03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Enough With the Global Warming Graphics, Get to the Choices

Those who want the U.S. to act decisively on climate change seem to be losing the battle of public opinion lately. Only 30 percent of Americans say global warming should be a top priority for Congress and the President, behind the economy, terrorism, Social Security, health care, immigration and even that most tedious of all issues, trade policy. More than half, 55 percent have heard nothing at all about the cap and trade legislation in Congress (and that doesn't even count the otherwise honest people who don't want to admit to a telephone survey taker that they don't pay attention to the news).

We're even losing ground on the home front, according to a recent survey. Just one year ago, consumers said that more energy efficient windows and furnaces would top their list if they got a $10,000 renovation windfall. This year, most have their eyes on a new bathroom or kitchen and new flooring. The survey actually has even more alarming news for anyone who has pinned his or her hopes on individual Americans taking the lead in the energy efficiency department. Most consumers said that their energy bills would need to rise 70 percent before they would "feel forced" to make energy efficient improvements to their homes.

That last bit has to be especially galling for environmentalists. People seem to go crazy at the mere mention of a few extra dollars on their electricity bills to support renewables, yet they won't put in a new furnace until their bills go up 70 percent!

This really is not good, because improving efficiency is supposed to be the easy part of the energy debate. After all, there are juicy tax incentives for many of these improvements. Most save money on utility bills and pay for themselves in just a few years. Of course, people do have to front the money themselves, which may be tough in this economy. Then there's the whole chore of actually doing it. Either they have to roll up their own sleeves or find someone else to do it and go through the mess, noise, and the "But you said you would come yesterday" song and dance that often involves. It's right up there in root canal territory for a lot of us. We really have to find some better ways to make these kinds of "easy" changes happen.

But back to the bigger picture on energy and global warming. One major problem with continually ringing the global warming bell (other than it doesn't actually seem to be working) is that a lot of the Americans who agree it's a problem don't really understand what the country needs to do about. That makes it a lot scarier and more confusing than it needs to be. And rather then actually explain the problem, more than a few advocates are clinging to the hope that they can buy public cooperation with a few tax credits and slip cap and trade through without anybody much noticing.

It may work for the near term, but sometime soon, we need to tell the American people what the whole thing really means: the United States has to start reducing its reliance on fossil fuels like coal and oil. That means rethinking how we generate electricity and how we move ourselves and our products around. This is not something you do with one piece of legislation, and it's certainly not something you can do without telling anybody. Right now, four in ten Americans can't even name a fossil fuel and more than half think reducing smog means you're making good progress on reducing global warming. Most of what legislators, environmentalists and energy mavens are talking about is just sailing right over the public's head.

There are some hints that the public is not entirely unreachable. In a Public Agenda survey, 73 percent of Americans disagreed with the statement that "if we get gas prices to drop and stay low, we don't need to be worried about finding alternative sources of energy," and more than half "strongly disagreed."

Moreover, despite partisan debate, Americans find common ground on many measures to address the nation's energy problems. At least ten major energy proposals that would support alternative energy, encourage efficiency and reduce gasoline usage have widespread support, including one requiring developers to build more energy efficient homes, even if it makes them more expensive. At least three-quarters of Americans think that's worth pursuing.

The people who have worked so hard to make climate change an issue in the United States deserve enormous credit. This is a crucial issue that humanity can't afford to ignore any longer. But another clever graphic showing how carbon emissions get trapped in the atmosphere probably isn't going to make much difference to most people.

We have to get down to the business of helping Americans understand the choices for getting electricity and driving their cars. Americans need to understand their options, and they deserve to know what their leaders are really talking about.