Fed Up With Climate Change Apathy

The American people are saying that the time to act is now.

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This week, as U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy testified before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power regarding the administration's climate change policy, there was the palpable absence of constituent opinion. 

While members of Congress understandably advocated in the hearing for the energy and job welfare of their districts, what was missing was the constituent voice. It turns out that their constituents are raring to do something on global warming. 

A report released last month on how the American public is thinking and talking about climate change – based on polling done earlier in 2013 by the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication – may startle some members.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The most telling trend: there's a growing segment of the American public who is ready and willing to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience against the entities – private or public – that are making global warming worse. But in more general terms, regarding what's influencing American minds and how they're being influenced, here are some new and interesting findings.

First, according to the GMU-Yale survey, "Americans who experienced an extreme weather event in the past year were most likely to talk to others about it face-to-face or by phone, while few did so using social media." Relatedly, the report notes that, "Americans say their own family and friends have the greatest ability to convince them to take action to reduce global warming," and that "if asked by a person they  'like and respect,' the actions that Americans are most willing to take are signing a petition, attending a public meeting, or attending a neighborhood meeting about global warming."

These are important pieces of data, especially for advocacy groups working to prevent global warming and increase public participation in that process. If we want to change the public's hearts and minds on global warming, it appears that advocacy groups and policymakers need to employ a much more personal approach and one that utilizes interpersonal networks more than less personal social media networks.

We should take heed, change tack and be willing to let go of old ways in favor of new ones. Fellow advocates, take note.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Second, according to the GMU-Yale survey, "Many Americans (24 percent) would support an organization that engaged in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse," and "One in eight people (13 percent) say they would be willing to personally engage in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that make global warming worse."

This is particularly interesting because it shows a public that is increasingly frustrated with the status quo and increasingly willing to put pressure on policymakers and the private sector in order to effect environmental policy change. While some of this movement may be most evident in the opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and the protests that have erupted in light of this project, these figures are indicative of a bigger trend.

The America public is tired of waiting for policymakers to do something to prevent global warming, as recent majorities in Ohio, California and Colorado have indicated. Since a climate bill or a carbon tax has not passed Congress, since the administration is just now setting stricter carbon limits on power plants, and since companies are waiting to move forward on large-scale investments in renewables or massive shifts carbon reductions, a growing segment of the American people is demanding more.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Government Invest in Green Energy?]

The U.S. public recognizes, as the majority of the international scientific community has long recognized, that we have little time to act, and a lot of acting to do, if we want to prevent all-consuming sea-level rises and scorching heat waves, increasingly devastating droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes, and all the negative consequences that come with global warming – from more pandemics to more mosquitoes.

The American people are saying that the time to act is now and if policymakers and the private sector fail to do so, citizens are ready and willing to support nonviolent civil disobedience.

This is a new and unprecedented warning shot. Now, hopefully Washington will listen.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is Director of Foreign Policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

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