02/02/2015 08:37 am ET Updated Apr 04, 2015

The Defeat of Climate Denial

John James via Getty Images

Over the past weekend, a poll was released indicating that Americans have conclusively rejected climate denial and understand the reality of climate change. According to New York Times reporters Coral Davenport and Marjorie Connelly:

An overwhelming majority of the American public, including half of Republicans, support government action to curb global warming, according to a poll conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University and the nonpartisan environmental research group Resources for the Future. In a finding that could have implications for the 2016 presidential campaign, the poll also found that two-thirds of Americans said they were more likely to vote for political candidates who campaign on fighting climate change. They were less likely to vote for candidates who questioned or denied the science that determined that humans caused global warming.

Given the onslaught of propaganda and the vast amount of fossil fuel industry money spent to argue against climate science, this finding provides evidence of the limits to the strategy of denial. The policy debate will now shift from a discussion of the existence of the problem to one focused on solutions. That is where the debate should have been all along. Denying the reality of a problem does not make it go away, it just makes us look delusional. The debate will focus on the urgency of the climate problem--especially when compared to other problems--and most centrally if climate change is a problem that has impacts today or one that will largely be felt in the future.

I have often said that climate change presents tremendous political challenges to the American political system. We have a political structure that is based on place as well as people. American states retain an important element of sovereignty and the U.S. Senate represents states, not individual citizens. Our House of Representatives is built (for the most part) on geographic districts. A "Green Party" could receive 25 percent of the votes nationally and still not send a single representative to Congress. They would need to achieve a plurality in one or more congressional districts to elect representatives. Our national elections are really collections of local elections. We do not have proportional representation. In America, place matters. This bias makes us better at addressing problems that have a specific geographic home.

A problem like toxic waste is easier for us to address than climate change. Toxic waste has a clear location, and it can often can be seen and smelled. In contrast, climate change is created everywhere on the planet, and much of its impact is in the future. In my view, for the climate issue to be addressed successfully we may well need to address it indirectly. For example, in China, efforts to reduce smog and air pollution are stimulating efforts to reduce dependence on coal for energy. But those reductions will also reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that China emits. The visible public health issue is helping to address the less visible environmental issue.

The greatest challenge to climate policy is that our economy and indeed our modern way of life require energy. Most of that energy comes from fossil fuels, and so the great challenge is to figure out a way to rapidly replace fossil fuels with renewable, less polluting alternatives. Policies such as carbon taxes attempt to speed the transition by raising the price of fossil fuels and making renewable energy more competitive. In the past year, we have once again seen the volatility of fossil fuel prices. As prices decline, alternatives may lose traction in the market. Nevertheless, the only long-term solution to the use of fossil fuels is the development of an alternative that is less expensive, as reliable and at least as convenient as fossil fuels.

This does not mean that command and control regulation of greenhouse gases and carbon taxes are "bad" policies. They can encourage energy efficiency and the development of alternative energy sources. They send a clear signal to the market place that fossil fuels need to be replaced. But they are only a means to the real goal of developing alternatives to fossil fuels. Given the continued opposition to taxation and regulation in the United States, I continue to believe that a concerted effort to develop and eventually commercialize advanced renewable energy technology should be at the center of federal climate policy.

As the poll indicates, while most people believe climate science is real, fewer believe that climate change presents an immediate threat. Fortunately, one does not need to see an imminent threat from climate change to support an effort to build the basic science and engineering of renewable energy. It should be possible to generate political support for a program designed to develop energy that is cheaper, less polluting, and does not need to be imported.

The poll asked respondents their views on a set of policies to address climate change. Most people (78 percent) favored regulation of greenhouse gases, and a slightly smaller number opposed increased energy taxes. The action that generated the most political support (80 percent) was a policy of providing tax breaks to companies that produced renewable energy. Unfortunately, the poll did not ask if the government should increase support for the science of renewable energy. Given the other findings in the poll, I am confident that people would support such an effort.

The poll demonstrates that Americans understand the world we live in. The World Wide Web brings us more information than humans have ever had access to before, but we are capable of distilling that information to its essence, processing it through our value systems and making judgments. The poll also indicates that the growing hyper-partisanship over environmental issues appears to have crested. In the 1970s, we were able to unite as a people behind the goal of a clean environment. As the poll indicates, young people are more environmentally oriented than old people. That is a very important and encouraging trend line. Perhaps in the next national election we will see some Republican presidential candidates recognize that even their conservative base is in favor of breathing clean air. One key poll finding for the 2016 election is that Americans are more likely to vote for candidates advocating climate change policy and less likely to vote for climate deniers.

The public's support of climate science and climate policy is growing. There is a clear shape and dimension to the public's perspective and it does not match the views of climate policy advocates. It is anti-tax and is not persuaded that climate change is as important as some other issues. Climate policy proposals that are built on a full understanding of the views expressed in this poll will do better than those that ignore public preferences. As in every other policy area, one rarely gets a full loaf and must settle for a half loaf. A little progress is better than no progress at all.