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Toward post-global warming-ism? (Dan Platt)

November 2, 2009

A few weeks ago, The Pew Research Center released the results of a study of American attitudes toward global warming. The results:

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Pew global warming poll

“There has been a sharp decline over the past year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising. And fewer also see global warming as a very serious problem – 35% say that today, down from 44% in April 2008.”

[Cue the pundits.]

I’m sure many of you read coverage of the poll on the news or in the blogs 1, and I’m sure that many of you reacted as I did: with some dismay and hand-wringing, and maybe a little bit of soul-searching. Why are Americans less concerned with global warming, and is there any hope of turning the tide?

I’m pretty certain politicians and nonprofits were not surprised by Pew’s poll: they’ve been plugged into similar polls since the economy began to collapse in the summer of 2008. I was working as a staff (read: hack) writer for an environmental nonprofit at the time, and the prevailing wisdom among my superiors was that a flagging economy would mean flagging support for action on global warming.

In fact, most of the folks with a real stake in the global warming debate began responding to the economic crisis almost immediately, shifting their messaging in significant ways. Less discussion of the harmful consequences of global warming, more discussion of potential benefits of taking action now (e.g., green jobs, less “dirty” energy like coal).

Here’s an example of some global warming messaging that was written before the economic crisis, from Environment America, a national environmental nonprofit (and, full disclosure, my former employer):

“More and more Americans are concerned about what global warming will mean for the health and well-being of future generations. Environment America is working in the states and at the federal level to reduce global warming pollution by at least 80 percent by 2050—the science-based reductions needed to protect future generations.”

Notice that the focus is on “future generations” and the appeal to the authority of science. It also presupposes “concern” about global warming.

And here’s an example of global warming rhetoric that was written after the economy began to falter in the spring of 2008 (also from Environment America):

“It’s time to repower America—to unleash the power of clean energy to protect our environment and rebuild our economy.

We can achieve dramatic improvements in the efficiency with which we use our energy, harness the power of the wind and the sun to get the energy that we do need, and create millions of jobs for Americans at the same time.”

The target is the same–convincing people to write their legislators to support the climate bill—but the focus is dramatically different. There’s no explicit reference to global warming (the phrase “protect our environment” is the only indication that we’re dealing with an “environmental” issue at all). Instead, the emphasis is on the economic benefits of taking action: “rebuild our economy,” “millions of jobs.” Even the new emphasis on “efficiency’ is born out of a sense of growing thriftiness in response to hard times.

Environment America is just one example of this trend. I think that a study of Barack Obama’s rhetoric on the issue would show similar changes, as would a study of the major “moderate” environmental organizations, such as Sierra Club and Al Gore’s Repower America campaign.

Has the rhetorical shift been a success? At first glance, the Pew numbers would seem to say no: fewer people than ever believe global warming is a serious problem. But a look at a different set of numbers from the Pew poll offers a different perspective:

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Pew emissions cap results

While it’s true that fewer people now consider global warming a serious problem, the numbers show a surprisingly high level of support for legislative action (like cap and trade). The number of people who believe that we should legislate emissions limits is actually substantially greater than the number of people who believe that global warming is a serious problem.

If the new rhetoric of mainstream climate activists (which skirts global warming entirely) has convinced people that an energy/climate bill would benefit them, have they sacrificed the debate on “global warming” – as a real environmental crisis — in the process?

How valuable is that debate, and how valuable is the term global warming to the environmental movement? Would you be willing to give up on “global warming” if it meant a strong energy bill with meaningful limits on emissions? Would the environmental movement fare better in a post-global warming-ist world?

1. The Atlantic has a good summary of different arguments for why the numbers have dropped.

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