Why Aren’t People Getting Angrier at the Gulf Oil Spill?

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Over at his new blog on the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn—the TNR writer who covered health care like Darrelle Revis on a wide receiver—asks where the public outrage is on the Gulf oil spill:

Two months after the Deepwater Horizon rig first exploded, where are the marches on Washington? Where are the phone calls lighting up Capitol Hill switchboards? Congressional staffers I’ve contacted tell me constituent contact on climate change has increased in the last few weeks, but only incrementally.

Of course there’s no shortage of public outrage coming from the places that are most directly affected by the oil spill: the Gulf states of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle. You’d be pretty angry if tar balls washed up on your pristine beach. But that’s the rage of someone who has been the direct victim of a crime—not the greater political anger Cohn is talking about. (And of course the Gulf states for the most part remain strongly in favor of increased offshore oil exploration.) He’s wondering—as many have before him—why the oil spill hasn’t kickstarted support for the broader goals of environmentalists, like a cap-and-trade system to fight climate change.

Cohn puts some of the blame on President Obama for waiting too long to address global warming—and doing so in a speech that seemed half-hearted—and notes that the Senate requirement for 60 votes presents an enormous hurdle to getting anything done. But he adds that whatever complaints Democrats might have with their leadership, politicians can only go as far as people will push them. Connecting climate change and the oil spill isn’t a straight line, and it could be that the public support for action on global warming simply isn’t there, even after all these years and solid scientific evidence. Though polls generally say that a solid majority of Americans believe in climate change and want government to do something, the support seems to be broad but not terribly deep—like sloshing water in a pan, as Andrew Revkin puts it. Until that changes—or maybe until someone abolishes the Senate filibuster—it may not matter how many millions of barrels of oil are spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.