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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dan Vergano, USA Today: Gingrich's Limbaugh troubles spell out climate divide

Gingrich's Limbaugh troubles spell out climate divide

by Dan Vergano, USA Today, February 17, 2012

Tired of debates? Poor political folks. Even politicians don't seem to like each other much these days, judging from their commercials

  • Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich meets with supporters during a campaign stop.
    Reneh Agha, AP
    Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich meets with supporters during a campaign stop.
Reneh Agha, AP
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich meets with supporters during a campaign stop.

So, why do folks keep listening to them? Especially about science. Especially about global warming.
"Scientists and scientific studies have a minimal effect on public opinion," says Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle, lead author of a new climate attitude study in theClimatic Change journal. "What really drives public opinion on climate change are the ways that political elites describe the science."
What do those scientists and those studies that people are ignoring have to say? Well, a report in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences two years ago found that more than 97% of working climate scientists agreed that the globe was warming. Burning fossil fuels is the likely leading reason for the rise, they agreed, an increase of about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in average global surface temperatures over a century,according to the U.S. National Academy of Science. That's just how it looks, whether we like it or not.
No matter. Public opinion nationwide has ebbed and flowed about climate change, with one recent national poll showing 50% of people still don't know all this. Instead they believe that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about climate change.
Why? In the current Climatic Change journal, Brulle and colleagues looked at 74 public opinion surveys from 2002 to 2010, in a bid to figure out the contradiction in opinions between experts and everyone else.
Maybe heat waves in some years and bad winters in others, for example, explained yo-yo's in public opinion? Nope, extreme weather events "had no effect" on overall opinion. Scientific studies themselves didn't move the needle much either.
How about those awful news reporters? News reports did affect public opinion, Brulle says, but the news stories were just the tail wagging of the dog, where about 85% of the time reporters were just reacting to fights about climate science already making waves elsewhere, not delivering any real news. "They were just reflecting events, not driving them."
What really mattered? You guessed it. Politicians.
"The two strongest effects on public concern are Democratic Congressional action statements and Republican roll-call votes, which increase and diminish public concern, respectively," finds the study. Not that people are paying attention to those statements and votes, C-SPAN junkies aside, but they are the concrete expressions of the "political polarization" over climate change that finds an outlet in commercials, news stories, speeches and everything else, that the study suggests, in turn, is really shaping how people think about global warming. In short, we don't like politicians much (Congress now enjoys an approval rating around 11.5%, down around telemarketer levels) but we are happy to let them think for us.
"The science doesn't matter because the science isn't the real issue," Brulle adds. "It's about politics and money." All we have with climate change, he suggests, is politicians taking sides in an economic debate over whether we should spend money to address climate change, or not (with one side very strongly opposed), and hiding behind a smokescreen of debate about settled science to avoid making those issues clear.
"Take away the political divide between parties over the environment and all the debate about the science disappears," Brulle says. Every time you read a story claiming globalwarming science isn't real, he concludes, you are watching a sideshow, a magician's act designed to distract you while our political and industrial leaders put off any decisions about climate. Consider the case of how one scientist literally vanished from a book by one politician.
"I've come up with a list of at least ten different reasons that people are confused about climate science. It's different for each person," says Texas Tech University climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisionswritten with her husband, an evangelical pastor, Andrew Farley.
Hayhoe has learned a lot about politicians and climate in the last two months. In December, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told an Iowa voter, alarmed by something the voter heard mentioned by radio personality and climate science naysayer Rush Limbaugh, that he was dropping a chapter that Hayhoe had written for abook he planned on environmental topics . Alakazam, no more distracting climate science.
The vanishing act for her chapter by Gingrich came as news to Hayhoe. "I've never spoken to him and he has never spoken to me," she said, this week. (The Gingrich campaign did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.)
What came next out of the rabbit's hat was an even bigger surprise. Hate mail. Threats against her and her child. So much that she told the Toronto Globe and Mail that she had lost count of all the angry messages aimed at her, a mother who happened to be a scientist telling people what all the evidence suggests is the truth about their world.
"There's a pattern of attacking people who speak out on climate change, by figures in the political elite such as Rush Limbaugh, that is almost rehearsed," Brulle says. "That's how it works," he says. "That's how public opinion on climate is shaped in our country."
"Every scientist who speaks out on climate science can expect pushback, it's par for the course," Hayhoe says. " My initial instinct said just to hide. But I made a conscious decision on behalf of all my colleagues in science to tell people what was going on."
So she did. And something else happened after the Toronto story and a Texas Climate News piece that followed it. "The hate mail almost completely died off," Hayhoe says. "I've gotten all kinds of nice e-mails from people who say, 'I agree with you.' " Evangelical church members, whom surveys suggest are among the big doubters on climate change, have written to say that they are inspired by her example.
Brulle is less optimistic that things can change, but he does note one last finding. "One thing our study shows is that public opinion can take big swings on climate," he says. Given an election year now underway, however, and the intense differences between the industries that fund U.S. political campaigns, "clean" energy vs. fossil fuels, Brulle holds out little hope for politicians changing their tunes any time soon.
But that still leaves some room out there for non-politicians to hear from the scientists. Whatever your views on addressing climate change, and there are economic arguments on every side of the issue, the science isn't really that complicated (increased greenhouse gases, by and large, increase atmospheric temperatures), and at least listening to a scientist means you hear fewer campaign commercials.
"A lot of what I've learned is that there is a lot of the fear (about climate science) based on myths and misunderstanding," Hayhoe says. "The big question is how do we move forward."

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