Sunday, August 12, 2012

America's Drought of Political Will on Climate Change

By Naomi Wolf
Guardian (UK)

August 8, 2012

As the US faces record drought and an Old Testament-
level pestilential heatwave in the midwest, American
environmental denialism may be starting to change. The
question is: is it too late?

America has led the world in climate change denial, a
phenomenon noted with amazement by Europeans, not to
mention thinking people around the world. Year after
year, the US has failed to sign global treaties or curb
emissions, even as our status as a source of a third of
the world's carbon emissions goes unchanged.

It is fairly well-known what has been behind that
climate change denial in America: vast sums pumped into
an ignorance industry by the oil and gas lobbies. Entire
thinktanks to obfuscate manmade climate change have been
funded by these interests, as have individual
congressmen and women. Entirely typical, for instance,
is Louisiana Representative John Fleming, whose
campaigns, according to blogger John Henry, accept about
$200,000 a year from oil and gas lobbyists, and who uses
his social media pages to deny global warming.

It is weird to live inside that US denial about climate

change. Last year, for example, as tropical storm Irene

approached New York, we duly boarded up windows, put in

emergency supplies, and heard endless alarming bulletins

from the mayor's office about which neighborhoods were

likely to be submerged if the tides surged – without

ever hearing from local officials or the media a word

connecting rising sea levels with manmade global

warming. All the more weird because New Yorkers weren't

writing off portions of their downtown neighborhoods to

overflowing seawater a century ago.

It is weird, too, to watch the leaves turn red earlier

and earlier in the fall in the American northeast and

have absolutely everyone say, "the weather is strange" –

yet never see mainstream media reflect any interest in

the connection between human industrial activity and

that strangeness. And this weather map shows how

widespread and extensive that extreme weather is in the US.

But could our denial be cracking, this summer, as, in

the heartland – that most iconic of American landscapes

– broiling temperatures injure humans and cook fish in

the water? This summer a crisis has occurred (though one

that, again, is seldom reported on in terms of our

outsize contribution to the disaster), as midwestern

farmers lost vast swaths of their corn crop to scalding

heat and drought. In the American unconscious of wishful

ignorance, this disaster and loss was to be borne, as

usual, by other people far away.

But we face some serious problems in rising out of our

torpor. In "Shifting Public Opinion on Climate Change:

An Empirical Assessment of Factors Influencing Concern

over Climate Change in the US, 2002–2010", John Wihbey

shows that Gallup surveys reveal Americans' level of

concern varying widely:

"In 2004, 26% of respondents said they worried "a

great deal" about the issue; in 2007 that number

rose to 41%; by 2010, it had fallen to 28%. This

variation comes despite consensus among scientists

about the underlying data patterns and virtual

unanimity of scientific opinion."

Wihbey and colleagues' study found that this fluctuation

was caused by, among other factors, political

polarization. In other words, when one party says global

warming is a crisis and the other says all that is

nonsense, and there is no cooperation between political

elites at both ends of the spectrum, the net result is


"The two strongest effects on public concern are

Democratic congressional action statements and

Republican roll-call votes, which increase and

diminish public concern, respectively. This finding

points to the effect of [a] polarized political

elite that is emitting contrary cues, with resulting

(seemingly) contrary levels of public concern."

They found, ominously, that the level and quality of

good information in the general media at large had

little effect on people's levels of concern – indeed,

weather events themselves had little bearing on people's

levels of climate-related anxiety or interest. Only the

combination of media coverage and expressed alarm from

political leaders bumped up public concern.

With the oil and gas lobbies pumping money into Congress

to blunt any professed concern among the political

class, that motivating union of genuine concern and

honest messaging can scarcely be relied on. The authors

conclude, dispiritedly:

"Given the vested economic interests reflected in

this polarization, it seems doubtful that any

communication process focused on persuading

individuals will have much impact."

I spent part of this summer looking at glaciers in

Alaska; in Juneau, in Tongass National Forest, park

rangers expect that a glacier there will withdraw, from

effects of anticipated climate change, in 50 years. So,

the federal government is planning for the effects of

manmade climate change, even as the White House and US

Congress remain paralysed from doing anything to arrest

the warming: the very definition of denial. If we don't

snap out of this stasis of stupidity, nothing can change

for good.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh but just give it a couple of months. The election happens in November, a month when it can be snowing in many parts of the USA. By the time its snowing, concerns over gloabl warming will be low again. All of those people who express concern about GW now during the summer months, will not be concerned at all. Now THAT is change you can beleive in.