Why Climate Change Is Ignored

01/26/2014 10:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 28, 2014
  • Jay Mandle Professor of Economics, Colgate University

Two realities threaten the well-being of future generations. The first is global warming. In the words of the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850." Furthermore, it goes on, "in the Northern Hemisphere [the period] 1983-2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years." (1) The resulting rise of sea levels, increased storm intensity, and ecological disruptions promise to impose a heavy cost on those who come of age twenty years from now.

The second is that the energy source that can be marketed most profitably is still the one that produces the most greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels remain dominant. It is true that they are heavily subsidized and that the cost for their use does not include the damage they impose on the environment. But it is also true that solar, offshore wind, marine, biomass technologies all are more costly to use than coal. Of the renewable technologies, only onshore wind's costs of production are as low as those of fossil fuels. (2)

The implication of these realities is that an all out effort must be made to enable renewable energy technologies to become cost competitive. It will take a massive public research and development program for that to happen and time is running short. It is too costly and its pay-off too uncertain to rely on the private sector. Something akin to the government's effort to develop an atomic bomb is necessary.

However, in 2013 investment in renewables was 12 percent below the level that had occurred in 2012, continuing the downward movement begun in 2011. Investment in alternative energy technologies in 2013 came to $254 billion, about one-fourth the level that the International Energy Agency estimates is needed to avoid a climate crisis. (3)

Unfortunately, the need for a crash research and development project in renewables is lost on the United States Congress. The Omnibus Spending bill passed by Congress in January did mandate that government research into renewable energy and efficiency grow from $1.95 billion in 2013 to 2.05 billion in 2014, without adjusting for inflation. But such an increase is very far from what is needed. In percentage terms it is only 4.8 percent, less than the increase that was allocated to fossil fuels (5.2 percent), the energy source the world must shift away from. (4)

To explain why Congress has failed to address the climate change crisis we need look no further than to the biases caused by the way we fund our politics. Specifically do not blame public opinion. The public has long been in agreement that greenhouse gas emissions are a threat and has evidenced willingness to support corrective policies. When a 2012 survey undertaken by Krosnick and MacInnis asked whether the U.S. government should limit the amount of greenhouse gases that U.S. businesses produce, 77 of respondents answered yes. In light of this and other responses to their questions, the authors report that the American people's "willingness to pay appears to be sufficient to fund a great deal of effort" to correct the problem. (5)

Similarly the federal budget deficit should not be used to justify environmental inaction. The argument is that it is unfair to impose governmental indebtedness on future generations. The logic is that expensive investment programs have to be neglected in order to avoid an increased tax burden.

But failing to address global climate change will itself inflict a burden, one that is much more damaging than increased taxation. The consequences of doing nothing, and the resulting shore erosion, property destruction, and disruptions in patterns of agricultural cultivation among others, will far exceed the admittedly high costs of ramped up research and development on renewables.

What is at work politically is not a concern for future generations, but the raw exercise of power by the oil and gas industries. During the 2012 election cycle, individuals associated with those industries contributed $72.7 million to congressional candidates, compared to $2.7 million in donations provided by the alternative energy industries. The gap was even wider with respect to lobbying: $141.1 spent by oil and gas, $24.3 million by alternative energy. Democrats as well as Republicans are beholden to the traditional energy sector. Alternative energy gave $1.6 million to Democrats compared to the $5.9 million those same office seekers received from the non-renewable sector. (6)

At the end of their paper, Krosnick and MacInnis suggest that in ignoring global climate change, politicians either have chosen to turn their backs on the will of their constituents, or are simply unaware of what the public believes. Insular as they might be, it is hard to accept ignorance as an explanation. It is the role of money that accounts for their ignoring the convictions of the voters.

1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, p. 3. Available at
2. World Energy Council, World Energy Perspective: Cost of Energy Technologies, (London: World Energy Council 2013). Available at
3. Sean Cockerham, "U.N.: Investment in Green Energy is Falling Dangerously," McClatchy Washington Bureau January 15, 2014. Available at
4. Jeff Spross, "Here's What the New Omnibus Budget Means for Climate and Energy Policy," Climate Progress, January 15, 2014. Available at
5. Jon A. Krosnick and Bo MacInnis, "Does the American Public Support Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?" Daedalus, The Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 142, No. 1 (Winter 2013), p. 28, 36.
6. Center for Responsive Politics, "Influence & Lobbying/Interest Groups,"