The “Big Tent” of People Who Want Climate Action Just Keeps Getting Bigger

How much longer can politicians pretend that it’s a divisive issue?

May 24, 2019
A young protester at the Youth Climate Strike in New York

Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

You’re not just imagining it. The national mood really is shifting on climate change.

For years, environmentalists have been wondering when it would finally sink in: When would the American people set aside their cultural and political differences, accept the scientific reality of the climate crisis, and collectively roll up their sleeves and do something about it? We’re not quite there yet. But there’s ample reason to believe that we’re moving toward a new, and necessary, consensus.

What can’t be disputed is that, with respect to climate action, the Overton window has moved. What is the Overton window, you ask? It’s a conceptual tool used by sociologists and political scientists to indicate which ideas are—and aren’t—considered acceptable in our public political discourse. When a particular policy solution to a vexing problem is thought to be beyond the realm of political tenability, that solution is said to exist outside the Overton window. But every now and then the window shifts, reflecting a significant change in the public mood. When that happens, what may have previously been characterized as unthinkable or radical becomes politically plausible. In recent years, for instance, the Overton window has shifted on issues ranging from marriage equality to the idea of a nominally socialist president.

And now we’re seeing yet another shift, this time around the issue of climate action. Why? Maybe it was the sight of hundreds of thousands of young people from all over the world in March, passionately demanding such action from their leaders. Maybe it’s the way that the Green New Deal has entered our public discourse and stayed there—sparking plenty of arguments, to be sure, but also reminding people that moving to a renewable energy economy has the potential to create millions of jobs even as it slashes greenhouse gas emissions. Or maybe it’s just the mounting evidence of climate change’s impact on our environment and our lives: the more intense storm surges and floods, the more protracted and devastating droughts, the eroding shorelines, the longer and more destructive wildfire seasons, and the ever-disappearing wildlife.

Whatever the catalyst, our national mood is showing signs of change, as is our national political conversation. Fewer and fewer policymakers are now comfortable with being branded as a climate denier, a label that many of them once wore with perverse pride. And as a newly published report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication confirms, that’s because their constituents are increasingly coming together across party lines to acknowledge the climate crisis and demand solutions. The combined energies of Americans of all stripes are causing the Overton window to widen—making it not only easier to imagine and discuss policy remedies but harder for politicians to ignore the issue any longer.

The Yale study, rather prosaically titled “Politics and Global Warming, April 2019,” reflects the opinion of more than 1,000 registered voters who self-identify as Republicans, Democrats, and independents. Among its conclusions:

  • Large majorities of registered voters from across the political spectrum support classifying and regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant (74 percent), using legal measures to enforce compliance with pollution regulations (82 percent), and requiring companies to pay a tax on their carbon emissions (72 percent).
  • Similarly, sizable majorities support funding more research into renewable energy sources such as wind and solar (86 percent) and providing tax rebates to purchasers of energy-efficient vehicles and/or solar panels (84 percent).
  • Somewhat smaller majorities also support a revenue-neutral carbon tax (67 percent) and the Clean Power Plan (69 percent). Interestingly, fully half of the Republicans surveyed expressed their support for this carbon-cutting plan, instituted by President Obama in 2015 and targeted for a rollback by President Trump last year.
  • More than three-quarters of all registered voters (77 percent) want our schools to be teaching children about the causes and consequences of global warming and potential solutions to the problem.

These are encouraging numbers, especially when we look at the notable rise in certain percentages over the past few years. Since 2016, support for increased research into renewables has risen by two percentage points, and support for tax rebates to purchasers of energy-efficient vehicles and solar panels has risen by three points. Almost certainly related to these increases is the four-point rise in the percentage of Americans who say they’re worried about global warming: from 57 percent three years ago to 61 percent this year.

What do these upswings, however modest they may appear to be, mean? First, they tell us that two of the climate movement’s biggest and most important messages are finally breaking through and changing minds. One is that renewables and energy efficiency represent the future—not just the future of energy production but the future of job creation, clean air and water, and reduced emissions. The other message, of course, is that we have plenty of reason to be concerned about the speed and dedication with which we move toward replacing our fossil fuel–based energy economy with something that’s far cleaner.

If these percentages continue to rise at these rates, then pretty soon—I’d predict within the next two years—more than two-thirds of registered voters will be telling Yale’s pollsters that they’re worried about the climate crisis, and 90 percent will say that they support increasing funding for renewable energy research and infrastructure. Other percentages will rise accordingly. By that point, the Overton window will have shifted so much that policymakers in both parties will look ridiculously out of touch with public sentiment if they endorse anything other than immediate, substantive climate action.

Until then, environmentalists should feel encouraged by polls like this one. They show that in the ongoing battle for hearts and minds, our strategy—tell the truth, show the science, and never give up—is working.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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