On Sunday, over 300,000 people took to the streets of New York to voice their concerns about climate change. However, climate change still is not a priority for the majority of Americans. A recent poll of registered voters in North Carolina conducted by American Insights found just 3 people out of 600 citing environmental or energy issues as the most important issue facing the nation in a recent poll. This lack of importance placed on climate change persists even though, according to a poll conducted in April 2014 by Pack Poll, two-thirds of students at North Carolina State attribute climate change mostly to human activity, and 48% think it will pose a serious threat in their lifetime (against 36% thinking it will not).
While belief in climate change is high amongst some sectors of the population, salience and focus on climate change is low. Americans as a whole are less concerned about climate change even when compared to other environmental issues. In March of 2014, Gallup conducted a poll exploring which environmental issues Americans cared about. On a list of 8 environmental issues, “global warming” and “climate change” finished last and second to last respectively, with 34% and 35% of Americans saying they worried “a great deal” about both issues. Topping the list, instead, were issues such as pollution of drinking water (60%), contamination of soil and water by toxic waste (53%), and pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (53%).
How can so few Americans worry about an issue that the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change says is already here? The answer might be because the worst consequences of climate change are less likely to directly affect Americans. Drinking water pollution, soil and water contamination, and pollution of bodies of water are issues that Americans can fathom because they have hit home in some unlucky places, most notably recently the coal ash spill in North Carolina. Those issues are immediate problems and can occur and be fixed in the short term, whereas climate change is a long-term problem with long-term solutions, an issue when fighting for salience in the “breaking news” 24-hour media cycle.
However, while the vast majority of Americans are not strongly feeling the effects of climate change, this is an immediate issue facing the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines and north of New Zealand. The Marshall Islands are facing rising sea levels that are already threatening much of the nation and are predicted to take the nation off the map by the end of the century. In a video addressed to the United Nations Climate Summit, which meets on Tuesday September 23, President Christopher Loeak attempts to draw attention to the fact that climate change has already arrived.
The hope of many environmentalists is that the leaders at the United Nations Climate Summit will work to incorporate carbon dioxide emissions cuts into the global climate treaty that will be signed at the end of 2015. However, confirmed carbon cuts come with changes for the electric power production industry, meaning increased regulation of coal and natural gas power plants (the EPA has already proposed the Clean Power Plan, which will require carbon emissions reductions of 30% by 2030) and increased support for renewable energy technologies.
While it is easy for Americans to ignore climate change, it is not easy to ignore increases in either electricity bills or taxes. According to a poll conducted by the American Small Business Council in 2013, 62% of small business owners oppose continued tax subsidies to coal, oil, and gas companies while 63% support the implementation of a national Renewable Energy Standard which would require utilities to generate at least 20% of electricity from clean sources. While this is not at all a fair way to phrase two questions meant to show small business support for renewables over fossil fuels, it might begin to at least show that Americans support renewables over the fossil fuel industry, possibly even with the economic ramifications (though to find out for certain, a poll would need to ask about both support for fossil fuel and renewable energy tax subsidies).
Depending on the outcome of the UN Climate Summit this upcoming week, Americans could see an increase in legislation affecting their pocketbook that deals with electricity generation. Then politicians will find out what matters more to Americans, a long-term fight against climate change, or short term increases in taxes or electricity bills.