Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The Only Thing Americans Worry About Less than Climate Change? Race Relations

As I wrote back in 2003:

The issues that motivate those on the margins-radical environmentalism,  gun rights absolutism, racial nationalism, socialism, radical feminism, queer power, religious fundamentalism-mean nothing to most people. The ordinary citizen is concerned only with his own day to day business. His issues are unemployment, housing, taxes, health care, provisions for old age and education.(95) Some people may also have one or two social issues, like abortion or the environment, that they are interested in or have strong opinions about. Most Americans have received something of a libertarian education from the Jeffersonian strand of traditional American politics. For this reason, populist rhetoric denouncing “big government” resonates well with the commoner. A populist movement that combined both libertarian and socialist themes, without explicitly describing itself as such, would likely go over well with the broad American working class.

Philip Bump

The Wire

Image Associated Press
The Iditarod sometimes has more snow. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

According to Gallup, the only thing that Americans worry about less than climate change is race relations. Nice priorities, America.

As you would assume, priorities differ substantially based on political affiliation. We’ve made the data (all of which is here) a little easier to read by making sorted graphs showing overall attitudes and then concerns by political party. The question: How much does each of these things worry you a great deal? All numbers below are percentages.

SHOW: All voters | Republicans | Democrats

All voters

Here’s the things about this list: Climate change is a gigantic problem. And it’s a problem that will very likely make all of these other problems worse. If you are concerned about the economy, wait until climate change starts interrupting food supplies with drought and flooding coastal cities around the world. If you are worried about crime and violence, wait until temperatures start warming and murder increases by 2.2 percent. There were 10 days in February when there were no murders in New York City. That was not because it was so balmy outside.

It also seems self-obvious that climate change is a bigger problem than crime and the budget deficit and illegal immigration because those things have decreased. (See: deficit; crime; immigration.) Saying that climate change is less of a problem than a thing that is getting better is like saying that you consider the flu from which you are recovering to be a bigger problem than the infection that is spreading in your eye. Maybe you’re still vomiting, but you need to get that infection fixed ASAP.

There are two things at play here. The first is the robust and energetic effort to discredit and ignore climate change, an effort so successful that even a bare third of Democrats think climate change should inspire a great deal of worry. Did you know that 28 senators stayed up all night to talk about climate change? If not, that’s because people don’t pay attention to facts about climate change.

The other factor is that Americans tend to be shortsighted in their prioritization. The worst effects of climate change are perhaps decades away, even if occasional things — the Western drought, Hurricane Sandy — are made worse by warmer temperatures. But voters only pay attention to the economy in six-month bursts. What are the odds we can get them to care about the economy in 2050 if they don’t care about the economy in 2015?

Also: Americans should be much more worried about racism than they appear to be. But if we don’t care about that after 238 years, I guess we shouldn’t expect people to care about the climate after 40.

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