A semi-optimistic look at our changing attitudes toward climate change
Republicans, Democrats, and West Virginians
American opinion on climate change is shifting
I think that the United States is slowly changing attitudes on climate change. It isn't happening rapidly but I believe there are some subtle changes occurring.
Polls, though still showing partisan differences, demonstrate increasing support for action for climate change in both political parties. Google "polls on climate change" and examine the results. While the results may vary on a number of questions (I would think that question wording and margin of error would account for most of the percentage differences), it's not hard to reach the conclusion that there is a growing consensus for the belief that climate change is happening.
For example, Tuesday's The Hill cites a new poll from Monmouth University that shows that 70% of Americans believe that the climate is changing and:
“The polling shows that Americans believe we are all very much in this together,” MacDonald said. “Nearly two thirds of all respondents and three quarters of younger adults want action from our leaders, even if some in Congress don’t believe there’s a problem.”
Along the same lines, a recent Reuters poll suggests that this is true even among Republicans:
A majority of U.S. Republicans who had heard of the international climate deal in Paris said they support working with other countries to curb global warming and were willing to take steps to do so, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday. . . .
The importance of supporting actual change appears to be clearly connected to party lines -- Republicans see other issues (terrorism and immigration) as more important but even so, are more supportive of change than their presidential candidates. As the Reuters poll concluded:
Republicans were less enthusiastic about fighting climate change than Democrats, but more willing to address it than the party's presidential candidates. Ninety-one percent of Democrats approve of the United States taking action.
And while the Republican enthusiasm for change is not as strong as it is among Democrats, I think that you can see subtle changes in emphasis that reflect at least some Republican awareness of the changing attitudes of its constituents. If you watched the Democratic debates you clearly saw that the party's candidates believe that doing something about climate change is important -- all three candidates link it to national security. And while the Republicans have criticized that position with fear-mongering on terrorism and immigration, they've, for the most part, ignored rather attacked the climate change issue. The Republican candidates' "I'm not a scientist" dodge and their lack of attention to the issue suggests that they don't want to deal with the it -- they likely realize that you aren't going to win a general election by being hardcore against climate change (at least out loud). Here's Politico discussing the December Republican debate:
The one mention of the Paris talks came when John Kasich mocked the agreement, which he cast as a distraction from the global fight against terrorism.
And apart from Kasich mentioning that his grandfather was a coal miner in the first debate, the word "coal" wasn't even spoken until the Republican's fourth debate when its connection to jobs was briefly debated.
Speaking of debates, if you watch closely I think you'll notice that the Republican presidential candidates are not using the "war on coal" rhetoric that permeates so much of recent West Virginia and Kentucky politics preferring instead nativist scare tactics on immigration and war-mongering on foreign policy. For the Republican presidential candidates, those fear issues work better than complex ones like energy policy and besides, they do have to be careful -- carbon-based industries contribute heavily to Republican candidates. (See here for example.)
What about West Virginia?
But are opinions changing in West Virginia? It's only been a year since the Capito/Tennant senatorial race in which both candidates fought to see which candidate could out-coal the other in promising to somehow stop the EPA and return West Virginia back to the late-1940s before mechanization and market forces began to take its toll on coal jobs. Capito won because Tennant couldn't out-Capito Capito on the issue. It's a year later and I think that attitudes are starting to change on coal and climate change. Among the interesting poll results is one that I first saw referenced in Think Progress after the EPA's Clean Power Plan was announced:
26 Attorneys General Are Suing The EPA. The Public Only Agrees With Them In 3 States
Here are the first two paragraphs:
The Clean Power Plan, an EPA rule which limits carbon emissions from power plants, is being challenged by 26 states across the country — even though more than 60 percent of Americans in those states support the rule, according to new data.
Only three states — North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming — had less than 50 percent support for setting “strict CO2 limits on existing coal-fired power plants,” according to Yale University found in a poll released Tuesday.
Obviously West Virginia was one of the three states and of course Attorney General Morissey was leading the charge. The research cited by Think Progress comes from The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication (here). (Note - the Yale site has an excellent interactive map which breaks the poll questions down by states and if you want to dig deeper, by congressional districts and by counties.) What surprised me were some of the poll's results for West Virginia:
There are a lot of good questions and interesting results. Okay, we trail the national average in every question yet I'm optimistic that West Virginians are beginning to change their attitude on this issue. Why?
Given our history with coal, we are not that far behind the national averages on most questions. When I saw the questions I assumed that West Virginia would be 15 to 20 percentage points away from the national averages but on some of the questions we're just a stone's throw away from the national average. (Only on the CO2/coal-fired plants question is there a significant divergence.) Look again at "regulate CO2 as pollutant" for instance. Not only is there a majority at all levels that agrees that we should regulate CO2, the totals are not significantly behind the rest of the country.
The poll results also suggest that locally we have, for the most part, overcome the dominant medium for local news on most of these issues. (The exception may be the CO2/coal fired plants question where the locals' "war on affordable electricity" may have influenced the results.) If you live in the northern panhandle of West Virginia your only local newspaper choice is an Ogden newspaper. Compounding that, most other local news outlets depend upon them for at least some of their local news information. (Their importance in the flow of local news cannot be underestimated.) As this blog has documented, these "newspapers" lie, ignore or cherry-pick information, use biased sources, often give only the coal owner point-of-view, and more generally, deliberately distort what is happening on most news related to climate change. Yet, as the numbers suggest, somehow we find other ways to become informed on this issue. For instance, take alternative energy sources for which we regularly get editorials and/or Myer columns attacking them. The poll statement reads "fund research into renewable energy sources" and 76% of those polled in Ohio County agree. In spite of our "newspapers," we are enough aware of the potential of renewable energy sources to call for more research. (And even here, things may be changing -- this morning's Intelligencer carried what looks like a rewritten press release from Appalachian Power touting their use of windmills for power generation. My memory may be selective or fading but this is the first time I can recall reading a positive article on an alternative energy source.)
Next week the West Virginia legislature will begin its work and here is where my optimism ends. Instead of beginning to plan for a future in which coal will play an increasingly diminished role, our legislature will try to magically return us to the past when coal was king. Does it matter that this formerly-royal resource has become more and more expensive to extract, been pummeled by cheaper alternatives in the marketplace, and faces a growing consensus from those outside and inside the state that burning it is a major cause of climate change? No -- for the Republicans, it will be more of the same. And what about the Democrats? Can't they read the same polls that I'm reading or are they so afraid that they're incapable of saying "here's an idea -- why don't we . . . ." and then say something that might suggests an alternative vision for the state or, at the least, acknowledge that we can't go back to the 1950s?