Washington - As both Washington and the international community come gradually closer to taking substantive action on climate change at a high-level conference in Copenhagen, a side effect of this progress has been a parallel increase in the intensity of campaigns opposing such action – which may be a factor in the slight dip in the U.S. public's concern about climate change.
The number of U.S. respondents who believe greenhouse gas emissions will lead to global warming dropped from 71 to 51 percent between 2007 and 2009, according to a poll released by Harris Interactive Wednesday. This drop is deeper, though similar, to the results of other polls released in the past several weeks.
Despite the decrease, a majority of the U.S. public still remains staunchly behind efforts to combat climate change. A poll released Thursday by WorldPublicOpinion.org, and commissioned by the World Bank, found a majority in the U.S. – and 13 of the other 14 countries surveyed - are willing to pay more for energy and other products as part of this effort.
A large reason for the decline that recent U.S. polls have found in the size of this majority may be the increasing political polarisation that has swept Washington since last fall's presidential campaign, and particularly the shift further right by many Republicans.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released last week found the percentage of Republicans that believe climate change is happening has decreased from 76 to 54 percent over the last three-and-a-half years, while the percentage of the general U.S. population that believes it is happening merely dipped from 80 to 72 percent.
The Pew Research Center for People & the Press likewise found, in October, that the number of Republicans who believe there is "solid evidence" has halved from 62 to 35 percent since 2007.
Legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was not even a remote possibility with President George W. Bush in office – nor with the Republican-controlled Congress of much of the past two decades. But when President Barack Obama entered the White House with substantial Democratic majorities in both houses, climate change action became a real possibility in the U.S.
While some rejoiced, a large number of businesses and interest groups seem to have felt the time was right to panic. Over 460 business and interest groups began lobbying Congress on climate change in the 12 weeks prior to the House passing their version of climate legislation in June, according to analysis of lobbying records by the Center for Public Integrity.
This means the number of companies and organisations lobbying on climate issues jumped from 760 companies at the end of 2008 to 1,150 in June, they say.
This number includes a variety of interests, but 200 of the 460 were manufacturers and their advocacy groups and another 130 were power companies and utilities. The amounts spent on lobbying are not public information, but it is clear there has been a surge in new advocacy groups and campaigns in the past year.
The American Petroleum Institute-led coalition Energy Citizens, for example, was launched in August and, in October, unveiled a seven-figure ad campaign in states whose senators are thought to be swing votes on climate legislation.
New pro-legislation groups, like the environmental-labour coalition Blue-Green Alliance, have formed as well, but these are seen as largely arising to counter the newly-energised opposition effort. It is also true that environmental groups and other advocates of climate action have been lobbying for climate action for years, long before domestic action was a realistic possibility.
While it may be a factor, it is doubtful whether the decrease in the U.S. public's belief in climate change is completely attributable to an increase in opposition to climate legislation, cautions the Natural Resource Defense Council's Michael Ono.
He concedes though that "the closer we get to action the harder the opposition is going to work to stop it" and that this has been the case so far as regards the actions that have been taken under the Obama administration.
The main point he takes from the polls, though, is that "despite the efforts of the opposition, the majority of Americans still want climate action".
Global Support Holding Strong
The Word Bank-commissioned poll shows this U.S. majority joining up with majorities in a range of countries. In addition to the majority of U.S. consumers, a majority in Japan, France, India, Mexico and Kenya – among others – would all be willing to pay a monthly amount equal to one percent to one-half of a percent of their country's GDP per capita.
Russia was the lone country where the majority opposed this financial climate action, while Vietnam and China had, by far, the largest majorities in favor. Bangladesh's was third.
Like the World Bank poll, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released at the end of October also found more U.S. respondents in favour of the possibility of paying more in exchange for lower greenhouse gas emissions – 48 versus 43 percent.
Somewhat puzzling at first glance in the Bank's poll, though, are the numbers on whether respondents feel their country should contribute to efforts to "help poor countries deal with climate-induced changes".
Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh are the most eager to help – with 98, 96 and 93 percent feeling their country should help. Bangladesh is considered one of the countries most exposed to the dangers brought by climate change, especially rising sea levels.
The poll's authors offer an interpretation: "Especially noteworthy was the high level of public support in less developed countries to act in solidarity, aiding other countries that are not unlike themselves."
Only 54 percent of U.S. respondents believe their country should contribute to these international efforts to help climate change-affected poor countries, surpassed only by Russia's 50 percent.
In terms of U.S. support of climate action and the science and projections underlying it, a rather whopping 14 percent of the U.S. population believes climate change will never "harm people substantially". The next closest country was Japan, at four percent.
In contrast, an EU survey released Wednesday found Europeans view climate change as the world's second most pressing concern, after it was replaced briefly by the economic recession in last year's poll.