How Americans came to their senses about climate change
For a long time climate change felt far off to many Americans. Though people saw the pictures of melting ice caps and heard the warnings from Al Gore and 97 percent of climate scientists, they never truly felt this long-term environmental trend would threaten their own lives. Maybe it would affect future generations or people in the global south, where climate change will have especially deleterious effects, but not their own communities, not them.
So not only did countless Americans treat global warming like some minor threat that wouldn't hurt them in any major way, but many simply denied that it was even happening. This attitude was promoted by fossil fuel companies and special interests that funded propaganda questioning the scientific consensus, as well as the politicians who supported their views. Thus over the past few decades, the Republican Party — the party that once founded the Environmental Protection Agency — became the party of climate change denialism.
In recent years, however, this refusal to face reality has become increasingly hard to sustain, especially as extreme weather events become more and more common and menace more and more Americans. The latest instance of extreme weather, Tropical Storm Florence, is wreaking havoc on the Carolinas, and as many have already pointed out, there is strong evidence to suggest that climate change made it worse, increasing rainfall by up to 50 percent and slowing down the storm's movement. Florence arrives a little over a year after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the Houston area, and Hurricane Maria, which went down as the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico's recorded history.
There is little doubt in the scientific community about the effect that global warming is already having on the weather, and it is clearly making natural disasters more catastrophic than they were previously. Of course, it's not just hurricanes that are growing more deadly. The recent global heat wave that scorched America and left dozens of people dead was also connected to climate change, as were the wildfires that consumed the West Coast this summer.
Climate change is no longer some remote threat that can be dealt with by our great-grandchildren. It is here. Thankfully, more people seem to be waking up to reality.
A Pew Research Center survey from May, for example, found that six in 10 Americans now say that "climate change is currently affecting their local community either a great deal or some." Another recent survey conducted by the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College found that 73 percent of Americans now believe in global warming — a record high for the survey, which has been taken since 2008 (admittedly, it's still depressingly low). The director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, Chris Borick, told The Guardian that "there's lots of evidence that contemporary weather is a contributing factor to belief in climate change."
These are all positive developments, but the topic of climate change remains highly politicized in America, even as superstorms reach people from all political persuasions. "As is the case on many climate change questions, perceptions of whether and how much climate change is affecting local communities are closely tied with political party affiliation," writes Pew research associate Brian Kennedy. "About three-quarters of Democrats (76 percent) say climate change is affecting their local community at least some, while roughly a third of Republicans say this (35 percent)."
At the same time, while more people are beginning to acknowledge climate change and the danger it poses, the discussion has shifted for the "skeptics" from whether it is actually a threat (or even real) to whether it is a big enough threat to make the necessary sacrifices to confront it. "The talking points have turned more to the cost to mitigate climate change rather than deny its existence," observed Borick. This is clear with President Trump, who no longer calls climate change a "Chinese hoax," but instead argues that the policies designed to protect the environment are bad for the economy.
Calamitous megastorms aren't good for the economy either, of course, and in the long run global warming will have extremely negative economic consequences. President Trump and Republicans in Congress seem to only care about short-term profits, however, and have made it clear that they're unwilling to tackle climate change, even as more Americans come to realize its existential threat.
Florence is now devastating the Carolinas, and as my colleague Ryan Cooper pointed out on Thursday, Republican lawmakers in both North and South Carolina are notorious for their climate denialism and have done little to prepare for the impact that a changing climate will have on their states. One can only hope that the very real storms we are witnessing today will convince Americans across the political spectrum that we must address the clear and present danger of climate change before it's too late.