We almost take intense partisanship around climate change for granted — but that's not how it has always been. As Christopher Flavelle notes at Bloomberg View, more than 90 percent of respondents from both parties supported stricter laws to protect the environment in 1992. Yet two decades later, while the share of Democrats who said they support stricter environmental protections was still above 90 percent, the share of Republicans who said the same had dropped by almost half, to 47 percent.
What's especially perplexing is that this split has occurred in spite of the fact that the evidence supporting climate change has gotten much stronger. As the science became clearer and broader — rising sea levels, rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, rising temperatures, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, declining sea ice, declining glaciers — Republican support for stronger laws to combat it has nose dived.
Of course, American disbelief in climate science is not universal, nor is it even a majority opinion. In fact, a 2012 Yale survey showed that belief in climate change is actually rising. Americans’ belief in the reality of global warming has increased by 13 percentage points over the past two and a half years, from 57 percent in January 2010 to 70 percent in September 2012. And for the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54 percent) believe global warming is caused mostly by human activities. Again, Republicans are the vast majority of disbelievers.
But it’s still quite worrisome that such a large chunk reject the evidence.
As Flavelle argues, some of the denial is probably political — Republicans may be denying the existence of climate change, because they reject the need for more government to deal with it. Their fears are misplaced: As I have argued before, most of the regulatory attempts to deal with climate change from a top-down perspective have been underwhelming, as various countries including the United States have refused to sign onto measures that they believe will reduce economic growth.
In fact, there's really no reason that accepting the reality of climate change has to mean enthusiastically supporting more top-down regulatory solutions to prevent it. The cost of renewable energy continues to fall dramatically. In the long run, the plentiful availability of renewable energy like solar and wind make it a far more economical energy source than finite fossil fuels that have to be dug up out of the ground. This means that the market — not government regulation — is far likelier to provide a solution to lowering carbon emissions, and thus mitigating climate change.
Ultimately, people believe all kinds of funny things for all kinds of funny reasons. A third of Americans believe humans and animals were created in their present form just a few thousand years ago, in spite of the overwhelming evidence for evolution. That some people believe in absurd theories like young earth creationism doesn’t change the facts, nor does it stop curious scientists from using the scientific method to learn the truth and develop technologies on the back of these insights. Similarly, climate change denialism does not change the facts of climate change. As Neil deGrasse Tyson has argued, the good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.
What this means is that it doesn’t hugely matter if some people hold absurd beliefs about climate change so long as enough well-informed people take preventative action to mitigate its effects. Right now, the most important front is developing cheap renewable energy technologies to reduce fossil fuel consumption. That means pushing renewable energy prices lower than oil and gas as soon as possible.
Luckily, there are many private companies and government-funded research initiatives nearing this goal. If they get there, you won't need to believe in climate change or ocean acidification or the rise in sea levels to switch to renewable energy. You'll just need to believe in saving money.
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