Americans Don't Care About Climate Change—And That's OK

The deniers may be winning the battle for Americans’ hearts and minds, but they’ve lost the true war.

“Whatever happened to global warming?” wonders Elisabeth Rosenthal in this week’s New York Times Sunday Review. Apparently Americans don't regard climate change as a pressing issue anymore. In 2006, 79 percent of us believed that the planet is warming. Today it’s just 59 percent. Meanwhile, An Inconvenient Truth has been largely forgotten, and Rick Perry insists the science "is still not settled."

Nobody is sure exactly why Americans have stopped caring. Rosenthal cites the threat climate action poses to our energy-extravagant lifestyles, the power of the fossil-fuel lobby, and concerns about the economy. Grist writer Dave Roberts places the blame squarely on congressional Republicans. Center for American Progress senior fellow Joe Romm says it’s the media’s fault for ignoring the issue.

Whatever the cause, it’s frightening that people can’t seem to see the facts. Climate change is the most important problem the world faces, representing the “one true existential threat to our planet,” in the words of United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon. It threatens the survival of our species (and the other ones too). Under the worst-case scenario, we lose the polar ice caps, the glaciers, and the coral reefs; suffer widespread food shortages; and experience ever-increasing extreme weather events.

But while there’s no excuse for people to deny the dangers of climate change, it’s important to keep in mind that public opinion on the subject matters less and less. The deniers may be winning the battle for Americans’ hearts and minds, but they’ve lost the true war: The market is tipping in favor of renewable energy, leaving them behind.

The price of fossil fuel energy has been rising for the last decade, and every year those fuels get even more expensive to extract. Meanwhile, the price of solar power has fallen steadily since the 1970s, and manufacturing capacity for solar panels has quadrupled in the last three years alone. The inexorable result is that electricity generated from solar plants will soon become as cheap as electricity generated by gas and coal power plants, a moment known as “grid parity.”

Legislation can hasten or delay that moment’s arrival somewhat, but it’s just around the corner regardless. In 2009, the nonprofit Prometheus Institute predicted America would hit grid parity in 2015. A year later, Pike Research estimated that, in many markets, it’d happen in 2013. In some places—including California, Japan, and Spain—solar is already cheaper than peak electricity prices, despite the much larger subsidies that fossil fuels enjoy. This march toward grid parity has been a steady trend over several decades, despite varying levels of political support for renewable energy and consistently high subsidies for fossil fuels.

Whether you believe in climate change or not, the electricity you use to power your home will increasingly come from solar panels. The conversion is starting with solar replacing the more expensive gas plants that turn on during peak summertime demand. Within a few years, solar could start to replace the 24/7 “base load” plants. Eventually, it will be cheaper for everyone to buy rooftop solar panels than pay for energy from the grid, providing a pretty good incentive even for climate change deniers to choose the renewable option.

After our homes, cars constitute the next-largest energy demand, and, admittedly, progress toward sustainable options is moving more slowly in that arena: Almost all of our cars will continue to run on gas for the foreseeable future. But it isn’t a skeptical public that’s holding us back, it’s supply. Dealers can’t keep up with demand on the Toyota Prius or the Nissan Leaf.When gas hit $4 a gallon for the first time in 2008, all of a sudden hybrids weren’t just for quixotic treehuggers. And gas prices are not coming down, meaning the economic pressure to drive less or buy an electric car will continue to increase.

It’s not that policies don’t matter. If Congress had scrapped fossil fuel subsidies years ago, we would have done far less damage to the planet. If a Republican president scraps the Environmental Protection Agency (as most of the candidates have pledged to do), or eliminates rebates for electric cars, progress on innovative new initiatives will be delayed. So please, by all means, pressure your representatives.

But the full force of the free market is lining up behind renewable energy without the government’s help. Business incubators focused on solar and clean tech are springing up. Annual investment in clean tech in North America, Europe, Israel, India, and China grew from about $500 million in 2001 to more than $8.4 billion in 2008.

It’s deeply disturbing that more Americans don’t believe in climate change—our broad rejection of science is a national embarrassment. But thankfully, there are larger forces at work than political posturing. Once clean energy becomes the cheaper option, even skeptics will recognize a deal. Let’s just hope we haven’t done too much damage already.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Vassil Tzvetanov

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

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