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Are Americans ready to act on climate change?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 20 Feb 2014 16:28 GMT
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A stream of water trickles along the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California, a week after California Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. Picture January 21, 2014, REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
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Are Americans ready to act on climate change?

A study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication finds that one in six Americans would personally take part in non-violent civil disobedience against corporate or government activities that make climate change worse.

Larger numbers are already pushing, or would be willing to push, for laws to boost energy efficiency and renewable energy (36 percent), or choose products based on their climate change footprint (48 percent), according to the study of 830 Americans, which was weighted to reflect the country’s demographics accurately.

Those are impressive numbers from a nation that has endured the world’s best-funded climate change denial campaign – and where the number of people who say they believe climate change is happening has stagnated despite years of record severe droughts, fires, floods, tornados and winter storms across many parts of the country.

Not all the news from the survey is encouraging. Only 13 percent of Americans have contacted a government official about climate change over the past year, “a number that has remained essentially unchanged since 2010,” the study’s authors noted. And a quarter of those who did write, call or email didn’t ask for efforts to reduce climate change, some of them presumably questioning whether it existed at all or asking officials not to act.

Similarly, just 26 percent of Americans said they “often” or “occasionally” discuss global warming with family or friends – down from 31 percent in November 2011. Most of those doing the talking are those the study terms “the alarmed” about climate change, the researchers note.

But among “the alarmed” – who represent 16 percent of Americans – researchers see the seeds of an effective climate movement.

“I think there’s enormous potential,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist, investigator on environmental decision making and director of the Yale climate change project.

“When I look at the big picture of getting action on climate change in this country, one key missing ingredient has been there is no really powerful citizens’ movement demanding political change,” he said.

But the groups expressing serious concern about climate change in Yale’s study are no smaller than similar action groups that have brought about important political change on issues like immigration, abortion and gay marriage, he said.

“The key difference is those groups are organised,” he said, while those ready to put pressure for climate action “mostly feel isolated and alone. They have no sense there are literally millions of other Americans who feel as passionately about this as they do.”

If those people can be effectively organised, there’s still no guarantee action on climate change will come in the United States. Everything from gerrymandered political districts to Senate filibusters and bitter partisan differences makes pressuring politicians for action difficult, he said.

But organisation is a prerequisite for action, he emphasised – and the number of those ready to act is sufficient, and may well grow as climate impacts worsen.

The truth is, “climate change doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Leiserowitz said. “Drought doesn’t just pick on Democratic farmers and not Republican ones.”

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