Public Belief in Causes and Effects of Climate Change Rises

Is the public coming around to believe in the causes and effects of climate change again? Two recent polls from Stanford University’s Woods Institute and Yale and George Mason Universities show perhaps so. What the polls also show, though, is a fundamental hang up in how to reduce the causes and effects of climate change.

In both polls, majorities of Americans believe the Earth is warming and that human activities are the cause. Each poll also showed that 76% of Americans favor limitations of greenhouse gases. Tellingly, though, in the Stanford poll, 78% of respondents opposed taxes to reduce electricity consumption and 72% opposed a gasoline tax. Instead, tax breaks on fuel efficient vehicles and energy efficient appliances and buildings were the preferred method for reducing the effects of climate change.

This belies a culture of looking for a supply side way out. While energy efficiency will go some of the ways towards reducing the causes, and thus, the effects of climate change, there are other factors that need to be considered when determining how to deal with climate change such as personal travel patterns and the food we eat.

Paying more for a hamburger because of the methane emissions involved in raising livestock might not please many Americans. However, it’s near impossible to raise a greenhouse gas neutral cow. In other words, it’s an issue that can’t be solved completely by supple side activity. Influencing the demand side by ending subsidies for raising cattle and possibly even a tax might be the best way to curb those emissions.

Energy efficiency also doesn’t mean carbon neutrality. As long as we continue to burn carbon, the effects of climate change will continue to be amplified. What ultimately puts carbon in the atmosphere is driven by the choices we make on a daily basis: ride a bike or drive to work, buy the steak or the tofu (not that tofu is innocuous by any means), turn the heat on to 66 or 70 degrees, and so on.

Everyone makes decisions that contribute to climate change on a daily basis (even your humble Justmeans climate change writers). This is by no means an indictment of making those choices. Rather, it’s a sign we need to take a real look at them and decide what’s really important.

Taking responsibility for those decisions and paying the price accordingly seems to be the most fair policy prescription. Tax breaks for energy efficient appliances will certainly play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Positive reinforcement is by no means a bad thing. However, we need to also analyze our behaviors that will contribute to global warming even if we buy an Energy Star dishwasher and possibly accept a higher individual cost for doing them.

On the bright side, a growing public support for doing something to deal with climate change means that perhaps our society is finally starting to prepare to take those extra steps. There isn’t one way to solve a Rubik’s cube nor is there one way to solve climate change. The causes and effects of climate change don't happen in vacuum. Neither can the solutions.

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