Climate Change and The American Public

In 2018 fifteen year old Swedish Greta Thunberg- now arguably one of the most influential women of our time- made history by refusing to go to school in protest of global inaction on climate change. Fast forward a mere two years- a drop in the historical bucket- after Greta’s courageous stand. Climate change has suddenly become a significant ballet box issue in the Presidential Election of the world’s most powerful country. Joe Biden ran for US President in 2020 with climate change as a major component of his platform. And just yesterday (what a day that was!) President-Elect Biden included the critical need to address climate change in his acceptance speech. Imagine a US President doing that forty, even thirty years ago? The very thought seems absurd!

So why was it only this far into the 21st century– a time where flying taxies can be seen in Europe and global poverty levels have dropped more than 50% since 2000- that the climate movement finally gained full traction across the globe, including in the US? Americans from North to South have been vocal on numerous other issues and crises over the past century, from the Vietnam War to national security (Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction) and national oil interests (Kuwait). So why did it take until just a few years ago, following decades of scientists’ warnings and data showing clearly that the climate was warming, for climate change to become a serious public issue in America?

“When I first started doing this and I would talk about climate change, it was just another subject like geology, hydrology, meteorology, and it was well-received.

And then at some point, it got politicized.”

Drilled: A True Crime Podcast about Climate Change”, Oct 21 2018

Snapshot from consulting project analyzing a “History of Climate Change and the American Public”:



Fast Forward to 2020: Things are Changing in the Public’s View

Many of the phenomena predicted by climate science are finally too obvious to ignore – overall warming in all seasons, some areas becoming much drier (with increased wildfires), some much wetter, sea level rising, more powerful storms, etc. This has aroused the public’s interest and made climate change an important election issue, as seen recently in both Canada and the US.

A very encouraging sign of this was the ability of Canada’s Liberals to win the 2019 federal election on a carbon tax platform. Places like California and Washington State also represent progress. Both have implemented strong climate change regulations, thanks largely to Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was governor, and Jay Inslee now – they listened to the scientists, and the public are listening to them.

“Several converging developments may soon help humanity reach a tipping point beyond which our global deep decarbonization efforts will accelerate. One of these developments, albeit not a happy one, is that GHG impacts are intensifying, making it increasingly difficult to delude people about the climate science”.

…Just like the previous shift in public beliefs about the cancer threat from smoking, several decades of evidence are gradually shifting public views, and thus the public’s readiness to accept more serious government efforts to cause an energy transition.”

Mark Jaccard, from “The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths that Hinder Progress.”

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