In the midst of the maelstrom named Trump, environmental advocates are finding solace in numerous opinion polls released over the past year or two. From these surveys, it appears one of the few things Americans agree on—more or less-- is the reality of climate change and the need to combat it.
There are of course notable exceptions—the President for one, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for another and then there are the conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Texas Policy Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Still, the overall numbers seem to tilt towards the believers.
As a card-carrying curmudgeon, I tend to look at the numbers and see a glass half empty. There are many who would disagree with me; far be it from me to rage against the glass half-fullers in the community. However, I did want to mention the disconnect in all of this.
Why, with all the number of climate change believers out there, is it so difficult to convince a majority in Congress to resist the Trump administration’s assault on federal environmental and clean energy policies and programs? Why--also--was President Obama forced to resort to executive actions for intensifying federal efforts to: reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions; protect U.S. water sources; increase auto fuel efficiency standards; and limit exploration and extraction of oil and gas on federal lands?
Some would say opposition to Obama-era regulatory initiatives was based on bad draftsmanship or excessive exuberance by his administration when setting proposed emission limits. The problem with that explanation? It doesn’t account for the hell no—we don’t need no stinkin’ regulation attitude of most of the opponents—the President being one.
It would have been one thing for dissenters to have expressed respectful—or not--disagreement with the terms of the regulations. That wasn’t the case. Most of those who opposed the Clean Power Plan (CPP), the Waters Rule of the U.S. (WOTUS) and other rules appeared committed to throwing the baby out; the bath water was never the target.
Confirmation of this is the Trump administration. The Donald has brought in to prominence one of the leaders of the Obama-era deniers. EPA Administrator Pruitt is the poster boy for the opposition to Trump’s predecessor. His siblings in the administration include Interior Secretary Zinke and OMB Director Mulvaney and others, including Sam Clovis who has recently been nominated as the head science guy at the Department of Agriculture.
These and other Trump advisors are unequivocally on the record as hell-noers. The only thing preventing Trumpsters from just tearing up most environmental regulations in general and all of Obama’s, in particular, are the federal courts.
Pruitt has tried on more than one occasion to circumvent the Administrative Procedures Act (the APA or Act). He has had those decisions reversed by the courts often enough that he voluntarily took back his own stay of the smog rule a day after a challenge was filed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit didn’t even have time to rule.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia brought the case. It followed on the heels of other successful challenges, including the one involving regulation of methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
The courts in these cases--it should be noted--did not deny that EPA had the authority to revise or even rescind the various rules. The decisions addressed Pruitt’s attempted riding rough-shod over the Act.
Trump and company are not the only ones intent on rolling back environmental regulations and reversing Obama-era recognition of climate change and his efforts to combat it. Republican leaders, e.g. of the 115th Congress, have been taking pot-shots at environmental regulations and policies as well.
Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton wrote in the New York Times:
Beyond the White House, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, chairman of the House Science Committee, held a hearing this spring aimed at debunking climate science, calling the global scientific consensus “exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions.”
A small core of Republican lawmakers — most of whom are from swing districts and are at risk of losing their seats next year — are taking modest steps like introducing a nonbinding resolution in the House in March urging Congress to accept the risks presented by climate change.
But in Republican political circles, speaking out on the issue, let alone pushing climate policy, is politically dangerous. So for the most part, these moderate Republicans are biding their time, until it once again becomes safe for Republicans to talk more forcefully about climate change. The question is how long that will take. (emphasis added)
I would like to suggest the answer to their question is: it will take as long as it takes for the poll numbers to catch up to reality.
Lest you think the opposition of elected Republican legislators is a federal phenomenon consider the recent attempt by 24 California Assembly Republicans and state party officials to unseat Chad Mayes (R-Yucca Valley) as their caucus chair. His crime? He voted in favor of California Assembly Bill 398 extending the state’s cap-and-trade program until 2030.
Mayes was joined by seven other Republican Assembly members. The vote was hailed rightfully as a bipartisan accomplishment; although, the legislation had enough Democratic support to pass the Assembly without the involvement of their cross-aisle colleagues.
Republican Assembly members who supported the bill have become the targets of right-wing party activists, some of whom entered the district office of Assemblyman Marc Steinorth (R-Rancho Cucamonga) and wouldn’t leave until the California Highway Patrol arrived.
LA Times reporters describe the reaction of state party leaders to the treasonous conduct of Mayes and his colleagues:
In their eyes, Mayes did nothing more than help liberals increase costs for California businesses and then take a victory lap. They accuse him of providing political cover to Democrats in the state Capitol while ignoring the wishes of his caucus, the majority of which opposed the legislation.
Perhaps worst of all, they said, a grinning Mayes posed for chummy photos with [Governor Brown] and top Democratic lawmakers after the vote. Shawn Steel, one of California’s two representatives on the Republican National Committee, called it “repugnant.”
“What Chad has done is given us a big fat skunk on our plate, and he’s really hurt the party,” Steel said.
Beyond the rudeness of it all and the Dali-esque imagery of a skunk on a plate, it should make you wonder why in a nation of climate change believers Republican politicians feel safe trashing climate change theory and members of their own party, who would deign act on the possibility it’s true—and in California of all places.
The latest opinion surveys from George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication and Yale’s Climate Change Communication Program.
The polls are not entirely silent on the issue of why the correlation between attitude and action seems punk. Let’s look at the numbers that have recently been released.
Seven in ten registered voters answered yes to the general question: do you think climate change is happening? (Graph 1)
The Republican/Democrat divide was:divide was:
* 97% of liberal Democrats;
* 85% of moderate/conservative Democrats;
* 65% of liberal/moderate Republicans;
* 42% of conservative Republicans.
At first blush, these numbers are comforting. Follow the trendline in the graph, however, and the first thing that might jump out is there is virtually 0 difference between the 2017 number and the answer given to the same question in 2008.
When liberal/moderate Republicans are compared to moderate/conservative Democrats, there is a 20 percent differential. A much wider spread (55%) is evidenced at the ends of the Democrat/Republican spectrum.
The divide within the Republican Party between conservatives and liberal/moderate Republicans is over twice the difference exhibited across the aisle (23% vs. 12%). It is not particularly surprising that the Democrats are more closely aligned than the Republicans on environmental matters.
Digging deeper into voter attitudes, let’s look at what respondents thought was causing Earth’s warming (Graph 2):
A majority of registered voters (56%) attributed it to human activities;
In addition to a lower overall confidence in the cause of climate change versus the fact of it (71% - 56%), moderate Democrats are less inclined to agree with liberals about human causation (87% - 62% = 25%). The split between Democrats over causation is wider than it was on climate change in general (25% v 12%).
Within the Republican ranks moderates and conservatives are more closely aligned than the Democrats (45% - 30% = 15%) about the role of humans. The trendlines between November 2008 and May 2017 have fluctuated over the nearly nine-year period but not greatly.
Since March of 2016 there is a slight upward slope of the caused by human line and a slight downward slope of the caused by natural changes. These differences are undoubtedly the result of the percentage of liberal Democrats believing in human causation having risen by 7 percent, while for liberal/moderate Republicans it fell by 9 percent.
It is unlikely administration officials follow the polls on climate change with any regularity; it is interesting to note, however, that there is at least some anecdotal evidence of a mellowing of their claims—particularly since The Donald pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Accord. It is now not overly unusual to hear them accepting the proposition that climate change is happening; they do still avoid any acknowledgement that we the people have anything to do with it:
Measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do. And there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the climate change. (Scott Pruitt, March 2017)
Most likely the primary control knob [for the temperature of the Earth and for climate] is the ocean waters and this environment that we live in. (Rick Perry, June 2017)
To more casual observers “yes… but” is not likely seen as a totally unreasonable answer—particularly for those who do not put global warming high on their list of policy priorities. (see Table below) For sure, Trump’s core supporters will use it to refute denier accusations leveled against Trump. UN Ambassador Haley took this line of defense after Trump announced he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Accord.
How sure voters are that global warming is happening also shows itself weaker than the general belief in its occurrence (Graph 3).
Responding to climate change is not a matter of waking up one morning and thinking today’s the day to do something about it. To have any chance of addressing it, without suffering massive societal upheavals, requires as measured a march through the next decades as can be arranged.
Maximizing opportunities, while minimizing disruption and sacrifice in quality of life, are among the reasons why the advocacy community speaks in terms of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st Century. Graph 4 suggests that to most Americans, time is not of the essence.
The best hopes for the future involve among other things: the development and deployment of new technologies; hardening infrastructures in more developed nations; building new resilient infrastructure in developing countries; gradual adjustments of human activities leading to lower emissions through improved efficiencies; and society-wide adoption of sustainable manufacturing and agricultural processes.
These things take time. Assuming growing evidence of the rate and current impacts of climate change is correct, time itself is a scarce commodity.
Graph 4 shows only 6 in 10 respondents are worried about global warming. Of those, only 1 was very worried. This conclusion was supported by other survey answers that indicated only 13 percent of the respondents were very worried of any substantial harms coming to them in their lifetime and only 23 percent thinking global warming would cause a great deal of harm in their children's lifetimes.
When only 1 of 6 understand the urgency of the situation, there are likely to be 5 others who will be in for an unfortunate surprise. Barely 50 percent of people polled (the red area of the bars) thought Earth, nature and future generations were likely be greatly harmed by global warming.
The lack of expressed urgency is concerning on a number of fronts--not the least of these being where global warming ends up on the list of voter priorities. Perhaps not a direct correlation, it is reasonable to assume the less urgent voters see the issue to be the freer their elected officials will feel to get around to it when they can. This goes back to the question of how long that will take asked by Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton in the New York Times article quoted at the beginning of this article.
Table 1 reflects just this issue. Note that even on the list of the priorities of liberal Democrats global warming only reaches number 6. It is hardly surprising that warming is at the bottom of the Conservative Republicans hit parade.
The same cannot be said for its being 21 out 23 on the moderate Republican priority issues and 13 on the list of moderate Democrats. Neither of these placements bode well for the future. Developing clean energy sources fares only a bit better on all but the priorities of the liberal Democrats.
Looking at the numbers through half-glasses
Polling information can be extremely helpful and informative. The George Mason and Yale programs produce some of the best information out there.
Survey results, however, are just like any other tool; it depends upon how you use them.
Used improperly they can be ineffective or worse—dangerous. I wouldn’t advise using a chainsaw to do brain surgery or an iron digging bar where it could hit the main electric line into your house. (My neighbor—whose hair magically turned curly--stopped by the other day to give me that last bit of wisdom.)
It also depends upon how they are cast. These days I find attitudinal surveys are being used as much to taunt as to teach. I don’t mean to imply this is necessarily being done deliberately; it often is simply a product of enthusiasm and part of the effort to convince decisionmakers to support particular policies and programs.
The phrases are technically true in both cases. The problem is in both instances the start and end points of any of the plotted lines haven’t changed much over the course of 8 or so years.
The phrasing doesn’t misrepresent the situation, but it can cause a false sense of confidence. False in the sense that the surety of the respondents’ belief that global warming is happening because of human activity overall hasn’t changed much over the years. And, as was pointed out, moderate/liberal Republicans were less likely (by 9 percent) to believe in human causality between March 2016 and May 2017.
Why is that trend within the trend important? Because--moderate Republicans are probably the very population cohort climate advocates should be targeting with their appeals for understanding and support.
(Click in tomorrow for Part 2 of the article)
Lead photo from People's Climate March: https://peoplesclimate.org
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.