoric from Democratic leaders.

Still, the political process itself appears in recent months to have slowed to a snail’s pace, and the countdown to Copenhagen and a new election-year congressional session has grown short. John Stewart has already provided the farce. Let us hope we avoid the tragedy Madison warned might follow.

*Editor’s Note:  Anthony Leiserowitz is Publisher of The Yale Forum.


Ben Carmichael, currently studying on a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, has written extensively on environmental issues.

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.