Is Al Gore Still Relevant to Young People? How About Rolling Stone?

Short answer: Yes, he is. Not only that: So is Rolling Stone.

I am always behind on things I want to read, so only recently got to this piece that Al Gore’s published in Rolling Stone during the summer of 2011. In discussing it last week with some college freshman, a group old enough to be voting in next month’s election, I mentioned that Al Gore was a few dimpled chads away from having become President. Not understanding the allusion, they reminded me that Bush v. Gore was decided when they were 6. Very few of them had ever read Rolling Stone, although several had heard of it. An Inconvenient Truth was released when they were 11 or 12 years old — a really long time ago — and a few had gone to see it with their parents. Not a single one had heard of The Sierra Club.

But this piece by Al Gore resonated with them.

I am re-posting in its entirety because, like them, I think it might be more important than the attention it received when it came out. Not because there is anything new in it. Certainly not new to me. This has all been said by many people, sometimes more eloquently, over and over again. But the themes are ones that meant a lot to them, and some of this was indeed new to them. That climate change is real, that is a serious threat to their future, and that American democracy has so far failed to do much about it. OK, they suspected that. That our collective inaction is no accident. That was mostly new, how there have been initiatives aimed at sowing doubt, discrediting not just climate science, but smearing and harassing respected climate scientists and even science itself. Just like what happened with tobacco and DDT.

And that journalism is failing us with its under-reporting and its false balance, raising even more doubt about indisputable facts in America than anywhere in the world. (See this.) The connections among doubting climate science, oil and gas interests, and money in politics is not lost on them, but neither is it something with which they are particularly familiar. They found Gore’s way of describing these connections plausible and hard to believe at the same time. So they plan to look into it more.

And they noticed that no one seems to be talking much about climate change on the campaign trail during a presidential election year. Students found that hard to understand. Could it be that after saying at the DNC that “Climate change is not a hoax,” Obama does not want to actively position himself as the one who believes in science? As one of those 18-year-olds put it, “If that is too risky, we’re really f@#ked.”

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Rolling Stone
Al Gore (July 6, 2011)

Illustration by Matt Mahurin

Climate of Denial: Can Science and the Truth Withstand the Merchants of Poison?

The first time I remember hearing the question “is it real?” was when I went as a young boy to see a traveling show put on by “professional wrestlers” one summer evening in the gym of the Forks River Elementary School in Elmwood, Tennessee.

The evidence that it was real was palpable: “They’re really hurting each other! That’s real blood! Look a’there! They can’t fake that!” On the other hand, there was clearly a script (or in today’s language, a “narrative”), with good guys to cheer and bad guys to boo.

But the most unusual and in some ways most interesting character in these dramas was the referee: Whenever the bad guy committed a gross and obvious violation of the “rules” — such as they were — like using a metal folding chair to smack the good guy in the head, the referee always seemed to be preoccupied with one of the cornermen, or looking the other way. Yet whenever the good guy — after absorbing more abuse and unfairness than any reasonable person could tolerate — committed the slightest infraction, the referee was all over him. The answer to the question “Is it real?” seemed connected to the question of whether the referee was somehow confused about his role: Was he too an entertainer?

Scorched Earth: How Climate Change Is Spreading Drought Throughout the Globe

That is pretty much the role now being played by most of the news media in refereeing the current wrestling match over whether global warming is “real,” and whether it has any connection to the constant dumping of 90 million tons of heat-trapping emissions into the Earth’s thin shell of atmosphere every 24 hours.

Admittedly, the contest over global warming is a challenge for the referee because it’s a tag-team match, a real free-for-all. In one corner of the ring are Science and Reason. In the other corner: Poisonous Polluters and Right-wing Ideologues.

The referee — in this analogy, the news media — seems confused about whether he is in the news business or the entertainment business. Is he responsible for ensuring a fair match? Or is he part of the show, selling tickets and building the audience? The referee certainly seems distracted: by Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, the latest reality show — the list of serial obsessions is too long to enumerate here.

But whatever the cause, the referee appears not to notice that the Polluters and Ideologues are trampling all over the “rules” of democratic discourse. They are financing pseudoscientists whose job is to manufacture doubt about what is true and what is false; buying elected officials wholesale with bribes that the politicians themselves have made “legal” and can now be made in secret; spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on misleading advertisements in the mass media; hiring four anti-climate lobbyists for every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. (Question: Would Michael Jordan have been a star if he was covered by four defensive players every step he took on the basketball court?)

This script, of course, is not entirely new: A half-century ago, when Science and Reason established the linkage between cigarettes and lung diseases, the tobacco industry hired actors, dressed them up as doctors, and paid them to look into television cameras and tell people that the linkage revealed in the Surgeon General’s Report was not real at all. The show went on for decades, with more Americans killed each year by cigarettes than all of the U.S. soldiers killed in all of World War II.

This time, the scientific consensus is even stronger. It has been endorsed by every National Academy of science of every major country on the planet, every major professional scientific society related to the study of global warming and 98 percent of climate scientists throughout the world. In the latest and most authoritative study by 3,000 of the very best scientific experts in the world, the evidence was judged “unequivocal.”

But wait! The good guys transgressed the rules of decorum, as evidenced in their private e-mails that were stolen and put on the Internet. The referee is all over it: Penalty! Go to your corner! And in their 3,000-page report, the scientists made some mistakes! Another penalty!

And if more of the audience is left confused about whether the climate crisis is real? Well, the show must go on. After all, it’s entertainment. There are tickets to be sold, eyeballs to glue to the screen.

Part of the script for this show was leaked to The New York Times as early as 1991. In an internal document, a consortium of the largest global-warming polluters spelled out their principal strategy: “Reposition global warming as theory, rather than fact.” Ever since, they have been sowing doubt even more effectively than the tobacco companies before them.

To sell their false narrative, the Polluters and Ideologues have found it essential to undermine the public’s respect for Science and Reason by attacking the integrity of the climate scientists. That is why the scientists are regularly accused of falsifying evidence and exaggerating its implications in a greedy effort to win more research grants, or secretly pursuing a hidden political agenda to expand the power of government. Such slanderous insults are deeply ironic: extremist ideologues — many financed or employed by carbon polluters — accusing scientists of being greedy extremist ideologues.

After World War II, a philosopher studying the impact of organized propaganda on the quality of democratic debate wrote, “The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false.”

Is the climate crisis real? Yes, of course it is. Pause for a moment to consider these events of just the past 12 months:

Heat. According to NASA, 2010 was tied with 2005 as the hottest year measured since instruments were first used systematically in the 1880s. Nineteen countries set all-time high temperature records. One city in Pakistan, Mohenjo-Daro, reached 128.3 degrees Fahrenheit, the hottest temperature ever measured in an Asian city. Nine of the 10 hottest years in history have occurred in the last 13 years. The past decade was the hottest ever measured, even though half of that decade represented a “solar minimum” — the low ebb in the natural cycle of solar energy emanating from the sun.

Floods. Megafloods displaced 20 million people in Pakistan, further destabilizing a nuclear-armed country; inundated an area of Australia larger than Germany and France combined; flooded 28 of the 32 districts that make up Colombia, where it has rained almost continuously for the past year; caused a “thousand-year” flood in my home city of Nashville; and led to all-time record flood levels in the Mississippi River Valley. Many places around the world are now experiencing larger and more frequent extreme downpours and snowstorms; last year’s “Snowmaggedon” in the northeastern United States is part of the same pattern, notwithstanding the guffaws of deniers.

Drought. Historic drought and fires in Russia killed an estimated 56,000 people and caused wheat and other food crops in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to be removed from the global market, contributing to a record spike in food prices. “Practically everything is burning,” Russian president Dmitry Medvedev declared. “What’s happening with the planet’s climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us.” The drought level in much of Texas has been raised from “extreme” to “exceptional,” the highest category. This spring the majority of the counties in Texas were on fire, and Gov. Rick Perry requested a major disaster declaration for all but two of the state’s 254 counties. Arizona is now fighting the largest fire in its history. Since 1970, the fire season throughout the American West has increased by 78 days. Extreme droughts in central China and northern France are currently drying up reservoirs and killing crops.

Melting Ice. An enormous mass of ice, four times larger than the island of Manhattan, broke off from northern Greenland last year and slipped into the sea. The acceleration of ice loss in both Greenland and Antarctica has caused another upward revision of global sea-level rise and the numbers of refugees expected from low-lying coastal areas. The Arctic ice cap, which reached a record low volume last year, has lost as much as 40 percent of its area during summer in just 30 years.

These extreme events are happening in real time. It is not uncommon for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial; after all, there are scientists on one side of the debate and deniers on the other. A Fox News executive, in an internal e-mail to the network’s reporters and editors that later became public, questioned the “veracity of climate change data” and ordered the journalists to “refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question.”

But in the “real” world, the record droughts, fires, floods and mudslides continue to increase in severity and frequency. Leading climate scientists like Jim Hansen and Kevin Trenberth now say that events like these would almost certainly not be occurring without the influence of man-made global warming. And that’s a shift in the way they frame these impacts. Scientists used to caution that we were increasing the probability of such extreme events by “loading the dice” — pumping more carbon into the atmosphere. Now the scientists go much further, warning that we are “painting more dots on the dice.” We are not only more likely to roll 12s; we are now rolling 13s and 14s. In other words, the biggest storms are not only becoming more frequent, they are getting bigger, stronger and more destructive.

“The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change,” Munich Re, one of the two largest reinsurance companies in the world, recently stated. “The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current state of scientific knowledge.”

Many of the extreme and destructive events are the result of the rapid increase in the amount of heat energy from the sun that is trapped in the atmosphere, which is radically disrupting the planet’s water cycle. More heat energy evaporates more water into the air, and the warmer air holds a lot more moisture. This has huge consequences that we now see all around the world.

When a storm unleashes a downpour of rain or snow, the precipitation does not originate just in the part of the sky directly above where it falls. Storms reach out — sometimes as far as 2,000 miles — to suck in water vapor from large areas of the sky, including the skies above oceans, where water vapor has increased by four percent in just the last 30 years. (Scientists often compare this phenomenon to what happens in a bathtub when you open the drain; the water rushing out comes from the whole tub, not just from the part of the tub directly above the drain. And when the tub is filled with more water, more goes down the drain. In the same way, when the warmer sky is filled with a lot more water vapor, there are bigger downpours when a storm cell opens the “drain.”)

In many areas, these bigger downpours also mean longer periods between storms — at the same time that the extra heat in the air is also drying out the soil. That is part of the reason so many areas have been experiencing both record floods and deeper, longer-lasting droughts.

Moreover, the scientists have been warning us for quite some time — in increasingly urgent tones — that things will get much, much worse if we continue the reckless dumping of more and more heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere. Drought is projected to spread across significant, highly populated areas of the globe throughout this century. Look at what the scientists say is in store for the Mediterranean nations. Should we care about the loss of Spain, France, Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, Tunisia? Look at what they say is in store for Mexico. Should we notice? Should we care?

Maybe it’s just easier, psychologically, to swallow the lie that these scientists who devote their lives to their work are actually greedy deceivers and left-wing extremists — and that we should instead put our faith in the pseudoscientists financed by large carbon polluters whose business plans depend on their continued use of the atmospheric commons as a place to dump their gaseous, heat-trapping waste without limit or constraint, free of charge.

The truth is this: What we are doing is functionally insane. If we do not change this pattern, we will condemn our children and all future generations to struggle with ecological curses for several millennia to come. Twenty percent of the global-warming pollution we spew into the sky each day will still be there 20,000 years from now!

We do have another choice. Renewable energy sources are coming into their own. Both solar and wind will soon produce power at costs that are competitive with fossil fuels; indications are that twice as many solar installations were erected worldwide last year as compared to 2009. The reductions in cost and the improvements in efficiency of photovoltaic cells over the past decade appear to be following an exponential curve that resembles a less dramatic but still startling version of what happened with computer chips over the past 50 years.

Enhanced geothermal energy is potentially a nearly limitless source of competitive electricity. Increased energy efficiency is already saving businesses money and reducing emissions significantly. New generations of biomass energy — ones that do not rely on food crops, unlike the mistaken strategy of making ethanol from corn — are extremely promising. Sustainable forestry and agriculture both make economic as well as environmental sense. And all of these options would spread even more rapidly if we stopped subsidizing Big Oil and Coal and put a price on carbon that reflected the true cost of fossil energy — either through the much-maligned cap-and-trade approach, or through a revenue-neutral tax swap.

All over the world, the grassroots movement in favor of changing public policies to confront the climate crisis and build a more prosperous, sustainable future is growing rapidly. But most governments remain paralyzed, unable to take action — even after years of volatile gasoline prices, repeated wars in the Persian Gulf, one energy-related disaster after another, and a seemingly endless stream of unprecedented and lethal weather disasters.

Continuing on our current course would be suicidal for global civilization. But the key question is: How do we drive home that fact in a democratic society when questions of truth have been converted into questions of power? When the distinction between what is true and what is false is being attacked relentlessly, and when the referee in the contest between truth and falsehood has become an entertainer selling tickets to a phony wrestling match?

The “wrestling ring” in this metaphor is the conversation of democracy. It used to be called the “public square.” In ancient Athens, it was the Agora. In the Roman Republic, it was the Forum. In the Egypt of the recent Arab Spring, “Tahrir Square” was both real and metaphorical — encompassing Facebook, Twitter, Al-Jazeera and texting.

In the America of the late-18th century, the conversation that led to our own “Spring” took place in printed words: pamphlets, newsprint, books, the “Republic of Letters.” It represented the fullest flower of the Enlightenment, during which the oligarchic power of the monarchies, the feudal lords and the Medieval Church was overthrown and replaced with a new sovereign: the Rule of Reason.

The public square that gave birth to the new consciousness of the Enlightenment emerged in the dozen generations following the invention of the printing press — “the Gutenberg Galaxy,” the scholar Marshall McLuhan called it — a space in which the conversation of democracy was almost equally accessible to every literate person. Individuals could both find the knowledge that had previously been restricted to elites and contribute their own ideas.

Ideas that found resonance with others rose in prominence much the way Google searches do today, finding an ever larger audience and becoming a source of political power for individuals with neither wealth nor force of arms. Thomas Paine, to take one example, emigrated from England to Philadelphia with no wealth, no family connections and no power other than that which came from his ability to think and write clearly — yet his Common Sense became the Harry Potter of Revolutionary America. The “public interest” mattered, was actively discussed and pursued.

But the “public square” that gave birth to America has been transformed beyond all recognition. The conversation that matters most to the shaping of the “public mind” now takes place on television. Newspapers and magazines are in decline. The Internet, still in its early days, will one day support business models that make true journalism profitable — but up until now, the only successful news websites aggregate content from struggling print publications. Web versions of the newspapers themselves are, with few exceptions, not yet making money. They bring to mind the classic image of Wile E. Coyote running furiously in midair just beyond the edge of the cliff, before plummeting to the desert floor far beneath him.

The average American, meanwhile, is watching television an astonishing five hours a day. In the average household, at least one television set is turned on more than eight hours a day. Moreover, approximately 75 percent of those using the Internet frequently watch television at the same time that they are online.

Unlike access to the “public square” of early America, access to television requires large amounts of money. Thomas Paine could walk out of his front door in Philadelphia and find a dozen competing, low-cost print shops within blocks of his home. Today, if he traveled to the nearest TV station, or to the headquarters of nearby Comcast — the dominant television provider in America — and tried to deliver his new ideas to the American people, he would be laughed off the premises. The public square that used to be a commons has been refeudalized, and the gatekeepers charge large rents for the privilege of communicating to the American people over the only medium that really affects their thinking. “Citizens” are now referred to more commonly as “consumers” or “the audience.”

That is why up to 80 percent of the campaign budgets for candidates in both major political parties is devoted to the purchase of 30-second TV ads. Since the rates charged for these commercials increase each year, the candidates are forced to raise more and more money in each two-year campaign cycle.

Of course, the only reliable sources from which such large sums can be raised continuously are business lobbies. Organized labor, a shadow of its former self, struggles to compete, and individuals are limited by law to making small contributions. During the 2008 campaign, there was a bubble of hope that Internet-based fundraising might even the scales, but in the end, Democrats as well as Republicans relied far more on traditional sources of large contributions. Moreover, the recent deregulation of unlimited — and secret — donations by wealthy corporations has made the imbalance even worse.

In the new ecology of political discourse, special-interest contributors of the large sums of money now required for the privilege of addressing voters on a wholesale basis are not squeamish about asking for the quo they expect in return for their quid. Politicians who don’t acquiesce don’t get the money they need to be elected and re-elected. And the impact is doubled when special interests make clear — usually bluntly — that the money they are withholding will go instead to opponents who are more than happy to pledge the desired quo. Politicians have been racing to the bottom for some time, and are presently tunneling to new depths. It is now commonplace for congressmen and senators first elected decades ago — as I was — to comment in private that the whole process has become unbelievably crass, degrading and horribly destructive to the core values of American democracy.

Largely as a result, the concerns of the wealthiest individuals and corporations routinely trump the concerns of average Americans and small businesses. There are a ridiculously large number of examples: eliminating the inheritance tax paid by the wealthiest one percent of families is considered a much higher priority than addressing the suffering of the millions of long-term unemployed; Wall Street’s interest in legalizing gambling in trillions of dollars of “derivatives” was considered way more important than protecting the integrity of the financial system and the interests of middle-income home buyers. It’s a long list.

Almost every group organized to promote and protect the “public interest” has been backpedaling and on the defensive. By sharp contrast, when a coalition of powerful special interests sets out to manipulate U.S. policy, their impact can be startling — and the damage to the true national interest can be devastating.

In 2002, for example, the feverish desire to invade Iraq required convincing the American people that Saddam Hussein was somehow responsible for attacking the United States on September 11th, 2001, and that he was preparing to attack us again, perhaps with nuclear weapons. When the evidence — the “facts” — stood in the way of that effort to shape the public mind, they were ridiculed, maligned and ignored. Behind the scenes, the intelligence was manipulated and the public was intentionally deceived. Allies were pressured to adopt the same approach with their publics. A recent inquiry in the U.K. confirmed this yet again. “We knew at the time that the purpose of the dossier was precisely to make a case for war, rather than setting out the available intelligence,” Maj. Gen. Michael Laurie testified. “To make the best out of sparse and inconclusive intelligence, the wording was developed with care.” Why? As British intelligence put it, the overthrow of Saddam was “a prize because it could give new security to oil supplies.”

That goal — the real goal — could have been debated on its own terms. But as Bush administration officials have acknowledged, a truly candid presentation would not have resulted in sufficient public support for the launching of a new war. They knew that because they had studied it and polled it. So they manipulated the debate, downplayed the real motive for the invasion, and made a different case to the public — one based on falsehoods.

And the “referee” — the news media — looked the other way. Some, like Fox News, were hyperactive cheerleaders. Others were intimidated into going along by the vitriol heaped on any who asked inconvenient questions. (They know it; many now acknowledge it, sheepishly and apologetically.)

Senators themselves fell, with a few honorable exceptions, into the same two camps. A few weeks before the United States invaded Iraq, the late Robert Byrd — God rest his soul — thundered on the Senate floor about the pitiful quality of the debate over the choice between war and peace: “Yet, this Chamber is, for the most part, silent — ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.”

The chamber was silent, in part, because many senators were somewhere else — attending cocktail parties and receptions, largely with special-interest donors, raising money to buy TV ads for their next campaigns. Nowadays, in fact, the scheduling of many special-interest fundraisers mirrors the schedule of votes pending in the House and Senate.

By the time we invaded Iraq, polls showed, nearly three-quarters of the American people were convinced that the person responsible for the planes flying into the World Trade Center Towers was indeed Saddam Hussein. The rest is history — though, as Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Because of that distortion of the truth in the past, we are still in Iraq; and because the bulk of our troops and intelligence assets were abruptly diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq, we are also still in Afghanistan.

In the same way, because the banks had their way with Congress when it came to gambling on unregulated derivatives and recklessly endangering credit markets with subprime mortgages, we still have almost double-digit unemployment, historic deficits, Greece and possibly other European countries teetering on the edge of default, and the threat of a double-dip recession. Even the potential default of the United States of America is now being treated by many politicians and too many in the media as yet another phony wrestling match, a political game. Are the potential economic consequences of a U.S. default “real”? Of course they are! Have we gone completely nuts?

We haven’t gone nuts — but the “conversation of democracy” has become so deeply dysfunctional that our ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. Throughout American history, we relied on the vibrancy of our public square — and the quality of our democratic discourse — to make better decisions than most nations in the history of the world. But we are now routinely making really bad decisions that completely ignore the best available evidence of what is true and what is false. When the distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence — when a great nation makes crucially important decisions on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion — the public interest is severely damaged.

That is exactly what is happening with U.S. decisions regarding the climate crisis. The best available evidence demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the reckless spewing of global-warming pollution in obscene quantities into the atmospheric commons is having exactly the consequences long predicted by scientists who have analyzed the known facts according to the laws of physics.

The emergence of the climate crisis seems sudden only because of a relatively recent discontinuity in the relationship between human civilization and the planet’s ecological system. In the past century, we have quadrupled global population while relying on the burning of carbon-based fuels — coal, oil and gas — for 85 percent of the world’s energy. We are also cutting and burning forests that would otherwise help remove some of the added CO2 from the atmosphere, and have converted agriculture to an industrial model that also runs on carbon-based fuels and strip-mines carbon-rich soils.

The cumulative result is a radically new reality — and since human nature makes us vulnerable to confusing the unprecedented with the improbable, it naturally seems difficult to accept. Moreover, since this new reality is painful to contemplate, and requires big changes in policy and behavior that are at the outer limit of our ability, it is all too easy to fall into the psychological state of denial. As with financial issues like subprime mortgages and credit default swaps, the climate crisis can seem too complex to worry about, especially when the shills for the polluters constantly claim it’s all a hoax anyway. And since the early impacts of climatic disruption are distributed globally, they masquerade as an abstraction that is safe to ignore.

These vulnerabilities, rooted in our human nature, are being manipulated by the tag-team of Polluters and Ideologues who are trying to deceive us. And the referee — the news media — is once again distracted. As with the invasion of Iraq, some are hyperactive cheerleaders for the deception, while others are intimidated into complicity, timidity and silence by the astonishing vitriol heaped upon those who dare to present the best evidence in a professional manner. Just as TV networks who beat the drums of war prior to the Iraq invasion were rewarded with higher ratings, networks now seem reluctant to present the truth about the link between carbon pollution and global warming out of fear that conservative viewers will change the channel — and fear that they will receive a torrent of flame e-mails from deniers.

Many politicians, unfortunately, also fall into the same two categories: those who cheerlead for the deniers and those who cower before them. The latter group now includes several candidates for the Republican presidential nomination who have felt it necessary to abandon their previous support for action on the climate crisis; at least one has been apologizing profusely to the deniers and begging for their forgiveness.

“Intimidation” and “timidity” are connected by more than a shared word root. The first is designed to produce the second. As Yeats wrote almost a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Barack Obama’s approach to the climate crisis represents a special case that requires careful analysis. His election was accompanied by intense hope that many things in need of change would change. Some things have, but others have not. Climate policy, unfortunately, is in the second category. Why?

First of all, anyone who honestly examines the incredible challenges confronting President Obama when he took office has to feel enormous empathy for him: the Great Recession, with the high unemployment and the enormous public and private indebtedness it produced; two seemingly interminable wars; an intractable political opposition whose true leaders — entertainers masquerading as pundits — openly declared that their objective was to ensure that the new president failed; a badly broken Senate that is almost completely paralyzed by the threat of filibuster and is controlled lock, stock and barrel by the oil and coal industries; a contingent of nominal supporters in Congress who are indentured servants of the same special interests that control most of the Republican Party; and a ferocious, well-financed and dishonest campaign poised to vilify anyone who dares offer leadership for the reduction of global-warming pollution.

In spite of these obstacles, President Obama included significant climate-friendly initiatives in the economic stimulus package he presented to Congress during his first month in office. With the skillful leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and committee chairmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey, he helped secure passage of a cap-and-trade measure in the House a few months later. He implemented historic improvements in fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, and instructed the Environmental Protection Agency to move forward on the regulation of global-warming pollution under the Clean Air Act. He appointed many excellent men and women to key positions, and they, in turn, have made hundreds of changes in environmental and energy policy that have helped move the country forward slightly on the climate issue. During his first six months, he clearly articulated the link between environmental security, economic security and national security — making the case that a national commitment to renewable energy could simultaneously reduce unemployment, dependence on foreign oil and vulnerability to the disruption of oil markets dominated by the Persian Gulf reserves. And more recently, as the issue of long-term debt has forced discussion of new revenue, he proposed the elimination of unnecessary and expensive subsidies for oil and gas.

But in spite of these and other achievements, President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change. After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding. After the House passed cap and trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority. Senate advocates — including one Republican — felt abandoned when the president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that “drill, baby, drill” is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.

The failure to pass legislation to limit global-warming pollution ensured that the much-anticipated Copenhagen summit on a global treaty in 2009 would also end in failure. The president showed courage in attending the summit and securing a rhetorical agreement to prevent a complete collapse of the international process, but that’s all it was — a rhetorical agreement. During the final years of the Bush-Cheney administration, the rest of the world was waiting for a new president who would aggressively tackle the climate crisis — and when it became clear that there would be no real change from the Bush era, the agenda at Copenhagen changed from “How do we complete this historic breakthrough?” to “How can we paper over this embarrassing disappointment?”

Some concluded from the failure in Copenhagen that it was time to give up on the entire U.N.-sponsored process for seeking an international agreement to reduce both global-warming pollution and deforestation. Ultimately, however, the only way to address the climate crisis will be with a global agreement that in one way or another puts a price on carbon. And whatever approach is eventually chosen, the U.S. simply must provide leadership by changing our own policy.

Yet without presidential leadership that focuses intensely on making the public aware of the reality we face, nothing will change. The real power of any president, as Richard Neustadt wrote, is “the power to persuade.” Yet President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community — including our own National Academy — to bring the reality of the science before the public.

Here is the core of it: we are destroying the climate balance that is essential to the survival of our civilization. This is not a distant or abstract threat; it is happening now. The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.

Many political advisers assume that a president has to deal with the world of politics as he finds it, and that it is unwise to risk political capital on an effort to actually lead the country toward a new understanding of the real threats and real opportunities we face. Concentrate on the politics of re-election, they say. Don’t take chances.

All that might be completely understandable and make perfect sense in a world where the climate crisis wasn’t “real.” Those of us who support and admire President Obama understand how difficult the politics of this issue are in the context of the massive opposition to doing anything at all — or even to recognizing that there is a crisis. And assuming that the Republicans come to their senses and avoid nominating a clown, his re-election is likely to involve a hard-fought battle with high stakes for the country. All of his supporters understand that it would be self-defeating to weaken Obama and heighten the risk of another step backward. Even writing an article like this one carries risks; opponents of the president will excerpt the criticism and strip it of context.

But in this case, the President has reality on his side. The scientific consensus is far stronger today than at any time in the past. Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act.

Those who profit from the unconstrained pollution that is the primary cause of climate change are determined to block our perception of this reality. They have help from many sides: from the private sector, which is now free to make unlimited and secret campaign contributions; from politicians who have conflated their tenures in office with the pursuit of the people’s best interests; and — tragically — from the press itself, which treats deception and falsehood on the same plane as scientific fact, and calls it objective reporting of alternative opinions.

All things are not equally true. It is time to face reality. We ignored reality in the marketplace and nearly destroyed the world economic system. We are likewise ignoring reality in the environment, and the consequences could be several orders of magnitude worse. Determining what is real can be a challenge in our culture, but in order to make wise choices in the presence of such grave risks, we must use common sense and the rule of reason in coming to an agreement on what is true.

So how can we make it happen? How can we as individuals make a difference? In five basic ways:

First, become a committed advocate for solving the crisis. You can start with something simple: Speak up whenever the subject of climate arises. When a friend or acquaintance expresses doubt that the crisis is real, or that it’s some sort of hoax, don’t let the opportunity pass to put down your personal marker. The civil rights revolution may have been driven by activists who put their lives on the line, but it was partly won by average Americans who began to challenge racist comments in everyday conversations.

Second, deepen your commitment by making consumer choices that reduce energy use and reduce your impact on the environment. The demand by individuals for change in the marketplace has already led many businesses to take truly significant steps to reduce their global-warming pollution. Some of the corporate changes are more symbolic than real — “green-washing,” as it’s called — but a surprising amount of real progress is taking place. Walmart, to pick one example, is moving aggressively to cut its carbon footprint by 20 million metric tons, in part by pressuring its suppliers to cut down on wasteful packaging and use lower-carbon transportation alternatives. Reward those companies that are providing leadership.

Third, join an organization committed to action on this issue. The Alliance for Climate Protection (climateprotect.org), which I chair, has grassroots action plans for the summer and fall that spell out lots of ways to fight effectively for the policy changes we need. We can also enable you to host a slide show in your community on solutions to the climate crisis — presented by one of the 4,000 volunteers we have trained. Invite your friends and neighbors to come and then enlist them to join the cause.

Fourth, contact your local newspapers and television stations when they put out claptrap on climate — and let them know you’re fed up with their stubborn and cowardly resistance to reporting the facts of this issue. One of the main reasons they are so wimpy and irresponsible about global warming is that they’re frightened of the reaction they get from the deniers when they report the science objectively. So let them know that deniers are not the only ones in town with game. Stay on them! Don’t let up! It’s true that some media outlets are getting instructions from their owners on this issue, and that others are influenced by big advertisers, but many of them are surprisingly responsive to a genuine outpouring of opinion from their viewers and readers. It is way past time for the ref to do his job.

Finally, and above all, don’t give up on the political system. Even though it is rigged by special interests, it is not so far gone that candidates and elected officials don’t have to pay attention to persistent, engaged and committed individuals. President Franklin Roosevelt once told civil rights leaders who were pressing him for change that he agreed with them about the need for greater equality for black Americans. Then, as the story goes, he added with a wry smile, “Now go out and make me do it.”

To make our elected leaders take action to solve the climate crisis, we must forcefully communicate the following message: “I care a lot about global warming; I am paying very careful attention to the way you vote and what you say about it; if you are on the wrong side, I am not only going to vote against you, I will work hard to defeat you — regardless of party. If you are on the right side, I will work hard to elect you.”

Why do you think President Obama and Congress changed their game on “don’t ask, don’t tell?” It happened because enough Americans delivered exactly that tough message to candidates who wanted their votes. When enough people care passionately enough to drive that message home on the climate crisis, politicians will look at their hole cards, and enough of them will change their game to make all the difference we need.

This is not naive; trust me on this. It may take more individual voters to beat the Polluters and Ideologues now than it once did — when special-interest money was less dominant. But when enough people speak this way to candidates, and convince them that they are dead serious about it, change will happen — both in Congress and in the White House. As the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass once observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.”

What is now at risk in the climate debate is nothing less than our ability to communicate with one another according to a protocol that binds all participants to seek reason and evaluate facts honestly. The ability to perceive reality is a prerequisite for self-governance. Wishful thinking and denial lead to dead ends. When it works, the democratic process helps clear the way toward reality, by exposing false argumentation to the best available evidence. That is why the Constitution affords such unique protection to freedom of the press and of speech.

The climate crisis, in reality, is a struggle for the soul of America. It is about whether or not we are still capable — given the ill health of our democracy and the current dominance of wealth over reason — of perceiving important and complex realities clearly enough to promote and protect the sustainable well-being of the many. What hangs in the balance is the future of civilization as we know it.

Texas Emergency Management: Tornadoes? Nah, Lubbock Readies for Impending Civil War (Should Obama Be Reelected)

If you have not been following Think Progress and missed this surrealistic nugget about emergency readiness and management, Texas GOP style, fasten you seat belt.

Tornadoes?  No, the worst-case scenario being prepared for by Lubbock County Judge Tom Head is President Obama winning reelection. That, of course, will lead to civil war, especially because Obama is planning to send in U.N. troops to occupy Lubbock, Texas. Luckily, Judge Head proudly has declared that he will be joining the armed resistance against the U.N. takeover of American sovereignty. And the Sheriff is with him.

As reported by (who else?) a local Fox News Affiliate, and quoted on Think Progress Justice by Ian Millhiser, Judge Head is readying Lubbock for this threat:

“[Obama] is going to try to hand over the sovereignty of the United States to the UN. Okay, what’s going to happen when that happens? I’m thinking worst case scenario here. Civil unrest, civil disobedience, civil war maybe. We’re not just talking a few riots here and demonstrations. We’re talking Lexington-Concord take up arms and get rid of the guy”

“Now what’s going to happen if we do that, if the public decides to do that? He’s going to send in U.N. troops — with the little blue beanies. I don’t want ‘em in Lubbock County. Okay. So I’m going to stand in front of their armored personnel carrier and say ‘you’re not coming in here’. “And the sheriff, I’ve already asked him, I said ‘you gonna back me’ he said, ‘yeah, I’ll back you.’”

OK, let’s not exaggerate. He’s talkin’ worst case scenario.  And that is not a tornado or hurricane, although you might think that emergency management is supposed to focus on natural disasters, it’s those little blue beanies.

Only in America.

As Millhiser points out, “Head’s brand of paranoia is hardly limited to low-level county officials in Texas. Ted Cruz, the Texas GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate, published an article last January claiming that billionaire George Soros is leading a global United Nation’s conspiracy to eliminate the game of golf.”

Meet Paul Ryan

Meet Paul Ryan:
Climate Denier, Conspiracy Theorist, Koch Acolyte

By Climate Guest Blogger on Aug 11, 2012 at 8:46 am, on Climate Progress

By Brad Johnson, campaign manager for Forecast the Facts

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential pick, is a virulent denier of climate science, with a voting record to match.

A favorite of the Koch brothers, Ryan has accused scientists of engaging in conspiracy to “intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” He has implied that snow invalidates global warming.

Ryan has voted to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from limiting greenhouse pollution, to eliminate White House climate advisers, to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from preparing for climate disasters like the drought devastating his home state, and to eliminate the Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E):

Paul Ryan Promoted Unfounded Conspiracy Theories About Climate Scientists. In a December 2009 op-ed during international climate talks, Ryan made reference to the hacked University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit emails. He accused climatologists of a “perversion of the scientific method, where data were manipulated to support a predetermined conclusion,” in order to “intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” Because of spurious claims of conspiracy like these, several governmental and academic inquiries were launched, all of which found the accusations to be without merit. [Paul Ryan, 12/11/09]

Paul Ryan Argued Snow Invalidates Global Warming Policy. In the same anti-science, anti-scientist December 2009 op-ed, Ryan argued, “Unilateral economic restraint in the name of fighting global warming has been a tough sell in our communities, where much of the state is buried under snow.” Ryan’s line is especially disingenuous because he hasn’t been trying to sell climate action, he’s been spreading disinformation.  [Paul Ryan, 12/11/09]

Paul Ryan Voted To Eliminate EPA Limits On Greenhouse Pollution. Ryan voted in favor of H.R. 910, introduced in 2011 by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI) to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas pollution. [Roll Call 249, 4/7/11]

Paul Ryan Voted To Block The USDA From Preparing For Climate Change. In 2011, Ryan voted in favor of the Scalise (R-LA) Amendment to the FY12 Agriculture Appropriations bill, to bar the U.S. Department of Agriculture from implementing its Climate Protection Plan. [Roll Call 448, 6/16/11]

Paul Ryan Voted To Eliminate White House Climate Advisers. Ryan voted in favor of Scalise (R-LA) Amendment 204 to the 2011 Continuing Resolution, to eliminate the assistant to the president for energy and climate change, the special envoy for climate change (Todd Stern), and the special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation. [Roll Call 87, 2/17/11]

Paul Ryan Voted To Eliminate ARPA-E. Ryan voted in favor of Biggert (R-IL) Amendment 192 to the 2011 Continuing Resolution, to eliminate the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E). [Roll Call 55, 2/17/11]

Paul Ryan Voted To Eliminate Light Bulb Efficiency Standards. In 2011, Ryan voted to roll back light-bulb efficiency standards that had reinvigorated the domestic lighting industry and that significantly reduce energy waste and carbon pollution. [Roll Call 563, 7/12/11]

Paul Ryan Voted For Keystone XL. In 2011, Ryan voted to expedite the consideration and approval of the construction and operation of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. [Roll Call 650, 7/26/11]

Paul Ryan Budget Kept Big Oil Subsidies And Slashed Clean Energy Investment. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) proposed FY 2013 budget resolution retained a decade’s worth of oil tax breaks worth $40 billion, while slashing funding for investments in clean energy research, development, deployment, and commercialization, along with other energy programs. The plan called for a $3 billion cut in energy programs in FY 2013 alone. [CAP, 3/20/12]

In short, Paul Ryan stands with Big Oil against scientific fact and the future of human civilization.

This piece has been updated.

Related Post:

The Kardashians, Global Warming, and Extreme Weather

The record heat wave in the United States is raising a lot of questions about whether this is a preview of our future. It takes extreme weather events to get long term global climate change any attention. Who knows, enough wildfires and droughts and 115 degree temperatures in Kansas might get someone to notice what is happening over the long run. If you have any hope that the recent meteorological catastrophes will have an upside of increasing public awareness of its causes, well, don’t count on it.

Take a look at the recent study by Media Matters, which shows that the Kardashians still get 40 times more news coverage than global warming’s “evil twin,” ocean acidification. Ha! Am I the only person in America who would not recognize a Kardashian if I bumped into one here in Canandaigua? What exactly are they famous for anyway, other than being famous? I need to get out more.

I have been reading a lot of terrific work these past few months about things I had been blogging about, like what exactly Americans think about big issues.  So instead of writing, I have been walking around scratching my head and saying things like, “Really?!”  I gave a few lectures about topics that have included how to talk to people who do not want to be reasoned with, including this one about climate climate communication, caught on video, where I mostly presented some ideas developed by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky:

One of the main points in this talk was to explore what we have learned since realizing that “the information deficit model” is false; that is, that people will not think differently about climate change just because they are provided with more information about what is really going on. Recently, a number of writers have drawn a pretty idiotic lesson from this, namely, that it is pointless to learn about what is really going on.

Here is an excellent piece posted the other day by Mark McCaffrey, in which he makes that point as a guest blogger for Climate Access, a site which with I am just becoming familiar. For those of you who do not know Mark McCaffey’s work, he helped establish the Climate Literacy Network and the related Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network (CLEAN), which includes a catalog of online resources as well as tips on the challenges/opportunities of teaching about climate and energy. He is now Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education, a fabulous organization that has for years been fighting the good fight against anti-science forces on two fronts: evolution, and, more recently, climate change.

June 29, 2012

Clueless About Climate Change

There’s a dangerous meme drifting through the climate community: that when it comes to “solving” climate change, literacy does not matter. True, years of promoting filling the information deficit with more facts hasn’t worked, but the current “literacy bashing,” repeated in climate blogs and conversations, is unfortunate, oversimplified and, to be blunt, nonsense. Literacy, particularly about 21st century challenges such as climate and energy, does matter.

The media is, as is often the case, partly to blame. “Global warming skeptics as knowledgeable about science as climate change believers,” read a recent headline from Fox News, reporting on a research paper by Dan Kahan and colleagues published in Nature Climate Change entitled: “The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks.” Mother Jones’ conclusion about the study: “Why Science Education Won’t Solve Our Climate Problems.”

But sometimes the researchers themselves suggest, sometimes intentionally, sometimes overtly, that literacy isn’t important.

The Kahan study — which did not look at people’s knowledge about climate change — examined the cultural and political profiles along with the science literacy and numeracy of some 1500 U.S. adults; none of the science literacy questions related to climate science. The study concluded that as “respondents’ science literacy scores increased, their concern with climate change decreased.”

But a closer look at the study, particularly the part that generated much of the media attention, reveals that both of the deliberately polarized groups were essentially illiterate in terms of science and numeracy. When asked post-publication which group was more scientifically literate, Kahan responded on his blog “neither, as far as I can tell.”

Too often researchers examining attitudes about climate change and the media reporting on them ignore or gloss over the depth of illiteracy, framing the problem solely or primarily as a cultural, ideological issue.

Paul Stern writes in a recent article in Nature Climate Change that “the lack of understanding at the individual level is not the problem,” and “believing that public opinion reflects a knowledge deficit is naïve…” And in the same issue, Paul Bain and colleagues in Australia parse the debate into “deniers” and “believers,” suggesting that deniers can be tricked to support enlightened climate policies by convincing them that mitigation efforts can promote a better society, downplaying climate change risks. “Don’t worry, be happy!” seems to be the take-home message of this approach, which the current U.S. Administration has tried, emphasizing Clean Energy and Green Jobs over risk reduction and preparation.

To be clear, information is not enough to develop policies, political will or technological solutions. But without current, accurate information, none of the above is possible. The fact that few people are literate about science in general and climate/energy in particular and, that in the absence of literacy, opinions, ideologies and psychological biases run riot, isn’t a surprise.

A few data points to consider:

  • Fewer than 20% of secondary school students are “very well informed” about climate science and solutions, and only 27 percent feel they’ve learned “a lot” about global warming in school, according to the Six Americas research conducted by the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. Most teens (and adults) would receive a D or an F if quizzed on the basics of climate or energy.
  • 28% of U.S. adults pass the muster for basic civic science literacy, says researcher Jonathan Miller, and the bulk of them became literate in college because they were required to take general education science courses to graduate, although they generally needed three years of high school science to be accepted into college to begin with.
  • The Six Americas research has also found that those who are the most concerned about climate change have relatively more knowledge about it, while those who are least concerned know the least. While most people do fail when quizzed on climate and energy basics, graded on a curve, 97% of those alarmed about climate change receive a passing grade, versus 56% of those who are dismissive of current climate science findings.

Where we went wrong

Climate education was, except in the rarified atmosphere of higher education, all but non-existent until 2009 when Congress authorized grants to improve climate literacy and climate change education became a presidential priority.  But federal funding is now dwindling, even as attempts to defund it altogether are promoted by members of Congress who dismiss climate change as a hoax.

Fifty years ago, climate change was part of science education materials. During the International Geophysical Year in 1958, the National Academies published science education materials for students — Planet Earth: The Mystery with 100,000 Clues — that acknowledged human carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels could, through the increased warming of the atmosphere, melt ice sheets and raise sea levels. Educational films and television programs at the time, including the Bell Science Hour, examined the potential impact of human activities on the natural greenhouse effect.

Then, for fifty years, the topic was usually missing altogether from science education materials. When it appeared at all, it was in passing, perhaps one or part of a chapter out of thirty in a textbook, a few days out of an entire semester. When National Science Education Standards were developed in the mid-1990s, human impacts on the climate system were deliberately not included (as was the topic of human evolution), kicking the can down the road with the claim that there wasn’t sufficient data to say for certain. Sadly, this — along with deliberate efforts to mislead and muddy the waters with manufactured doubt — perpetuated the climate literacy deficit and contributed to our inability to have an adult conversation about climate change over the past decade and a half.

Today, when climate and related energy topics are taught at all, all too often they are taught as controversy, with “both sides” being presented due to pressure or misguided sense of fairness and balance. Climate change is happening. Or it’s not. Humans are responsible. Or they’re not. Decarbonizing our energy system will help. Or it will destroy the American way of unfettered free-market capitalism.

But usually, climate change is missing in action from science education, falling through curricular cracks or held hostage by the polarized political climate. Even science-literate students graduating from college may not have ever learned the basics of climate change or society’s fossil-fuel-intensive energy infrastructure and its role in altering the climate system.

Some incremental progress has been made in the fast few years, progress that is now in jeopardy. In 2009, in an effort to establish a foundational framework to improve climate literacy, a group of us created the Climate Literacy initiative (and this year a companion Energy Literacy framework), which the Department of Energy led the development of, was released. Both are available through the US Global Change Research Program.

Congressional support in 2009, largely from stimulus funds, led to dozens of climate change education projects, such as the Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network, and related curriculum development, teacher professional training programs, and strategic partnerships between climate researchers, educators and cognitive science experts.

Now, with federal funding for climate and energy literacy spent out or threatened by Congress, private philanthropies that support climate policy and communications work need to step up to fill the breach and help improve society’s basic literacy about the crucial 21st century challenges of energy and climate/global change.

Yes, we have an enormous collective climate literacy deficit, and addressing it is an integral and imperative communication and policy priority for the sake of this and future generations.

Climate Change “Hoax” Hoax, XTRNORMAL style

Hat Tip: Leo Hickman. who points out this plays as if it is a female avatar for the Skeptical Science team (one of my favorite sites).

Climate Scientists and Smear Campaigns

A re-post of Michael Mann’s piece on CNN today. A chilling story that many of us have been following for quite some time now. Mann’s description is really worth reading.

**************************************************************************************************************************************

Climate scientists and smear campaigns

By Michael Mann, Special to CNN
updated 8:36 AM EDT, Wed March 28, 2012
The famed snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, actually glaciers, are retreating rapidly. Many scientists blame global warming.
The famed snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro, actually glaciers, are retreating rapidly. Many scientists blame global warming.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Climate scientist Michael Mann says he was target of nasty campaign to discredit his work
  • Mann: Attack against scientists was funded by fossil fuel industry, anti-science ideologists
  • All accusations proven false, he says, but it galvanized scientists to counter misinformation
  • Mann: Poisonous politics must not hijack the conversation about climate change

Editor’s note: Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty, holding joint positions in the Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with other scientists who participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

(CNN) — Imagine you are sitting in your office simply doing your job and a nasty e-mail pops into your inbox accusing you of being a fraud. You go online and find that some bloggers have written virulent posts about you. That night, you’re at home with your family watching the news and a talking head is lambasting you by name. Later, a powerful politician demands all your e-mails from your former employer.

It sounds surreal. But it all happened to me.

What was my offense? I worked on climate change research that indicated the world is a lot warmer today than it was in the past. Because that research caught the public’s attention when it was released in 1998, I became one of dozens of climate researchers who have been systematically targeted by a well-funded anti-science campaign.

Ironically, as these attacks have grown, the scientific facts have become ever clearer. Climate scientists know the world is warming and human activity — particularly burning coal and oil — is the primary driver. The idea of addressing climate change threatens some people in the fossil fuel industry. And a vocal minority of corporate interests and their ideological allies are spending a lot of money to hijack the public debate about climate change.

Michael Mann
Michael Mann

I call all this the “scientization” of politics. Attacks on science and scientists are an effort to advance a political agenda, not an effort to better understand science or the risks it uncovers. The tobacco industry did it when scientists linked cigarettes to cancer. The lead industry tried to discredit a scientist who found that lead exposure hurt children’s cognitive abilities.

Now, it’s climate scientists’ turn.

In the most infamous episode, somebody stole thousands of e-mails and documents from leading climate researchers, including me. They cherry picked key phrases from the e-mails and published them out of context, like a black-and-white political attack ad with ominous music. Fossil fuel industry-funded groups gleefully spread the e-mails online and badgered the mainstream media into covering the “controversy” they had manufactured.

It was no accident that this happened on the eve of a major international climate change meeting. Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil, was the first to call for an investigation.

The dozen independent investigations that did follow — all of which exonerated the scientists — got much less media coverage than the original nonscandal. Last year, the inspector general of the National Science Foundation found the charges against me were all baseless and reaffirmed mainstream climate science.

Larger political factors helped sink the climate change talks. But the stolen e-mail “scandal” has lived on. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (also a candidate for governor) cited it in his demand from my former employer — the University of Virginia — for all my documents and e-mails dating back several years.

On March 2, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in our favor — a Pyrrhic victory considering all of the money and resources wasted that could have been invested, for example, in measures to protect Virginia’s coastline from the damaging effects of the sea level rise it is already seeing.

These attacks have prompted me to tell my own story in a new book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.” Before it even came out, a coal industry front group ran radio advertisements condemning my employer, Penn State, for allowing me to speak on my own campus. Later, a former tobacco industry apologist offered $500 to anyone who would ask me a challenging question at another talk and provide him with video.

This is a silly — and indeed, dangerous — way to have a climate change debate in this country. What keeps climate scientists working away in our labs and in the field, is that we keep uncovering more evidence of how climate change will impact our planet and our lives.

In the face of these attacks, scientists are doing more to speak out, forming a Climate Science Rapid Response Team to connect scientists with journalists and a Climate Science Legal Defense Fund to help scientists defray legal costs. Groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists are redoubling their efforts to defend scientists and advance public understanding of climate change. And scientific societies are starting to do more to help their members deal with the poisonous political environment around climate change.

I first tackled climate science as a graduate student in theoretical physics, looking around for a topic that would be worthy of a lifetime’s work. Attacked both professionally and personally, I became a reluctant public figure in the climate wars. And now, as the father of a 6-year-old girl, I want to make sure the planet we leave her is at least as beautiful and healthy as the one we grew up on. At the very least, our nation’s political and business leaders deserve to have a debate about her future that is grounded in reality.

My daughter, and all of our children, deserve no less.

Wish I could re-write one sentence in this…

Nice lead story on Huff Post Green by Lynne Peeples. I did say everything she attributed to me, but one sentence of hers describing my aproach to these issues is the opposite of what I was trying to communicate.  The sentence is “In a way, the whole discussion is beside the point, according to Brophy. The question we should be asking, he said: “What are the policies we should adopt?”

True enough, but I did not mean to imply that Krosnick and Leiserowitz’s work is not central to understanding why that’s not happening. Take Krosnick’s work, for example. His fabulously designed polls and insightful analyses go to the heart of what puzzles me: There is a huge gap between what American actually believe, and how salient the issue actually is among the general public (and the subset of it for whom environmental issues especially important), on the one hand, and our policy makers on the other.  So I am also puzzled about why Bob Doppelt would say  “Krosnick is not addressing the nature of our political decision-making process, which is not driven by majority rule.”

Krosnick is providing exactly the data needed to see whether our representatives are, well not representing; Leiserowit’z “Six Americas” research and Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition Project are helping us understand how much and why climate change actually matters to Americans.

So, yes, in a way it is nuts that when the science has been settled, we are talking about whether people believe the basic facts of human caused global warming, and how much those beliefs matters. But it is surely needed and hardly beside the point at which we should already have arrived long ago: discussing policy alternatives for mitigation and adaptation and holding legislators accountable for not doing so.

February 17, 2012, re-posted from:

green
The Huffington Post

Lynne Peeples

Why Global Warming Still Considered Target Of Skepticism For Americans

Climate Change Denial

First Posted: 02/17/2012 7:20 pm Updated: 02/17/2012 8:48 pm

If you follow the popular polls, you might think that Americans are growing ever more skeptical about man-made climate change — despite the consensus among published climate scientists.

That’s simply not true, Jon Krosnick of Stanford University told an audience of social scientists and cognitive researchers Wednesday, in Garrison, N.Y. He maintained that most Americans do, in fact, believe.

The problem, Krosnick said during his talk at the Garrison Institute’s annual Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium, is that we haven’t been asking the public the right questions. The other problem: Legislators are reading their misleading answers and hearing from a vocal minority of constituents.

“Public opinion has the potential to move legislators,” he said. “But methods that political scientists are using to document the public will are going at a snail’s pace.”

With funding from major news outlets such as Reuters and ABC News, Krosnick’s team has been conducting its own national surveys over the last several years. Since 2009, their findings have diverged from those of other survey organizations.

Gallup and Pew polls show that the percentage of Americans that believe in climate change now hovers around 50 percent, but Krosnick’s latest poll — which asked the question in a more detailed way — suggests the figure is 83 percent — up from 79 percent in 1997. Of the global warming believers, the majority also reported thinking that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities play a role. The trend held after the researchers broke the data down by political party: 66 percent of Republicans said climate change is happening.

Further, not a single U.S. state had a majority opinion on the skeptical side, noted Krosnick. Even in Oklahoma, the home of one of the country’s most outspoken skeptics, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a large majority of the people polled agreed with the scientific consensus.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, doesn’t share the same optimism. Combining various public opinion polls, including Krosnick’s, he sees a downward trend in the percentage of Americans believing in global warming since 2007. Further, in a new open-ended poll, he’s found that the first thing that came to the minds of 23 percent of people when they thought about climate change was a naysayer thought, such as a recent record snowstorm or a conspiracy theory. This is up from 7 percent in 2003, he told The Huffington Post.

Krosnick and his colleagues also looked at two ways of framing a question about the public’s ranking of issues. In response to “What is the most important problem facing this country today?,” the economy ranked at the top with global warming dead last. When this question was reworded to ask, “What will be the most important problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?,” the results were reversed: Global warming ranked No. 1.

“This message is not getting across to Washington,” said Krosnick.

Scott Brophy, a philosophy professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, agreed that politicians are “out of touch” with the thinking of their constituents. Yet the problem remains, he said, that “1 in every 3 or 4 Americans doesn’t believe in a basic fact.”

For democracy to work, according to Brophy, we need to understand how and why people don’t trust the scientific facts.

Research has shown that people are motivated to find information that supports their beliefs. “Encountering counterarguments causes us to marshal forces like an army of white blood cells to defend against them,” said Brophy.

He pointed to the influence of massive disinformation campaigns such as the recently outed Heartland Institute. “This is a real threat to democracy,” he told HuffPost.

“Krosnick is not addressing the nature of our political decision-making process, which is not driven by majority rule,” added Bob Doppelt, executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, a non-profit organization affiliated with Willamette University. “It’s driven by elites that paid for, fund and have the most access and, therefore, the most influence over officials …”

In a way, the whole discussion is beside the point, according to Brophy. The question we should be asking, he said: “What are the policies we should adopt?”

“There, reasonable people can disagree. Policy doesn’t automatically follow from the facts,” added Brophy. “Yet we continue arguing about whether the Earth is round. This is crazy.”

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