In sum, public opinion is a big part of why Australia is moving on climate change and the United States isn’t. But institutional differences also play an important part. Health care is unlikely to move through the Congress until the new year, the US economy is still struggling to create jobs, and mid-term elections are moving. These factors, combined with institutional impediments, make it unlikely the United States will take action on climate change any time soon.
That’s the USSC’s Simon Jackman writing on the results of the USSC’s survey on the opinions on climate change of Australians and Americans [PDF]. He wrote that before the events of the past week, which saw the Senate delay and probably reject the Labor Party’s proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, but his point still stands. Australia will almost certainly introduce an ETS, even if it doesn’t get it done before Copenhagen as Kevin Rudd would like; as the USSC survey shows, a majority of Australians believe global warming exists and is caused by humans, and that majority is even more decisive — 80 per cent — where Labor voters are concerned. Rudd has an issue that the public supports him on and the Coalition is tearing itself apart over, and he’s not going to let that go, whether it requires further delay or even a double dissolution.
But Jackman’s pessimism on America is unfortunately convincing. It is true that the American separation between the executive and the legislative branch means its leader lacks the power of a government in the Westminster system to push through a policy agenda. The filibuster and the crawling pace of Congress allow a minority party to determinedly chip away at a majority’s mandate — according to Jackman 57 per cent of Americans believe climate change is real and man-made and only 52% are willing to put force households to pay a cost ($80) to do something about it – and look how much opposition a far more popular proposition like health care reform has faced.
However, his analysis misses one vital component of the American system of government: the Presidential bully pulpit.
As much as the Jackman’s research enunciates the steep challenges faced in getting America to take legislative action on climate change, it also reveals the path ahead for any American leader with climate change solutions on their agenda. Most important is that a thin majority of Americans believe anthropogenic climate change is real, and the biggest portion of deniers are Republicans. A majority of both Democratic and independent voters are convinced by the science. That means that Barack Obama has a naturally supportive base to work with on the issue, even if that base might not like the details of any plan he proposes, get cold feet due to the economic environment, or not be so enthusiastic as to cast votes in support of his environmental efforts. The American public, as guarded and divided as they are, want something to be done. As the USSC’s CEO Geoff Garrett puts it, it’s not yet the case that pushing hard on climate change is politics as well as good policy.
That means if America is to act, it will be because it was led by a President determined to make a change. That Obama is championing action against climate change is a solid step. As Ezra Klein argued, even when Obama’s policy detail is not particularly liberal, his agenda is firmly located in the left. But Obama can’t sit back and use the soft touch on this issue as he has with health care, stepping up only when Congress had allowed the public debate to get off track. American public opinion lies precariously with the Democrats on climate change, and the Republicans are significantly out of touch (28% of Republicans attribute global warming to human activities, as compared to 57% of Americans). But there is not enough support to sustain the issue on its own, particularly considering Democrats will not be anywhere near as unified as they have been on health care; few Democratic Senators representing states with a strong reliance on polluting industries will support a pollution reduction scheme. Obama must use his bully pulpit to convince the American public that this is something America needs, and something that will benefit it. Considering the state of the economy, it will help if he can strongly connect the fight against climate change with creating new, green jobs (California and Texas are good examples of this happening).
Yes, there are institutional obstacles to America doing something solid about climate change, but Presidents, from Roosevelt with the New Deal to Reagan and his economic reforms, have been able to overcome those by throwing the hefty weight of their office behind it. That Obama has decided he will go to the Copenhagen summit is a good start. It shows he cares about the issue. But he will have to do more; Obama must not meanly lose this fight by staying on the sidelines. If something will be done, it will be done through his efforts.