Through the first nine months of 2018, the U.S. had experienced nearly a dozen weather and climate disasters with damages costing more than $1 billion. This tally already placed fourth — behind 2017, 2011 and 2016 — among four decades of disaster rankings. And that was before California’s Camp and Woolsey Fires struck on the same day in November, killing dozens of people and capping off a year that left much of the American West scorched.
The deadly events sparked national conversations about the ways climate change has made wildfires more extreme, as last year churned out the fourth warmest temperatures on record.
But when President Donald Trump headed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday for his second State of the Union address, he made no mention of these disasters — nor did he mention global warming and climate change. (In her Democratic response to the State of the Union, Stacey Abrams listed climate change as a threat to American democracy.)
Trump’s omission of global warming and climate change isn’t necessarily a surprise. But the speech aims to set national priorities, and last year, global warming and climate change were of growing importance to the American people.
More Americans than ever — 73 percent — believe global warming is happening. As you might expect, Democratic concerns on the topic have increased over time — but they have too for conservative Republicans, according to end-of-2018 polling released Tuesday by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication. The polling surveyed liberal Democrats, moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans and independents.
More conservative Republicans are worried now about global warming than they have been in nearly a decade, the polling said.
“Even though Trump continues to cast doubts on climate change,” and his administration has taken action to undermine climate change efforts, “we see that even conservative Republicans — his base — are moving in the opposite direction, at least in the past year,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
While the share of conservative Republicans worried about global warming — 32 percent — is less than half of concerned Democrats and independents, this polling represents a reversal from Trump’s first year in office, when acceptance of climate change dropped among the GOP, according to Yale-George Mason polling. (Reminder: Republican-voting counties and congressional districts are more susceptible to climate harm, and 2018’s climate disasters forced evacuations for millions in purple states like Florida and North Carolina.)
And, even if Trump had mentioned climate change in the State of the Union, policy action takes more than an 82 minute address. The PBS NewsHour spoke with energy and climate advocates about how they want Trump and the union to approach these issues in 2019 and beyond.
American voters, including Republicans, want the “Green New Deal” — and more fossil fuels
Media coverage has described the Democratic-proposed Green New Deal as “a massive program of investments in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure,” “the revenge of the millennials,” and “a Trojan horse of socialist fantasies.”
But it could also be a bipartisan bridge.
The Green New Deal would push a transition toward clean energy through targeted investments in grid infrastructure, energy efficiency and the green economy, rather than relying solely on market-based solutions like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. In December, a Yale-George Mason poll reported 81 percent of Americans approved of the proposal. The support crossed party lines, with 92 percent of Democrats, 88 percent of independents and 64 percent of Republicans saying they backed the plan.
That support came despite weak brand recognition — fewer than one in five people polled said they had heard anything about the “Green New Deal.” Poll respondents voiced similar support for carbon-reduction proposals like a carbon tax and former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Last year, the Trump administration announced plans to roll back the Clean Power Plan, which aimed to cut carbon emissions at new and existing power plants — part of a broader mission to roll back or loosen regulations across industries.
“The original Obama Clean Power Plan still does very well [in polling], even when you say there will be a cost to companies, or to consumers and companies, and that includes about half of Republicans,” Leiserowitz said. “Likewise, a revenue-neutral carbon tax continues to get strong overall support, plus about half of Republicans.”
Though a growing number of Americans express support for a shift to green energy, a smaller but sizeable pool still wants fossil fuels. Forty-eight percent of registered voters — including 30 percent of Democrats, 49 percent of independents and 72 percent of Republicans — support the expansion of offshore drilling.
This paradox may explain why American voters cast their blame broadly when it comes to climate change. When asked who should be doing “more” or “much more” to address global warming, most Americans — three of four — fault corporations and industry, which produce a substantial amount of the greenhouse gases that propel global warming. But nearly the same number — 67 to 68 percent — blame themselves, Congress and the president.
What oil and gas wants
America’s energy industry, for its part, has continued its trend of reducing carbon emissions despite the Trump administration’s plans to leave the Paris climate accord. Since then, the U.S. has outpaced other countries still in the Paris accord on reducing emissions — partly through the adoption of renewable energy, but also as a surge in natural gas increasingly replaced coal usage.
“There’s really an amazing success story across many sectors, particularly in the oil and gas arena,” said Tom Pyle, the president of the Institute for Energy Research, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. “We’re probably going to become the No. 1 energy exporter this year ahead of schedule, in large part due to the explosion of economic activity in the Permian Basin and the Bakken region.”
The Permian Basin in Texas now produces more oil than every OPEC nation aside from Saudi Arabia and Iraq, as The New York Times reported Monday, while North Dakota’s Bakken region set new records for natural gas production in 2017 and 2018.
Last year, the U.S. also surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia in oil production, which Pyle said keeps profits away “from hostile regimes and dictatorships.”
Pyle said the president is readying another executive order that will help prevent future bottlenecks of the Keystone pipeline, which has been halted by legal battles.
“That just signals from my perspective that the administration is still focused on making America a strong hand in global energy markets, particularly oil and gas,” he added
He looks forward to Trump’s recent proposals on the energy efficiency of power plants and vehicles moving through the regulatory process in 2019.
What clean energy wants
The natural gas boom since 2005 has bolstered the U.S. economy and reduced consumer energy prices. But every day, the nation slides farther from achieving carbon sustainability and preventing future climate disasters.
Paying lower electricity prices due to natural gas isn’t a bad thing, said Rob Cowin, the director of government affairs for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. But those prices don’t account for the damage caused by climate change, he said.
“There are other costs baked into those prices that we’re actually bearing, and it’s the most economically vulnerable populations that are bearing them disproportionately,” Cowin said. As the costs of climate change continue to rise, it becomes harder to argue that burning more coal and natural gas is cost effective, he said.
Cowin noted that last year’s drop in energy prices also paralleled an aggressive decline in the cost of solar and wind power, making them the cheapest new energy products in many parts of the country.
“Last year specifically you really saw the emergence of offshore wind as a new renewable energy technology,” Cowin said, though he worries this boom could be stymied at the end of 2019, as tax credits for the renewables sector begin phasing out.
The Trump administration has taken some steps to boost renewable energy, especially with Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s promotion of energy storage, Cowin said. The Department of Energy has ramped up investments and created new programs geared toward innovations in batteries — something that will be crucial if the U.S. wants to avoid gaps in renewables energy production caused by poor weather.
But the White House has also pursued policies hostile to clean energy, Cowin said, such as a plan outlined in a leaked presidential memo last June.
Under the plan, the energy department would use emergency authority to order purchases of electricity from coal and nuclear plants, though the Republican-led Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission had canned similar subsidies six months earlier. Cowin said the department of energy has also been slow to decentralize the energy grid, which favors fossil fuel plants over renewables-powered microgrids.
“With grid modernization, they still have a mentality of baseload power, when we know that distributed generation is emerging,” Cowin said. “Their whole philosophy is really about going backwards to the industrial revolution with these old dirty technologies.”
Time for compromise?
While most registered voters want policies that reduce carbon pollution, only half believe they can change the decisions of their local governments and businesses, according to Yale-George Mason polling. The numbers slide downward for those who feel confident that they can influence state, federal and corporate actions.
Part of this dismay centers around people being tired of the bickering between opponents in the energy debate.
The discussion has become so polarized and so tribal that “most camps are demanding 100 percent concessions from the other side. We don’t buy into that,” said Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, the national organizer and spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Change.
Meyaard-Schaap argues the U.S. can effectively mitigate greenhouse gas emissions at the levels called for by climate scientists by decarbonizing the economy as quickly as possible.
Rather than focus on single arenas — like clean renewable energy, fossil fuel production and carbon taxes — he wants legislators to push a comprehensive plan that not only reduces carbon dioxide, but also cuts other dangerous greenhouse gases like methane.
“That doesn’t mean we need to dismiss the contributions of coal and oil and natural gas, which powered America for 100-plus years. That’s a beautiful heritage,” Meyaard-Schaap said. “But the 21st century is the century of clean renewable energy. New technologies are calling us toward a different way of powering America.”
Meyaard-Schaap has been disappointed by the rollback of the Clean Power Plan without a replacement because he feels like the Trump administration is ceding climate leadership. He also said deregulation on environmental protections for pollutants like mercury endangers Americans.
Meyaard-Schaap’s organization wants to convince evangelicals — which represent a quarter of U.S. adults — and other christians that acting on climate change is a way to be obedient to Jesus in the 21st century.
“The community that we’re focused on reaching takes the Bible very seriously,” Meyaard-Schaap said. “Scripture requires that we take climate change seriously because climate change is harming the world and harming our neighbors.”
Common ground does exist. Pyle, a proponent of fossil fuels, recognizes there are issues with the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, but he argues correctly that many industries — not only energy — contribute to the problem. Cowin, too, emphasizes the need to decarbonize our industrial, construction and transportation sectors — though he says this can only be done through cleaner energy generation.
“To get where we need to go, we need as many diverse people with as many diverse solutions as possible at the table,” Meyaard-Schaap said. “We think that regulation and free market solutions can work hand in hand.”