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Most Americans Want Action on Climate Change — So Why Don’t We Have It?

Today, we’re living in a world where murder hornets aren’t just another creepy mutation in The Hunger Games, and people throw around the term ‘The Before Times’ in all seriousness. Americans are scared, frustrated, and divided. So it may surprise you to know we’ve been able to agree on something — something that’s important to almost everyone, regardless of political ideology.

Last fall, Yale University surveyed Americans’ opinions on climate change and energy. The results are laid out in an online interactive map, and its highlights show a promising bridge across the partisan divide:

sustainable development goals
  • 70% of all Americans believe that protecting the environment is more important than economic growth
  • 72% want to regulate CO2 emissions
  • 77% want school curricula to include global warming
  • 81% want tax rebates for Americans using energy-efficient cars or renewable energy sources
  • 83% want funds directed toward renewable energy research

What’s more, according to a 2020 EcoAmerica report, 75% of us believe “we need to take action” now to reduce climate change, with 78% of Americans saying that immediate action should be a national priority, and 62% saying it should be a top or very important priority. These are huge majorities, spanning the political spectrum.

The news media often tries to be as sensational as possible by pitting one side against the other — conservatives vs liberals, Democrats vs Republicans — but where does that leave us? Each “side” thinks of the other as an extreme, stupid, immoral caricature, instead of real people who probably have a lot more in common with each other than they think.

What is truly immoral is allowing climate inaction to continue when the majority of Americans agree that this status quo is unacceptable. 70% of all Americans believe that we haven’t addressed climate change because our government is broken. 71% believe that we need to elect climate-focused leaders, and 64% have contacted or would be willing to contact or vote for a climate candidate.

Why Hasn’t the U.S. Taken Climate Action?

If this many people want climate action legislation and are willing to list it as a priority, why hasn’t our government acted? Well, the politics behind climate change can be messy.

As greenhouse gas emissions, sea levels, animal extinctions, and severe weather events are all on the rise, politicians seem to bury their heads in the sand. This might be because they are out of touch with their constituents and their desire for climate change action. Research has shown that the very people we elect to represent us in D.C. do not actually know or care what we want, including policies about climate change, such as regulating and reducing carbon emissions. Politicians tend to listen to the loud few, as opposed to the quiet many — which leads us to our next point, which we all know: money talks.

The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Disinformation Campaigns About Climate Change

The multi-trillion-dollar fossil fuel industry is the main culprit behind our changing climate, and they know it. So, to shield themselves from climate action policies and regulations that would cost them, they’ve poured millions of dollars every year into research, think tanks, and political campaigns that deny climate change (see Drilled podcast). Tragically, their climate change disinformation has been wildly successful: fossil fuel companies still receive huge government subsidies, on top of avoiding major climate legislation that would help us transition to 100% clean energy, air, soil, and water.

Our government’s public safety mandate grants it legal authority to regulate corporations, but a major tactic of these corporations and their allies has been to deflect responsibility away from them and onto individuals. In 2004, British Petroleum unveiled its “Personal Carbon Footprint Calculator”, shoving the onus onto members of the general public, even as most of us lack the sufficient financial and political power (as individuals or communities) to make the systemic changes we need during this climate crisis.

We have been told to turn off our lights when we leave the room, stop using plastic straws, and buy the most eco-friendly appliance or product in an attempt to slow climate change. But this focus on personal lifestyle or behavior to tackle climate change misses the larger point: we are all living in a system in which the fossil fuel industry wields vastly disproportionate influence over what options we have as consumers, especially if you’re low-income or a person of color. And it’s going to stay this way until we apply adequate pressure onto our government to aggressively regulate carbon emissions, fund alternative energy sources, incentivize companies to reach carbon zero, and so much more.

We Know Climate Action is Possible

In 2016, over 190 countries signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement, and even though it was non-binding, everyone agreed they could be part of the solution. Indeed, solutions to climate change are everywhere. Clean energy has been getting cheaper every year and growing its share of the grid. More and more people are installing solar panels and switching to electric vehicles. More and more companies are choosing to reduce their emissions and take sustainability seriously.

Political Impact on Climate Action

We all know 2020 is a pivotal year for electoral politics, and that the 2020s will be a transformational decade for human society, for better or worse. The beautiful thing is, we get to decide which way it goes.

We can use climate action as a powerful vehicle for change, not only for clean air and water, but for high-wage, high-satisfaction green jobs, with healthcare; affordable, secure, sustainable housing; and so many other advancements in important areas of our lives. The majority of Americans can attest to the fact that a safe environment and good quality of life go hand in hand, and we must act accordingly.

Taking Climate Action in Our Own Lives

  1. Talk. Have open conversations about climate change with your friends, family, and neighbors. Most likely, since so many Americans believe climate change is worth addressing, they will be relieved you brought up the “elephant in the room”, and get energized envisioning all the co-benefits that climate action can bring to society. Describe what that brighter future looks like and means to you.
  2. Listen. As important as it is to share your perspective and knowledge, be sure to ask people what they think, what values or priorities they hold, and actively listen to what they have to say. Seek out more perspectives and knowledge from those who have different lived experiences than you, and from the climate experts themselves so you can have informed, productive conversations.
  3. Vote. Your voice matters, so make it count, and make sure others can vote, too, in every election (not just the presidential ones). Federal, state, county, and local issues are all important. Find out where the candidates stand on climate change. If they don’t mention where they stand on climate change, contact them and ask, and urge them to enact the policies we need.
  4. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. It may seem counterintuitive, given what we know about the fossil fuel industry’s climate change disinformation campaigns, but a healthy way to channel fear, anxiety, and grief about the climate crisis is to act, starting with what we have most control over: our own day-to-day lives.

The science and data on climate change are clear. We know the causes of climate change and most Americans agree that we must take action. People are willing and ready to build a beautiful future, and we have many tools to help us get there. Now let’s make it happen, together.