Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy

The Climate Change Rebound

Barack Obama has rediscovered climate change. During the last month President Obama has used both his Second Inaugural Address and State of the Union speech to implore the nation to increase its efforts to combat global warming. The President has never expressed doubt about the existence of human induced climate change but he said very little about the issue after the 2010 Senate collapse of proposed climate legislation. Instead, he has turned to use of executive powers to reduce emissions, whether through vehicle fuel economy standards or application of the Clean Air Act to some greenhouse gas emissions. But climate change has become far more visible in the second round of the Obama presidency.

Notably, Obama's retreat on this topic corresponded not only with policy reversals but also with decreased levels of public belief that climate change was occurring. Between 2008 and 2010, the National Surveys on Energy and the Environment (NSEE) from the University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College found a 20 point decline in the percentage of Americans who believed there is solid evidence of global warming.

National Survey on Energy and the Environment (NSEE)

"Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer over the past four decades?"

Fall 2008 Fall 2009 Spring 2010 Fall 2010 Spring 2011 Fall 2011 Spring 2012 Fall 2012 (early) Fall 2012 (late)
Yes 72% 65% 52% 58% 55% 62% 65% 68% 67%
No 17% 20% 36% 26% 32% 26% 24% 21% 22%
Not Sure 11% 15% 13% 16% 12% 12% 11% 11% 12%

But as American acceptance of global warming rebounded in 2012 to levels approaching the peak level of belief that was found in 2008, Obama has once again taken a more aggressive public stance regarding the need for government action to address the issue.  In particular, he has attempted to make a direct connection beteween recent American experience with weather and the larger issue of climate change. The president's State of the Union pitch to Americans noted: "It’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods -- all are now more frequent and more intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science -- and act before it's too late." 

These points from the President dovetail with the results of the Fall 2012 versions of the NSEE that surveyed Americans both before and after Superstorm Sandy. The NSEE surveys find that Americans are increasingly connecting severe weather and extreme conditions such as powerful storms and the major droughts of 2012 with the presence of global warming. So the President appears to be responding to this linkage in making the case for expanded policy engagement.

It seems clear that the president’s renewed commitment to addressing global warming has been buoyed by the growing consensus among Americans that climate change is real. What is less clear is the level of commitment that the public itself has for measures to address global warming. The fall version of the NSEE did find continued public support for policies such as increased vehicle fuel economy standards and renewable energy portfolios but very mixed public support for such policy options as carbon taxes or cap-and-trade. With a less unified public behind these options how aggressive will the White House be in pushing a policy approach that includes tax measures? And what did he mean in his State of the Union address in endorsing a "market-based" approach, unless it was one of the very policies he has not embraced post-re-election? So the President is clearly back in the climate arena but it remains unclear just what that means. This may hinge in part on just what the weather brings in the coming seasons of his second term.