Comparing the future of marriage equality and climate change policy

A little under 15 years ago (Sept. 21, 1996) President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibited same-sex marriage for federal purposes.  Just over a year later, global negotiators agreed to the Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was intended to create an international framework to control greenhouse gases.  However, the US has yet to ratify the Protocol, and domestic legislation to implement cap-and-trade regulation on greenhouse gases died with the end of the last Congress.

Marriage equality and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases are both policy positions that I support.  But I’m pretty sure that we’ll see the repeal of DOMA before we see the development of an economy-wide system to control greenhouse gases in the United States.  Why is that?

If you look at the state level, it seems like both gay marriage and greenhouse gas reductions are making significant headway.  A significant number of states now recognize gay marriage or same-sex civil unions; a significant number of states have some sort of policy commitment to reduce greenhouse gases.

But if you look at public opinion, the landscape is very different.  Public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of gay marriage over the past few years, but it appears more or less frozen (as it were) in the context of climate change.  The future trajectory for policy change in the two areas presents a dramatic contrast.

Gallup polling data on US attitudes towards gay marriage
Gallup polling data on attitudes towards climate change

There are a lot of reasons for the difference.  For instance, changes in personal opinions about gay marriage are often connected with having personal connections to individuals who are publicly gay.  Perhaps this makes the issue personal, and makes it harder to demonize the other side in the debate.  But personal interactions with climate change are much more difficult: Many of the impacts are subtle, and even the ones that are not (such as increased risks of severe storms) are only probabilities; it is difficult or impossible to connect any one event with climate change.

However, I want to highlight one reason here, and it builds on a point I made in a recent post.  Changing your mind on gay marriage (generally speaking) doesn’t require you to change your personal behavior, particularly if you’re straight.  But changing your mind on climate change would require you to reconsider large chunks of your everyday activities:  Driving a car; heating or air conditioning your house; taking airplane trips; eating meat; etc., etc.  These are all activities that are deeply ingrained in our lives, and there are significant practical and psychological obstacles to making changes.  As I noted before, there is good reason to believe that we have built-in resistance to changing patterns of behavior that we have become accustomed to.  It’s hard to see how you dramatically shift public opinion given this dynamic.

None of this is to diminish the tremendous obstacles facing the fight for marriage equality.  But it only emphasizes the tremendous challenges we face in trying to create sensible climate change policy.

Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Comparing the future of marriage equality and climate change policy”

  1. Global warming and gay sex share a common scientific deficiency. There is no conclusive scientific proof that carbon dioxide is the driving force in global warming, and there is no conclusive scientific proof that genes cause men to practice sodomy. In both instances the science is inconclusive, and this is the strongest similarity between global warming and gay sex.

  2. For the two charts to match, there’d have to be an option for respondents to say they’re happy about global warming. (Are you happy, sad, or indifferent about global warming?) I bet some (especially in cold-winter climates) are happy, and guess most are indifferent.

    Or maybe the same-sex marriage question should be “How much do you personally worry about same-sex marriage?” Probably very few worry “a great deal/fair amount.”

    The “worry” question may not be a good indicator of “the future trajectory for policy change.” You can worry about climate change even if you don’t think you’re contributing to it (and even if you don’t think any humans are significantly causing it). And if you think you might be contributing to it you can worry about it simply because you’re not willing to or going to reconsider your behavior, and you know that. (worry + policy stasis) (or worry about policy change: worry = indicator of future pushback).

  3. Regarding gay marriage, voteboat said:

    “…Probably very few worry “a great deal/fair amount.”…”

    President Obama seems to worry about gay marriage because he does not support it. Like most parents, he may be concerned about the delicate moral issues associated with gay sex and the impact that the wrong message could have on his daughters and other people’s children.

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Eric Biber

Eric Biber is a specialist in conservation biology, land-use planning and public lands law. Biber brings technical and legal scholarship to the field of environmental law…

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