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There’s No Wake-Up Moment on Climate in America

Even as disasters strike daily, politics will keep obstructing solutions.

By , an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Kayakers on a flooded interstate in Philadelphia
Kayakers paddle down a portion of Interstate 676 after flooding from heavy rains from Hurricane Ida in Philadelphia on Sept. 2. Branden Eastwood/AFP via Getty Images

Extreme weather events driven by climate change are the new, terrifying normal. In the United States alone, heat wave seasons are more than three times as long as they were during the 1960s, and the number of weather-related disasters causing more than a billion dollars in damages (adjusted for inflation) has soared. Once-rare crises have become quotidian. A freak winter storm took down Texas’s electrical grid. Drought contributed to one of California’s worst fire seasons. Hurricane Ida killed more people in the New York City metropolitan area than in Louisiana, where it made landfall. Floods supposed to happen once every hundred years are now expected to happen every 30.

In a rational world, this would mean that we are about to break the feverish opposition to dealing with the climate change emergency long predicted by scientists’ models. Surely now is the time for a come-to-Gaia moment when we put aside our differences and act.

But, as the current enthusiasm for expensive horse dewormer over free vaccines among part of the U.S. population shows, the United States is not a rational country. Nor is the world a rational place. Far from it. Facts alone are insufficient conditions for action.

Extreme weather events driven by climate change are the new, terrifying normal. In the United States alone, heat wave seasons are more than three times as long as they were during the 1960s, and the number of weather-related disasters causing more than a billion dollars in damages (adjusted for inflation) has soared. Once-rare crises have become quotidian. A freak winter storm took down Texas’s electrical grid. Drought contributed to one of California’s worst fire seasons. Hurricane Ida killed more people in the New York City metropolitan area than in Louisiana, where it made landfall. Floods supposed to happen once every hundred years are now expected to happen every 30.

In a rational world, this would mean that we are about to break the feverish opposition to dealing with the climate change emergency long predicted by scientists’ models. Surely now is the time for a come-to-Gaia moment when we put aside our differences and act.

But, as the current enthusiasm for expensive horse dewormer over free vaccines among part of the U.S. population shows, the United States is not a rational country. Nor is the world a rational place. Far from it. Facts alone are insufficient conditions for action.

Climate nihilism is probably unwarranted, but climate pessimism isn’t. The politics of the response to the COVID-19 disaster demonstrate that climate action in the United States and internationally will be extremely hard to achieve. The battle over policies like vaccine mandates has merely previewed the coming decades’ war over climate mandates.

Washington wonks love to describe complex problems as requiring a “whole-of-government” solution. By that, they mean that a problem is supposedly so wicked—in the technical sense, meaning intertangled and extremely difficult to solve—that no single official or agency, or even a small group of them, will be able to handle it alone.

When officials and think tankers throw such labels around, they mean to invoke something like a wartime spirit, summoning cohesion from chaos. When the World Health Organization optimistically called for a “whole of society ” approach to pandemic readiness in 2009, the organization similarly meant to both diagnose the scale of the problem and summon the solution into being: “a concerted and collaborative effort by different various government ministries, businesses and civil society to … mitigate impacts on the economy and the functioning of society.” This was the vision emblazoned in rankings that confidently stated the United States was the best-prepared country in the world for pandemic response.

Seamless collaboration makes for an appealing slogan but a poor theory of politics. Whole-of-government approaches rarely perform well due to the complexities of coordinating agencies with diverse procedures and conflicting interests. The real-world whole-of-society response to COVID-19 in the United States and many other countries (albeit not all of them) similarly ran aground.

Even though much of society even in countries like the United States complied with measures from masking to vaccination, many elements of society not only failed to cooperate but actively impeded cooperation. A whole-of-society approach premised on voluntary coordination, it turned out, was a partial solution at best.

This holds true not just in the United States, with its widely publicized resistance to such sensible tools of civilized society as vaccine mandates, but at a global scale as well. International initiatives aimed to guarantee equitable production and distribution of vaccines, but COVAX has failed to deliver on those promises. Rich countries (or those with access to manufacturing capabilities) have prioritized their own needs over those of the poorest countries. Some projections put the date by which the globe will be fully vaccinated at 2023. A great many Americans will receive their third booster shots before many Africans receive their first ones.

The scope of the climate challenge requires a whole-of-planet approach, meaning that the scope for misunderstanding, lack of coordination, and conflict will run all the way from the United Nations to local governments. That the scale of the stakes is even greater than that of the pandemic might seem to make collaboration easier. Yet there is no clear link between a challenge’s scale and willingness to cooperate—especially when the benefits and costs of policies fall unevenly, as they always will.

Wars for national survival may be able to overcome such complexities. Yet we have yet to identify a moral equivalent of war that can supply a clear, visible foe against which to organize.

Consider the challenges of mobilizing sustained climate action in the United States. Gallup polls show that Americans now favor protecting the environment over prioritizing economic growth by a margin of only 50 percent to 42 percent, one of the narrowest margins in nearly a decade. Just two years ago, 65 percent favored the environment over 30 percent favoring the economy. Volatile opinions do not make for sustained efforts.

That’s especially true given the gap between Democrats and Republicans on the issue in a Pew Research Center poll from this January. Whereas 59 percent of Democrats said dealing with global climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress, only 14 percent of Republicans agreed. Pew also found that the overwhelming majority of Republicans did not favor the multilateral cooperation that will be necessary to address environmental concerns on a global scale. The same sorts of polarization that have hindered U.S. efforts to address the pandemic will hamstring the country’s ability to face climate change.

Some speculate that democracy’s apparent shortcomings in responding to climate imperatives may justify authoritarian measures. A jolly green strongman certainly beckons as a cheat code to the complexities of securing consent and endlessly refuting anti-scientific claptrap. Yet despite some real climate successes by the Chinese government, it’s not clear that authoritarian models offer a general solution. Restricting speech and freedom of information makes monitoring environmental conditions harder, and officials in such systems face their own bad short-term incentives.

In the United States, it’s easy—and frequently correct—to blame the Republican Party for many of the problems involved. Yet opposition to necessary climate policies extends beyond conservatives—and gets all the more tangled as you drill down into local issues. Even those who think globally don’t always act locally.

Reducing carbon emissions will require transforming energy generation in the United States and elsewhere by switching from coal and natural gas to sources like solar and wind power. Polls show that Americans favor these changes overwhelmingly, with nearly three-quarters favoring more emphasis on producing solar energy and two-thirds favoring more reliance on wind.

Yet both of those numbers have fallen since 2013 as U.S. solar and wind production has grown. More consequentially, communities where solar and wind projects will be sited often oppose such developments. In July, developers abandoned trying to turn a stretch of Nevada desert into what would have been the largest solar power array in the United States after opposition from a broad (and notably inter-ideological) coalition of residents, conservationists, bicyclists, and skydivers. As the project would have contributed up to one-tenth of Nevada’s electrical capacity, that single project’s failure threatens the state’s goal of achieving 50 percent reliance on renewable sources by 2030.

Green backlash threatens the politicians who need to enact climate-friendly policies where it counts the most: at the ballot box. Leah Stokes, a leading scholar of political science and energy policy, found in a 2016 article in the American Journal of Political Science that Ontario voters living near new wind energy infrastructure punished the Liberal provincial government, with vote share for the Liberals decreasing among affected communities by between 4 and 10 percent.

The benefits of energy transitions are global, Stokes emphasizes, but the costs are local. It’s easy to mock all-terrain vehicle riders in Nevada for not wanting their recreational spaces turned into a green power plant. It’s easier to be sympathetic with Ontario residents who reaped some benefits of decarbonization but faced immense costs in the form of a new wind turbine in their backyard.

Similar dilemmas will play out in many policy areas. Making cities denser could substantially improve climate outcomes. Actually doing so will require American politicians to change zoning laws that make dense housing difficult or even illegal to build—a measure deeply unpopular with many homeowners, and especially the deeply unrepresentative set of citizens who show up to public hearings about new development.

In principle, solutions to these problems exist. Politicians could sweeten the climate deal to make costs easier to bear. Stokes and co-authors found evidence in a 2020 article in Environmental Research Letters that Americans might support putting climate policies in packages with other policies, such as minimum wage increases, job guarantees, and affordable housing. Similarly, federal or state governments could preempt local governments and simply require policies enabling new housing (or just build housing themselves).

In practice, these face the same challenges as any whole-of-whatever approach: The incentives facing actors in the short run don’t align well with what’s needed for a fix in the long run. It’s hard to avoid noticing that the sugarcoating of policies that make climate adjustment easier to swallow looks a lot like a Democratic wish list—and, for that reason, would be a poison pill for Republicans. Hopes for vigorous international coordination of climate action ultimately resolve to a need for the United States to play a leading role in cooperation with China, Europe, and other powers—which would be hard to pull off under a second Trump (or first Ron DeSantis) administration, and even hard in a Biden administration with the narrowest of congressional majorities.

Even if those burdens could be overcome, there’d still be the problems of making good on international U.S. pledges by investing in clean energy, new housing starts, and other forms of infrastructure and social programs. The experience of COVID-19 shows that this may be extraordinarily difficult. Many U.S. states and localities won’t even mandate vaccines—a simple solution for a well-defined problem. It’s hard to see how the much heavier lift of uprooting neighborhoods, curbing energy budgets, and sharing other costs will be borne by politicians responsive to an electorate more interested in the short term and immediate costs than in complex, long-term solutions.

The pandemic showed that no amount of getting mugged—or infected—by reality could make U.S. politics work better. Science didn’t win out, and political conflict—between parties and levels of government—hindered efforts to fight the problem, with implications that reached far beyond U.S. borders. Compared with the uncertainties and generational time scales for climate policies, the pandemic was easy mode—one that even came with the kind of technological quick fix (in the form of a vaccine) that’s unlikely to fix the climate.

With little appetite among some key U.S. legislators for even the first steps needed to address environmental issues, what seems likelier is a form of muddling through climate mitigation: occasionally addressing some long-term problems but mostly reacting to the mounting short-term costs of climate inaction. Even the shock of an apocalypse isn’t the one weird trick needed to force action on catastrophic issues.

Paul Musgrave is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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