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Bioethics Forum Essay

The Climate Agreement: Understanding, and Leveraging, Public Opinion

After years of fluctuating and troubled efforts, the nations of the world in December of 2015 came to the remarkable agreement to work together to reduce global warming. On June 2, President Trump announced that our country will withdraw from that agreement.

Like many others I was appalled by that decision, which was reckless, thoughtless, and destructive. A new poll found that most Americans oppose the decision. But it is useful to understand the political and ideological route that got us to this point, and to start at once to map a way out.

Public opinion surveys provide a number of important clues both to why Trump calculated that he could get away with the withdrawal and why Americans are still not fully persuaded of the future dangers. In a 2016 Gallup poll only 64% of respondents worried a “great deal/fair amount” about global warming. While that figure was nine percentage points higher than it was in 2015, it has fluctuated between 51% and 72% since 1990. Gallup polls have also found that the percentage of people who believe that global warming poses a threat to our way of life has risen from 25% to 41% since 1998.  Those figures, weak enough, mask a large political divide. Only 20% of Republicans believe global warming will be a threat in their lifetime versus 58% of Democrats.

All of those figures help throw in high relief why Trump felt he could get away with undoing the Paris agreement. For the public in general global warming is not even a critical much less an urgent issue. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication developed a national map on the regional distribution of concern about global warming. It puts a fine point on the politics. The lowest proportion of those who are worried about global warming, 60% or less, are in the middle of the country or in the south. Those are the regions that Trump won—and just those areas least environmentally threatened, unlike drier areas and coastal regions. If you can see little danger before your own eyes it is difficult to work up much fear of it.

In short, Trump, under pressure to stick to an important campaign promise after several early setbacks, decided to grab the low hanging fruit that the public opinion polls have identified—and much more accessible than the ACA or tax reform. If he outraged liberals, some moderate conservatives, and most other countries as well, he did not alienate most of his followers. He did what he said he would do. People who voted him into office cheered him on.

How did we get into this fix? Why has global warming not grabbed the attention of the public in ways sufficient to bring to bear strong legislation and the money needed to make a difference? Why had it so resisted bipartisan efforts?

There are many explanations. Since the dangers lie far more in the future than the present they are hard to command a high priority. Most of us, if we look hard enough, can see evidence of global warming around us, but not enough to give us to push our legislators to act, much less to endanger their elections or re-elections if they don’t.

But I believe the most important reason is the success of the organized effort, begun in the early 1980s, to deny or minimize the science of global warming. Put together by a group of industrialists, wealthy individuals, such as David and Charles Koch, and the coal industry–and with a small cadre of scientists—it managed as well to capture the support of some newspapers and columnists, and members of Congress.

Ironically, that effort had an analogous movement and group prior to World War II. Despite the obvious and well publicized rise of an ambitious Adolph Hitler, German militarism, and antisemitism, there was a push to stay out of any efforts to come to the aid of threatened European countries. It was their problem, not ours. The America First Committee, founded in September 1940, brought that effort to a full pitch. The committee was disbanded four days after Pearl Harbor.

It is reasonable to wonder if it will take a catastrophic climate event to shake everyone up. Part of the problem in that respect is that global warming takes place slowly, over decades rather than years; that it often affects different regions in different ways; and that the scientists use the language of probabilities, avoiding flat certainties and in favor of careful use of phrases, such as “very high confidence,” “high confidence,” and “medium confidence.”

That kind of care sometimes opens the door to critics, treating the nuances as waffling and evasive. A particularly delicate sore point has been projections of harm to specific countries or regions. They sometimes did not pan out. Scientific models are becoming more precise, and scientists are careful to avoid errors, knowing that they will be noticed, and exploited, by the naysayers.

Even if the U.S. had remained part of the Paris agreement, the road ahead would have been hard, and probably even more so in the future. What then is left to build on to work our way out?

American business has come along as an important actor, and increasingly so. This was particularly striking in the weeks leading up to the Paris agreement. As it happened, I had delayed turning in to my publisher a book manuscript that had global warming as a critical part. I was waiting to see whether the December agreement would be reached. Business support for action against climate change grew after the Paris agreement was signed. After Trump decided to withdraw from it, he faced  criticism from prominent business leaders, and Michael Bloomberg pledged $15 million to the United Nations agency that helps countries cover the costs of implementing the accord.

Though pushback from business failed to sway Trump this time around it could do so in the future. His vague talk about “new negotiations” can be pressed by business leaders who point out the economic benefits of reducing carbon emissions. They know full well that the coal industry is on the decline, unlikely to recover. Many states, led by California, are putting meaningful policies, including cap- and-trade and a carbon tax, in place, and that trend can be nourished and expanded. An organized effort to get global warming considerations and debate in parts of country that both helped Trump’s election and are most lukewarm about global warming is an urgent need.

One can hope that the other countries will keep up their efforts both to shame us and to hold up models of successful efforts that the American Congress and public will envy. For a short moment in time, we were the international model and leader. Our leader, with his large and frail ego, may just take notice of efforts that overshadow ours.

Daniel Callahan is a Research Scholar and cofounder of The Hastings Center. His most recent book is The Five Horsemen of The Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease and Obesity.

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  1. Thank you for this piece Hastings Center. It is always helpful and useful for the public and those concerned about this particular challenge to have solid background information. I do hope that The America First mindset does not have the same devastating effects on citizens in the same way as it did during WWII. After all, this is a different kind of war and scientific models cannot give all the facts. To be forewarned is to become forearmed.

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