Hannah MillerAt three climate-change events I’ve been to during the last month, we learned about the greenhouse effect. Yep – the greenhouse effect.  A little diagram of the sun’s rays bouncing off the earth’s surface and against the carbon dioxide. One of these events was a roomful of divestment activists, and the other, the assembled architects of a multi-year Climate Action Plan. Did we really need a refresher on the greenhouse effect?

Some of the assumptions that the climate movement should dispense with quickly are ideas that ‘most Americans’ don’t already know what climate change is, or don’t understand it, or don’t care. I have been in event after event where a climate activist raises a tentative hand and says, “how do we make people understand the science?”

This characterization of climate-change activists as a misunderstood pariah class may have been true 20 years ago, but the truth is – and this is good news, so get ready – Americans in general are on the same page as the climate movement. We have won the educational war, to an extent we don’t even realize.

And we need to start from the assumption that the American people are already in support of what we are doing, and in fact, are waiting for leadership on what can be done about it.

In poll after poll over the last two years, Americans have told surveyers that they:

  • Believe climate change is happening/real – between 61 and 70 percent, depending on the poll
  • Think government and corporations should be doing more or much more to combat climate change – 53-57 percent, and 67 percent, respectively (Yale/George Mason)
  • Will pay more for energy to stop climate change – 62 percent (Bloomberg)
  • And so on.

If this were a candidate campaign, climate change activists would be winning by a landslide.

People think that deniers are a large part of the population because there are so many of them paid to talk on television, but their line is vastly overrepresented compared to the population. There may be 50 percent denier parity on talk shows, but this summer’s NYT poll found that only 19 percent of Republicans say climate change doesn’t exist.

This is borne out elsewhere, in polls showing deniers usually at 30 percent at the very maximum, depending on how questions are phrased.

 What’s really astonishing, and very hopeful, is the fact that huge numbers of Americans support renewable energy – even if they won’t tell the same pollster that they think climate change is real. Support for renewable energy is often ten points higher than actual climate change concern. Here’s a look at the last poll from Yale/George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication.

  • 66 percent of survey respondents say global warming is happening, and 16 percent say it’s not.
  • 75 percent favor regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant
  • 77 percent favor funding solar and wind research
  • 67 percent favor limiting carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired plants.

… This leads to the conclusion that people on the fence are going to support renewable energy without any climate change language or buy-in.

Another set of long-held myths have to do with ethnicity and race. In general, Americans who are non-white are MORE likely to be concerned about climate change, want action to be taken, and so on – the opposite of what a lot of white environmentalists assume. 

  • 86 percent of African Americans and 76 percent of Latinos said the President should “take significant steps to reduce climate change”, compared to 60 percent of white respondents. – 2013 NCLV poll
  • Asian Americans are the most likely to believe that global warming is caused by human activity, at 69.2 percent, then 67.3% of African Americans. By comparison, 56.7% of white respondents said that global warming is caused by human activity. – 2012, MPO

Also untrue is the assumption that Americans only cares about what’s going on in their backyards, and climate change is too far away. It is true that environmental NIMBY fights are very passionate, but it’s just foolish to imagine that Americans don’t connect the dots between the Middle East and oil, or that we don’t pay attention to Sudan, or Syria, or the Fukushima disaster. Americans should not be underestimated. We care very deeply about suffering in other places, giving billions to international charities.

The question we should be asking is, not how do we beat the deniers in a debate, but how fast can we get to a 100-percent-renewable economy, and what do we need to do that? (And yes, that includes gas heating.) Americans want to do something about climate change, but so many of us live our daily lives in a forced march through suburban streets to strip malls – we didn’t choose this insane existence, and the idea of plowing it all up and returning it to prairie definitely seems out of the range of our political system. All this frustrated environmentalism finds its expression through individual choice rather than collective action: the greenwashing that Walmart finds profitable to offer. But individual action is far from enough to change the world. 

As an organizer, I look at polls as a baseline sentiment. They aren’t an actual expression of action, just a test of the soil.  This is fertile ground: there is universal knowledge of the problem, and decades of oil spills and car-related air pollution that predate talk of global warming.

And there is no lack of urgency:  13 percent of the 2014 Yale survey respondents said that they would be willing to participate in non-violent civil disobedience for climate change. This is a huge and unlikely number for any cause. In this case, this meant over a hundred Americans, called on the phone, told a  pollster that they would be willing to go to jail for climate change.

What I would like to see us do next is to communicate that the transition to renewable energy can be a very powerful anti-poverty and economic development initiative, for communities all over Colorado and the country. The outdated assumption about the expense of renewable energy is no longer true, and now that the cost of installation is coming down, there’s an opportunity to do tremendous good with this transition.

The poorer you are, the greater percentage of your income is spent on fuel, heating, and electricity. Renewable energy, which is virtually free after the costs of installation, could be a huge help to a lot of people struggling to make it. In Colorado alone, more than 90,000 families qualify for LEAP, the low-income heat assistance program. (Families qualify with a maximum of $2,980/month for a family of four.) In some households in Colorado, the heating bills amounts for 16 percent of your income. What if we used renewables, and those bills disappeared?

For the sake of comparison to say, a tax cut: there is no way local or state government could cut individual taxes by 16 percent without massive cutbacks. Renewable energy, long term, could reduce household expenses without having to make those cuts. (“Found money,” as it’s called.) A vision of a renewable future that solves for America’s climate crisis and for our nation’s growing income inequality would make a lot of sense. We should prioritize those most in need in our programming, and in what we ask for. It would add even more meaning to what we are already doing.