This winter, I was out on the streets of Boston interviewing random people about their thoughts on the outcome of the Copenhagen conference. I was very surprised at what I heard: 7 out of the 10 people who spoke with me thought that scientists hadn't yet proven that climate change was caused by human activity. Some questioned whether the climate is changing at all and were happy that the Copenhagen talks had failed.
Looking at the beating that climate science has taken over the last few months, it's no wonder that people showed so much distrust. But 70 percent? I couldn't believe it.
Okay, so my not-so-scientific poll is hardly an accurate way of gauging how Americans feel about climate change. But last fall in the lead-up to Copenhagen, there were a number of polls from reputable organizations showing somewhat similar (albeit less dramatic) changes in feelings toward climate change. Depending on which poll you looked at – Zogby, Washington Post-ABC or Pew – you'd find between a 10 percent and 20 percent decrease in the number of U.S. citizens concerned about climate change.
From a climate science perspective, this is certainly alarming. But from a renewable energy development perspective, I would argue that it doesn't really matter.
In my interviews on the streets of Boston, every single person said they unequivocally support renewable energy. In fact, some of the people who were most vocal about their climate skepticism were most vocal about their support of renewables, mostly for national security and economic reasons.
The polls I mentioned earlier show similar support for renewables even among climate skeptics. The trend is clear: More people will respond to the industry's message if it focuses on issues other than climate change.
Whenever I talk to people outside the industry about the benefits of renewables, I don't usually mention climate change. Not that I don't think it's important – I do. I just think it's an idea that is difficult for people to grasp, given how long term the problem is and how far removed most of us are from the places that are being impacted.
The way to get people excited about clean energy is by talking about technological progress, entrepreneurship, job creation and citizen empowerment. These are all very tangible, easy-to-understand concepts that put renewables in a context that are nearly impossible to oppose. Who would want to stop that type of innovation?
When I talk about environmental issues, typically they involve problems right in front of us that we can quantify: Things like the coal-ash spill in Tennessee, which will cost more than a billion dollars to clean up; the millions of dollars it takes to clean up water supplies and reclaim agricultural land in the aftermath of coal strip mining; or the $120 billion in nation-wide external environmental and health impacts from the burning of fossil energies.
These concrete examples help people envision the real cost of fossil energies. If we talked about them in this context more often, perhaps more consumers would understand that renewables aren't really as expensive as they're made out to be.
I'm happy to say that renewables have been somewhat separated from the “debate” over climate change. Because renewable energy is so beneficial for so many reasons, the industry still has strong bipartisan support, despite the mild increase in skepticism of climate science.
Since the Copenhagen talks, a number of diplomats, analysts and organizations like the International Energy Agency have questioned the global community's ability to agree on greenhouse gas targets aggressive enough to combat climate change. Instead, they've been wondering if it would be easier to simply develop stronger global support schemes for energy efficiency and renewables, rather than wait for an agreement that may never come.Even when faced with dramatic scenarios about the impact of climate change, politicians and citizens can't agree on what kind of action to take. But they can certainly agree on one thing: Renewables can and should be developed aggressively. The industry would be wise to recognize this trend and adapt its message accordingly