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The Ungreening of America

Why are people caring less and less about the environment?

If you've been following the Copenhagen process this week, you may have noticed that the "debate" over climate change and what to do about it has regressed. Whereas, just a few years ago, George W. Bush acknowledged the human role in global warming and John McCain was a leading proponent of climate-change legislation, know-nothingism is now resurgent. The GOP pins its electoral hopes on slogans like "drill, baby drill" and "cap-and-tax"; McCain has soured on cap-and-trade; and on the nation's airwaves and op-ed pages, climate-change deniers (and their more circumspect brethren, the “skeptics”) crow triumphantly at every snowstorm and every controversy, real or imagined, that puts climate scientists on the defensive.

Worse yet, many years of painstaking efforts to explain climate change to the American people and get them concerned about it seem to be gradually unraveling. As Chris Mooney notes in a piece on the 'disastrous' turn in the narrative, an October 2009 Pew report shows that, since April 2008, the number of Americans who believe there is “solid evidence the earth is warming” has dropped from 71 percent to 57 percent. During that same period, the proportion who accept the existence of climate change and attribute it to human activity has dropped from 47 percent to 36 percent--not exactly a robust constituency for immediate action. (There is a brand new poll from the World Bank that suggests more robust support among Americans for carbon emissions limits; I hope--but don't believe, in the absence of more details--that it's accurate.)

What is causing this apparent unraveling? There are three competing theories as to its source:

(1) The first and most obvious is that support for allegedly expensive or growth-threatening environmental action always declines during economic downturns. Gallup periodically asks Americans which they value more: environmental protection or economic growth. Interestingly, from 1984–2008, a plurality (and usually a strong majority) of Americans always prioritized the environment over growth (even when their voting behavior indicated otherwise). But this tendency to prioritize environmental action does flag during recessions, as was evidenced by a steep slide in the "top priority environment" / "top priority growth" ratio from 70 percent / 23 percent in 2000 to 47 percent / 42 percent in 2003. After an uptick in support for the environment as a priority over the economy from 2004–2007, the ratio nose-dived during the most recent economic crisis, to the point where an actual majority said the economy is more important in March 2009 (51 percent / 42 percent), the first time that has happened in Gallup’s polling.

(2) A second possibility is that the change in public opinion is largely a byproduct of the radicalization of the Republican Party. There’s certainly some support for that proposition in the Pew surveys. As recently as 2007, 62 percent of self-identified Republicans told Pew they believed there was solid evidence for global warming. That percentage dropped to 49 percent in 2008 and then to 35 percent this year. (There’s also been a similarly large drop in belief about global warming among self-identified independents—a group that includes a lot of people who are objectively Republicans. The drop among Democrats has been less than half as large.) It's probably no accident that this change of opinion occurred during the 2008 campaign, when Republicans suddenly made offshore drilling their top energy-policy priority, and this year, when virtually anything embraced by the Obama administration has drawn the collective wrath of the GOP.

(3) Then, there's the third factor that might explain the changes in public opinion: a determined effort by the hard-core anti-environmental right to dominate the discussion and change its terms. This is the main subject of Mooney’s essay, which focuses on the “statistical liars” like columnist George Will who have distorted climate data to raise doubts about the scientific consensus, and on the continuing brouhaha in the conservative media about “Climategate.” Matt Yglesias has gone further, arguing that climate-change deniers have scored a coup by convincing the mainstream media (most notably the Washington Post, which regularly publishes Will’s columns, and recently published a predictably shrill op-ed by Sarah Palin on the subject) to treat the existence of climate change as scientifically debatable.

I have no compelling evidence to demonstrate which of these factors has contributed most to the gradual ungreening of America, but there are ways to mitigate the negative impacts from all three. Fears that environmental protection is “unaffordable” in a poor economy are obviously cyclical, so unless we are in a recession that will endure for many years, this problem should at some point recede. What's more, there's some evidence that suggests efforts to sell action on climate change as “pro-growth” via investments in green technologies can help cushion the public's skepticism.

Meanwhile, the second and third causes—GOP radicalization and the revival of a powerful denialist media presence—are clearly interrelated. Self-identified Republicans who spend a lot of time watching Fox News are obviously influenced by the torrent of “information” about the “hoax” of global climate change; while both conservative opinion leaders and GOP politicians are invested in promoting polarization on a historic scale. But this toxic environment would be largely self-contained if misinformation weren't bleeding over into the broader discourse that includes Americans who don’t think Obama is a committed socialist or that environmentalists want to take the country back to the Stone Age. 

And that’s why Yglesias is right: This is one area of public policy where “respect for contrary views” and “editorial balance” are misplaced. Sure, there are many aspects of the climate-change challenge that ought to be debated, and not just between those at the ideological and partisan extremes. But we shouldn’t be “debating” whether or not the scientific consensus on climate change actually represents a vast conspiracy to destroy capitalism and enslave the human race, any more than we should be debating whether “death panels” are a key element of health care reform.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic and managing editor of The Democratic Strategist.

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