Why are governments failing to act on climate change?
56% of Americans think climate change is something that should be addressed right now, according to a CBS news poll.1 A more in-depth survey poll conducted by ABC news, Stanford, and the RFF found that 68% of Americans think the government should be doing a lot to stop climate change.2 Similar polls have found that the majority of Australians,3 the UK4, and Canada5 feel the same way. We have never seen more unity on climate change, so why are governments failing to act on climate change?
The will of the people is clear, but government action across the globe has stalled. Phil Sharp, Former RFF President has said, “The American people seem far more unified than our political leadership on the need to address climate change. As often happens, politicians would do well to catch up with the electorate.”
It’s true. We are behind on climate change, at a time where we need real and dramatic action. So what gives? Even as cities are disappearing from fire, flood, and rising sea levels, movement towards a decarbonized society has come to a stand still.
What does the government have to fear from taking action? What’s stopping them from making forward progress?
Fear of causing more harm
Government entities have to look at the whole puzzle when deciding whether or not to take a particular action. Will higher gas prices make getting to work impossible for low class citizens? What will coal miners do for jobs if a coal mine closes? What about the jobs of people in the oil and fuel industry? At plastic factories?
If we remodel our food system, what will happen to the animals currently in the system? What will happen to the people depending on that food system if changes fail? What will happen if the country as a whole stumbles and someone attacks us while we’re weak? There’s a significant initial investment involved in getting this project off the ground. How will it be paid for?
These are big questions, and while we have answers to many of them in theory, putting them into practice is scary.
Money from fossil fuels
It doesn’t help that politicians get much of their campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. In order to run for government, they need that $42,373,5616 spent by the fossil fuel industry on campaign contributions to make the signs you post in your yard.
The fossil fuel industry spends millions every year helping the same politicians that are in charge of climate change policy get into congress. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that closing down their business will mean getting cut off from the cash flow.
The people may be the ones who vote politicians into office, but they can only do so if they’ve heard of them before, which makes the position of aspiring government officials difficult.
From the 1970s up until the 1990s, democrats and republicans had more or less the same views on the environment.7 After all, no matter who you are or how you view the world, chances are you don’t want to drink water with a turd floating in it. The two major parties worked together to bring clean air and clean water acts into law, and the results were very beneficial for the United States.
In fact, George H.W. Bush, a Republican president, got an “Environmental Hero” award for his work on climate change8, and another Republican president, Ronald Reagan, was responsible for putting in place laws to protect our ozone layer9–so what happened? Why did conservatives suddenly start doubting climate change they previously believed in?
The answer may once again be linked to the coal and fossil fuel industries. The coal industry has been aware of human caused climate change since as early as 1966,10 and the fossil fuel industry has known about human caused climate change for about the same amount of time.11
Their response was to begin spreading misinformation. In particular Exxon Mobile pioneered research in climate change, and then began funding front organizations such as the Global Climate Coalition to deny the information they themselves had discovered.12
This is not unlike the tobacco industry, which spent millions of dollars in advertising trying to deny claims that smoking was unhealthy, or that it caused lung cancer.13 Just as the tobacco industry was eventually found out however, Exxon Mobile’s misinformation was also discovered.
Today, most people believe that climate change is happening, and humans have caused it. Republicans are beginning to understand this and are offering their own approach to handling the situation—planting large amounts of trees to try and help sequester carbon.
Where is the money going to come from?
Perhaps the biggest current divide between major political parties is a financial one. Where is the money going to come from in order to pay for any kind of climate action?
This is a valid question. Right now the US deficit is nearly $1 trillion. Most of the plans put forward to decarbonize the USA rapidly cost even more than that–an estimated $4.5 trillion.14
Although the majority of Americans agree that rapid decarbonization is essential, they also don’t really want to be the ones to front the bill. Even with steep taxes and complete unity, finding $4.5 trillion dollars would prove extremely difficult. What ever action that is taken has to be affordable.
So what’s next?
As recently as November 2019, Republicans and Democrats in the United States have shown willingness to work together on climate change. They came together and found a solution that was satisfying to both parties—a carbon tax that could slash the carbon footprint in the USA by as much as 40%.15 The idea is to charge companies for every tonne of carbon they emit, encouraging them to emit less, while turning around and giving the money back to the people without spending it, encouraging people to make green choices.
This idea would not expand the overhead of the government, which Republicans like. America would reduce its carbon footprint, and also be able to do so in a natural way, which Democrats like. This bill is backed by science, and it has the potential to change the world.
This bill is called the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 201916, and it has a long way to go before it becomes law. This could be the next step for climate change, but it is by no means the only option.
States, cities, businesses and individuals have begun to make changes on their own to decarbonize and make the world a better place. You can too. Whether it is as simple as writing your senator with your concerns on climate change, or as big as striving for a climate-neutral life, even small choices add up.
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