Environmentalists are particularly upbeat about the direction of public opinion thanks in large part to the polling they conduct that shows wide support for their proposals. Yet America is a vastly more right-wing country than it was three decades ago. The domination of American politics by the far-right is a central obstacle to achieving action on global warming. Yet almost none of the environmentalists we interviewed thought to mention it.
Part of what’s behind America’s political turn to the right is the skill with which conservative think tanks, intellectuals and political leaders have crafted proposals that build their power through setting the terms of the debate. Their work has paid off. According to a survey of 1,500 Americans by the market research firm Environics, the number of Americans who agree with the statement, "To preserve people’s jobs in this country, we must accept higher levels of pollution in the future," increased from 17 percent in 1996 to 26 percent in 2000. The number of Americans who agreed that, "Most of the people actively involved in environmental groups are extremists, not reasonable people," leapt from 32 percent in 1996 to 41 percent in 2000.
The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections.
At risk of being simplistic, I see two themes that might better grab the attention of the American public: health and terrorism. Recent election results indicate that fear is a great motivator. So I say that environmentalists must link the increasing rates of cancer with pollution. We don’t have to prove it scientifically — just say it often enough and it becomes intuitively obvious.
The connection between fossil fuels and terrorism can be exploited. The money we spend in the Middle East funds terrorists. We must state that fact over and over. Only when that message is widely accepted will alternative energy sources be considered by the average American.