Earth Day, for some, is a yearly excuse to throw on a tie-dyed T-shirt, spend some time in the sun, and get some grass between the toes. In years past, it had also marked an opportunity for liberal policymakers and environmentalists to band together to warn about the effects of climate change. But today, climate change has taken a back seat to talk of clean technologies and energy security.
Washington is still full of people who warn about the dangers of carbon emissions. Take the Democrats in the ongoing debate in Congress over the Environmental Protection Agency's power to curb greenhouse gases. But the reality, and perhaps the one thing that experts on both sides of the debate agree on, is that Americans are paying less attention to global warming than they have in the past.
TV network news coverage of the issue in the United States reached its peak around mid-2006 and into the first three quarters of 2007, says Robert Brulle, an environmental sociology professor at Drexel University who has studied data on the media and global warming since the 1980s. By the fall of 2008, coverage had begun to drop off dramatically, apart from a huge spike around the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. Now, data show that the country's major media outlets mention climate change about as much as they did in 2004 and 2005. Analyses of the nation's major print media outlets show similar trends.
And the issue's lower profile seems to be having an effect on public opinion. Polls from George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication show that Americans' worry about climate change was at a zenith around November 2008, with 54 percent saying that it should be a high priority for the government. Last June, however, only about 44 percent said it should be a high priority. A Gallup poll from last month found that Americans rated global warming as the environmental problem they worry about the least.
Despite the waning levels of concern, the bulk of environmentalists argue that the threat hasn't changed. Naomi Oreskes, a science historian and coauthor of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, says major climate scientists unequivocally agree that global warming is caused by humans. The problem, she says, is still as real and as serious as they thought it was during the height of public awareness. So, what's caused this gradual decline of public interest?
Some point to the doubt that may have arisen from scientists' inability to agree on a tipping point, when climate change would have a noticeable effect. Without such a deadline, the urgency fades. The controversy that erupted when the honesty of British climatologists was called into question—following a leak of E-mails in late 2009—may also have affected public opinion, although the scientists were eventually exonerated.
But even the peaks of interest can be pinned to major events, not necessarily to a growing concern. Former vice president and future Nobel Peace Prize recipient Al Gore sparked increased interest when he released his documentary on the climate change crisis, An Inconvenient Truth, in May 2006. Another major spike was in 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its most recent report. By contrast, experts suggest that the crash of the economy in the fall of 2008 may have reversed the tides.
As Americans lost their jobs, climate change became a less immediate worry. The Obama administration took note, adopting more immediate economic proposals, like the "green jobs" initiative in 2009 and this year's announcement of clean energy goals. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who now works with the Pew Clean Energy Program to promote clean energy policy, says that since Americans care more about jobs, it would be a waste of time to debate climate change. "What's important to talk about are the things that we can get done right now. A lot of energy has been spent in the past on debating whether or not climate change is caused by humans or by nature, but the bottom line is, this sector is growing and we need jobs, so let's take advantage of it now," she says.
Just as Obama's team seems to have put the discussion of climate change on the back burner, so have many other politicians. Though it passed in the House of Representatives in 2009, cap-and-trade legislation came to rest in the Senate during the following election year, basically halting any hope for a direct emissions reduction policy from Congress. And since the Republicans swept the House last November, it's been impossible to bring forward new anti-carbon legislation. So advocates in the Obama administration and among Democrats are instead focused on defending the EPA, which is under attack from Republicans aiming to eliminate its authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
Also, early this year, House Speaker John Boehner did away with the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which was created in 2007 by then Speaker Nancy Pelosi, his Democratic predecessor, to deal specifically with global warming-related issues. "Last fall's congressional elections were really a turning point. The Republican Party . . . reached a political decision that they are not going to acknowledge [climate change] as an issue," says Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason center. "That was really the death knell of public dialogue about climate change for the time being."
Even Democrats who do see climate change as a problem have changed their tune in favor of more politically popular rhetoric. "Democratic leaders don't want to be talking about climate change or global warming, they want to be talking about clean energy or green jobs. You can read those as synonyms or euphemisms, but they're not," Maibach says.
The change in the debate might not be all politics, however. Myron Ebell, who directs the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, says it could be that the public, like many Republicans in Congress, is just coming around to reality—which, he says, is that global warming is not the threat that "alarmists" make it out to be. While there have been slight rises in temperatures, he says, the dire effects predicted in the past simply haven't played out. An example of this, originally pointed out last week by Gavin Atkins, a blogger at AsianCorrespondent.com, is the U.N. Environment Program's prediction in 2005 that there would be as many as 50 million people displaced by the effects of climate change by 2010. So far, censuses reportedly show more migration to rather than from the would-be affected areas. Ebell also says the claims that global warming would worsen malaria and that hurricanes would become more frequent remain unproven. "People aren't dumb. They remember what they saw last year and two years ago, and they say, 'Hey, that didn't happen,' and 'Nobody believes that anymore,' " Ebell says.
It's clear that the debate in Washington over climate science is nowhere near settled. And especially since the topic has fallen out of fashion to talk about, it may never be. As long as Democrats move forward with their more politically friendly energy strategy and Republicans stand firm on their platform, it looks like only apocalyptic weather effects could give global warming another day in the sun.