A home is engulfed in flames during the Woolsey Fire in Malibu, California on November 9, 2018.Gene Blevins / Reuters

The federal government released a devastating report last week documenting the immense economic and human cost that the U.S. will incur as a result of climate change. It warns that the damage to roads alone will add up to $21 billion by the end of the century. In certain parts of the Midwest, farms will produce 75 percent less corn than today, while ocean acidification could result in $230 billion in financial losses. More people will die from extreme temperatures and mosquito-borne diseases. Wildfire seasons will become more frequent and more destructive. Tens of millions of people living near rising oceans will be forced to resettle. The findings put the country on notice, once again, that doing nothing is a recipe for disaster.

Yet odds are that the federal government will, in fact, do nothing. It’s tempting to blame inaction on current political conditions, like having a climate change denier in the White House or intense partisan polarization in Washington. But the unfortunate reality is that American politicians have never been good at dealing with big, long-term problems. Lawmakers have tended to act only when they had no other choice.

It took a brutal Civil War to end slavery. Bankers avoided regulation until the financial system totally collapsed in the early 1930s. Americans saw southern police brutality on their television sets before civil-rights legislation could get through Congress. Widespread dissatisfaction with the health-care system has resulted in only a patchwork solution (the Affordable Care Act). Mass shootings have still not yielded effective gun control.

Why does America so often play catch-up?

The problem, I submit, is America’s system of government.

The separation of powers, which ensures that no single part of the government can ever achieve unified control of the policymaking process, has been a blessing and a curse. It prevents tyranny but creates veto points for politicians who, for whatever reason, wish to stop federal solutions to long-term challenges. Opponents driven by the desire to defend the status quo can always find different bases in the government from which to pursue their agenda and block forward-looking legislation.

Even when there is substantial majority support for tackling big problems, such as gun violence and climate change today, political minorities who disagree with their neighbors can count on the system to help them. There are a lot more people in California (where climate legislation is popular) than West Virginia (where the coal industry still dominates government), but both states send two representatives to the U.S. Senate. Smaller, rural states—whose residents may be less likely to endorse regulation of industry— are disproportionately powerful in the Electoral College.

Not only is the American government separated and fragmented, but private interest groups hold tremendous sway. Through lobbying and campaign contributions, outside actors like the Koch brothers can make it painful for politicians to support beneficial, even popular policies—including climate change regulation— that would hurt their private interests. When President Carter pushed for a bold energy conservation program in the late 1970s, he ran directly into fossil fuel industry representatives who had little appetite for what he was selling.

American anti-intellectualism stands in the way of change, too. The historian Richard Hofstadter famously accused Americans of harboring “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it.” The cultural suspicion of expertise has only become worse since 1963, when Hofstadter published Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; politicians now, including the president, feel no shame at all about dismissing expert opinion.  

Perhaps as influential as anti-intellectualism is anti-statism: the resistance to strong government, and accompanying confidence in the private marketplace, which hampers lawmakers’ ability to mobilize support for the large-scale regulations or programs needed to tackle big challenges.

One last obstacle is American Exceptionalismthe notion that the U.S. is immune from the same kinds of problems that face other comparable countries. There is a misplaced sense of confidence that the scariest predictions just won’t come to pass here; the U.S. will always finds a way to avoid the disasters other nations face. Somehow America’s scientists and business leaders will figure a way out. The belief in American Exceptionalism also pushes many American leaders to resist the kind of international agreements—such as the Kyoto Pact on Global Warming and the Paris Climate Agreement—that are the path to real progress. Those who feel that America is different and superior than the rest of the world are reluctant to concede that it can’t do whatever it wants, on its own.

None of these features of American politics will disappear; they are deeply rooted in the country’s Constitution and its history. Freshman Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can call for a “Green New Deal”—but she will encounter the same intense resistance that President Obama encountered when he lobbied for the same, and with the power of the presidency behind him.

The way out is through grassroots activism. Civil-rights legislation seemed impossible until it wasn’t. Health care legislation seemed impossible until it wasn’t. Activists keep up pressure on media organizations to cover climate change, and on wavering politicians to rethink their opposition to desperately needed reforms and regulations. Of course the problem with climate change is that there is such a thing as too late. If lawmakers don’t act until the environment degrades perceptibly, then they’ve passed the point of no return.

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