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How Much Urgency Can We Really Take?

Yesterday I mentioned a new Pew poll suggesting that most Americans don't consider global warming too pressing of a priority. Today, Andy Revkin writes up the report in the print edition of The New York Times, and solicits some thoughtful responses about what the results might mean for Obama's energy and climate policies:

But some experts in climate and energy policy say, given Americans' continuing concern about filling their gas tanks and lighting their homes, Mr. Obama might still succeed in shoring up public support by packaging his climate policy as part of a larger push for a safer, cleaner menu of energy choices.

"Obama can effectively tie conservation, efficiency and renewable energy to jobs, sustainable growth and national security," said Riley E. Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who studies public and political discourse on climate.

"This will be easier with energy efficiency and independence than with climate change," Dr. Dunlap said. But, he said, "I think he can 'legitimate' climate change and the need to act on it to a considerable degree."

Richard C. J. Somerville, a climate scientist at the University of California, San Diego, said there was plenty of evidence that a sustained push on improved energy technology and energy efficiency, including public education by scientists and political leaders, could pay off politically and environmentally.

"France, a country of 60 million people, went from near zero to 80 percent nuclear electricity in about three decades," Dr. Somerville said. The shift, he added, "was done smoothly and effectively, and public education was a big part of it."

David Goldston, a former chief of staff of the House science committee, noted that no American president had previously made global warming a central issue, "so we don't know what will happen when that occurs."

"We'll see," Mr. Goldston added, "but I think it's wrong to assume too much about the future based on our current prolonged torpor."

All good points, but how far can Obama realistically nudge the public? Revkin's interlocutors suggest the answer is "moderately far." Is that far enough? As David Roberts observed the other day, there's a huge disconnect between what many climate scientists are now saying about the threat of climate change and what even many eco-minded Americans are prepared to do about it. While happy talk about "green jobs" is nice, Energy Secretary Steven Chu was hitting a blunter, more apocalyptic note last weekend, telling the crowd at the Environmental and Clean Energy Ball, "We are on a path that scares me."

Chu's alarmism makes sense: Until the current recession hit, emissions had been rising faster than even the grimmest IPCC predictions, and feedback mechanisms that could further accelerate the pace of warming are being uncovered with alarming regularity. Some scientists are now recommending we go carbon-negative by mid-century—a task that lies well beyond what any emissions bill in Congress now envisions. That's not to say incremental steps—like the clean-energy subsidies in the House economic-recovery bill—are worthless, so long as we're clear that they're merely incremental.

What makes this all politically dicey, of course, is that climate change is a problem that needs to be tackled long before the worst starts happening. Carbon lingers in the air for centuries, which means that by the time global temperatures have spiked a couple of degrees above pre-industrial levels, it's too late for remedies (unless someone devises a way to pull carbon out of the air). But right now, the problem's difficult to visualize: It's hard to finger a culprit for drought in the Southwest or intense hurricane seasons in the Gulf of Mexico as cleanly as you can point to a terrorist group responsible for a bombing attack. Arctic sea ice is melting at a record pace, sure—but who's really been affected? It's the same, tired old story: Climate change is an abstract problem, and easy to put out of mind. The IPCC head may be insisting that, "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late," but hey, we've got a million other issues—the economy, health care, Gaza, Afghanistan—that are concretely urgent right now. And whether Obama or U.S. environmental groups have a workable strategy for shifting that political terrain is as unclear as ever.

--Bradford Plumer