After years of stasis, there is finally movement in the public’s attitude about climate change. Much of the media attention has focused on the Green New Deal, sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator, Edward Markey. In addition, recent polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has shown a rise over the past 5 years in the number of Americans who believe it’s happening (+11%), are worried about it (+16%), think it’s caused by humans (+15%) and that it’s important to them personally (+17).
But balancing these positive trends are lingering concerns. Polls also show that a majority of the American public favor abortion rights, restrictions on gun ownership, and limits on campaign contributions but public support has not led to Congressional action on those issues either. And, despite the clear scientific consensus, greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are increasing.
While there is much to like about the Green New Deal, and I would love to see all members of Congress enthusiastically support it, I have two concerns about the way this is playing out.
It seems to me that progressives have not learned the lessons from Obamacare. The law was passed with no support from Republicans and the right-wing of the party was able to brand the law with a combination of distortion and outright lies such that, in the midterm elections of 2010, Democrats took a “shellacking” (Obama’s term) and for years afterwards Republicans were able to run successfully on a promise to repeal and replace.
I fear the same could be happening with action on climate change. At the moment, it has little Republican support and is being branded (incorrectly, of course) as leading to a socialist state that would force Americans to give up eating meat and airplane travel while also killing jobs. None of that is true, of course, although regard for facts is not what it used to be. Even if Democrats sweep the Senate and White House in 2020 — which is by no means certain — and are able to pass elements of the Green New Deal, I fear a wave of obstruction, resistance, and backlash.
My other concern is not just about the Green New Deal but about the attitude to the climate crisis more generally. Many are under the assumption that we can live our lives as we have been, with the only difference being that all of our energy needs will come from solar and wind sources instead of fossil fuels. This is unrealistic.
If Congress had acted to put a price on carbon emissions in 1988 when they were informed of the science and implications of the greenhouse effect by NASA scientist James Hansen, the planet might not be nearing a dangerous tipping point. But government action on the climate crisis is now necessary but not sufficient.
While many citizens are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, most are not, and there is not a sense of personal responsibility and societal motivation for making the changes necessary. To a large degree, even among those who recognize the problem, many are waiting for others — politicians, scientists, or entrepreneurs — to “fix” the problem.
The Green New Deal sounds like an unrealistic pipe-dream to many. And it might just be. But it is just one element of what’s needed and the entire American populace, not just progressive Democrats, need to understand and feel the urgency of the climate crisis and start acting as if we are faced with a life-or-death situation — because we are.