Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

NEW YORK — The United Nations climate-change summit kicks off here today, a week after oil prices jumped more than they ever have in history.

The big picture: These two developments offer a window into how Americans view energy and the environment today — with relatively low oil prices making room to worry more about the environment.

Expand chart
Data: Gallup; Note: Concerned responses include "Great deal" and "Fair amount"; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Driving the news:

  • The Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure knocked out 5.7 million barrels, more than half of the country's entire daily production. That led to a nearly 20% spike in oil prices on Sept. 15, the biggest jump in history. Gasoline prices, which are largely determined by global oil prices, have spiked in more than half the country.
  • World leaders at the U.N. summit will commit more to drastically reduce heat-trapping emissions, which come largely from oil, natural gas and coal.

By the numbers: Oil prices have dropped and stabilized since the historic jump last week to hover around $60 a barrel. Pump prices, which rose a dime after the attacks to $2.66 a gallon, have also stabilized, according to AAA.

  • These prices are still lower than they were earlier this decade. Crude prices hovered around $100 a barrel from 2011 to 2014, and national average gasoline prices were bumping up against $4 a gallon.

Fuel prices would have to remain elevated for a while — we're talking many months or years — to alter the fundamental shift in Americans' attitudes that has been building since 2014: putting environmental problems above energy affordability.

  • Just 57% of Americans — a record low — say they are worried about energy affordability, according to Gallup data going back to 2001.
  • By contrast, nearly three-quarters say they are concerned about the environment. That's near the record of 77%, a level that has been reached 3 times since 2001.

One of the biggest drivers of this public opinion shift has been America's boom in oil production, which has more than doubled since 2008. That has helped lower oil prices and thus gasoline prices since about 2014, which has in turn lessened people's concerns about fuel prices precisely because they've been low.

  • America will never be wholly energy independent as long as we use oil and it's priced on a global market, but booming domestic production affords us a stronger security blanket, softening and limiting global impacts.
  • The Saudi oil attacks sent Brent crude prices jumping to a little more than $72 a barrel. That's where prices were organically several months ago, according to Kevin Book, managing director of the independent research firm ClearView Energy Partners.
"Attaining some degree of energy security gives us the opportunity to think proactively about environmental issues."
— Kevin Book, managing director, ClearView Energy Partners

What I'm watching: This dynamic gets at the heart of the challenge with energy costs and climate change. Fossil fuels, including oil, will need to get more expensive in order to drastically and swiftly reduce emissions to the level that scientists and U.N. Secretary General António Guterres say is needed.

  • That would likely happen either by removing subsidies, taxing the fuels, or both, in order to change individual and corporate behavior.
  • To be politically and economically sustainable, the cost increase would need to be gradual and not regressive on poorer people and countries.
  • Geopolitical conflict is probably the least desirable way to get higher fuel prices. It’s like losing weight because you have an illness.

The U.N. chief convened a press conference last week to urge bold commitments on climate change at this week's events, yet he simultaneously warned against the impact of high oil prices as a result of the Middle East conflict.

“We absolutely need to create conditions to avoid major complications like we have seen with the immediate impact on oil markets. If there would be a major confrontation in the Gulf, it would have devastating consequences for the region and the world.”
— U.N. Secretary General António Guterres

The bottom line: For big action on climate change to occur, it's not enough for Americans to just worry more about the environment. People will have to change their behavior — and that will only happen if fossil fuels cost more, not less.

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to show 5.7 million barrels of oil production is roughly half of Saudi Arabia's daily production (not all of its production).

Go deeper

California to independently review FDA-approved coronavirus vaccines

California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California will "independently review" all coronavirus vaccines approved by the Food and Drug Administration before allowing their distribution, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced at a news conference Monday.

Why it matters: The move that comes days after NAID director Anthony Fauci said he had "strong confidence" in FDA-approved vaccines could cast further public doubt that the federal government could release a vaccine based on political motives, rather than safety and efficacy.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Politics: Trump says if Biden's elected, "he'll listen to the scientists"Trump calls Fauci a "disaster" on campaign call.
  2. Health: Coronavirus hospitalizations are on the rise — 8 states set single-day coronavirus case records last week.
  3. States: Wisconsin judge reimposes capacity limit on indoor venues.
  4. Media: Trump attacks CNN as "dumb b*stards" for continuing to cover pandemic.
  5. Business: Consumer confidence surveys show Americans are getting nervousHow China's economy bounced back from coronavirus.
  6. Sports: We've entered the era of limited fan attendance.
  7. Education: Why education technology can’t save remote learning.
Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Microphones will be muted during parts of Thursday's presidential debate

Photos: Jim Watson and Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Commission on Presidential Debates adopted new measures on Monday to mute the microphones of President Trump and Joe Biden to allow each candidate two minutes of uninterrupted time per segment during Thursday night's debate.

Why it matters: During September's chaotic debate, Trump interrupted Biden 71 times, while Biden interrupted Trump 22 times.