Americans Are Warming to the Reality of Climate Change, But What Will Our Elected Officials Do About It?

Last week, researchers at Yale University released a new, interactive map that breaks down what Americans really think about climate change, and the answers may surprise some readers. Overall, 63 percent of Americans acknowledge that global warming is a reality, though less than half (48 percent) believe that these changes in our atmosphere are due to human activity. Even so, a whopping 77 percent of Americans support more research into renewable forms of energy and 63 percent want to see strict regulations on the carbon dioxide output of coal-fired plants.

While these findings are certainly encouraging, as they indicate that the majority of Americans recognize climate change as a fact and support increased investigation into renewable energy options, they don’t tell the whole story. As Bloomberg Business reports, the majority of Americans might acknowledge climate change, but the concentrations of these Americans in Congressional districts plays an important role in how elected officials respond to climate change. For instance, the maps from Yale reveal that those Americans who realize that global warming is caused by human activity are concentrated in a smaller number of Congressional districts, while those who claim that they do not know what is causing climate change or who erroneously believe that humans have no part in climate change cover a larger area of the country. This uneven geographic distribution allows for the election of government officials, such as Florida Governor Rick “I’m not a scientist” Scott, who either deny that climate change is happening or who acknowledge it but view it as a trivial matter.

Fueling much of the perceived ambiguity around global warming, for both the general public and politicians, are campaigns that purposely present climate change as a hypothesis or speculation, not as scientific fact. Prominent Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson have ignored the consensus of the scientific community, which confirms that climate change is real and that it is caused by humans, and have muddled the public conversation surrounding the ways in which our environment is altering. As Edward L. Rubin’s Salon article indicates, global warming and its potentially disastrous effects on human life undermine notions of an all-powerful God who will benevolently protect people, especially Americans, from harm.

Confusion surrounding climate change is also reinforced by businesses that depend on nonrenewable energy sources for their profits, though some companies are backing down on this position. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that drafts and promotes pro-business legislation, has recently attempted to distance itself from the label of “climate change denier.” However, while ALEC and its members might acknowledge the reality of global warming, there’s reason to be skeptical that they might attempt to remedy it, as indicated by a February 24 press release from the organization that criticizes the EPA for its proposed Clean Power Plan that mandates a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired power plants by 2030.And it’s doubtful that big oil companies and others in the energy industry will give up their campaigns to attempt to convince the public and legislators that global warming is not settled science.

While our government has, overall, been far too slow to take action on climate change, there is some progress being made. Last week, President Obama announced a new initiative that will investigate the negative health effects caused by the increasing temperature of the earth, such as asthma and airborne diseases. Perhaps, by framing the conversation about global warming as a public health concern and not just as an energy crisis, the Obama administration may be able to convince those Americans who are still uncertain about climate change that it is indeed real and it is indeed affecting them.

More Americans need to be convinced of the reality of global warming and its cause, but those of us who are concerned about our climate also need to mobilize the majority who do acknowledge that global warming is real. The majority of Americans recognize climate change and they support efforts to mitigate it, such as research into alternative energy sources and reductions in carbon emissions. However, these Americans must band together to convince their elected officials to take a stand for our environment against the lobbyists on the Christian right and in big business who encourage them to do otherwise. Putting humanists, with our grounding in science and reason, at the forefront of this fight makes sense. After all, we know that this is the only life and the only earth that we have.