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Why Climate Change Has Melted As a Political Issue

Icecube When it’s so hot, why are people so cool on climate legislation?

US Senate leaders recently conceded there is no chance of passing a climate bill this year.  While the scientific evidence of the damage caused by greenhouse gases remains solid, the political will and public support for passing federal legislation to address the problem are melting faster than ice cubes on a July afternoon. What's cooking here?

There are many theories about why action on global warming is going nowhere politically.  Grist blogger David Roberts makes the case that the failure of federal legislation is due in part to abuse of the filibuster rule in the U.S. Senate, as well as the structure of the Senate itself, which gives disproportionate power to smaller rural states (like Wyoming) far from coastline states (like Maryland, Virginia, California, etc.) that are most at risk from sea level rise.

Meanwhile, New York Times writer Andrew Revkin argues that it was President Obama’s lack of leadership on climate issues that doomed Congressional legislation.  Revkin speculates that perhaps only a Republican president acting with a Democratic majority Congress will be able to swing enough Republican votes to get climate legislation through the Senate.

Revkin cites a 2007 article in the journal Environmental Protection that found: “Over the last four decades, almost 70 percent of major federal environmental protection legislation has been brought about by the combination of a Republican president and an all-Democratic Congress.”

I don’t know if that formula has any merit. But I do know that public opinion polling on global warming has shown some disturbing results that go far beyond Congressional politics, and are something that everyone who wants action on climate change must grapple with more seriously.

A January 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that dealing with global warming ranked dead last on the public’s list of top priorities for government – and that it kept falling lower.  “Just 28% consider (climate change) a top priority, the lowest measure for any issue tested in the survey,” the Pew Research Center wrote. “Since 2007, when the item was first included on the priorities list, dealing with global warming has consistently ranked at or near the bottom. Even so, the percentage that now says addressing global warming should be a top priority has fallen 10 points from 2007, when 38% considered it a top priority.”

By contrast, the economy (at 83 percent) and jobs (at 81 percent) ranked at the very top of the public’s list of priorities. This makes  sense, given the recession and the economic anxieties that grip so many families these days.

So here’s the key: How to link these high and low priorities? Right now, it is clear that people see no connection between the economy and global warming.  Or they have bought into industry propaganda that reducing greenhouse gases will wreck the economy. Some may have been bamboozled by the "climategate" dustup (in which global warming deniers used unfortunate emails from a few British scientists to try to smear and distort the real scientific consensus).

There is a bigger issue here.  To win the debate over global warming –- and pass national legislation –- advocates will have to convince the public that the future of the nation’s economy and their future jobs are inextricably linked to breaking our addiction to fossil fuels.   They need to understand that employment linked to high pollution fuels like petroleum are jobs that can’t last, because the fuels are inherently limited in supply, and the damage that they cause (such as the spill in the Gulf of Mexico) is not  sustainable.

Maybe it will take an oil price shock and dwindling supplies to deliver that message.  Perhaps it will be explosive growth in green energy technologies, like wind power or electric cars, that will turn the heads of the public.

But I think the political tipping point for climate change legislation will come when average folks pull up to the gas pump and mutter to themselves: “I’m going to lose my shirt if I keep coming here.”

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo purchased from



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We got 26 comments on the CBF Facebook page about this Bay Daily article. The question posed was: Why is support for climate change legislation melting?

The responses:

* John Stout: Because all the liberals are to focused on free healthcare, welfare and stopping arizona from closing its borders!!

* Stephen Mark Monteith: Because hardly anyone believes it'sa reality anymore. Remember Climategate?

* Bobby Johns: Our economy is in the worst shape in decades and their 'climate bill' is just a huge tax on energy companies. The companies will then just increase their prices to compensate for their profit loss. Considering our big business is already taxed higher than the majority of the countries out there, this shouldn't be surprising to anyone. Combine this with the wall of inflation that is going to smack us over the head from all of this spending...folks will not be able to afford it.

* Chesapeake Bay Foundation (Tom Pelton): The British panel that investigated "climategate" ended up exonerating the scientists. They were rebuked for their reluctance to release their data -- but that does not undermine the fundamental conclusion that the earth's climate is in fact warming. So why don't people believe this, or care much about it?

Here is a link to the climategate article: More

* BC Wilson: Please take 5 minutes to read this excellent summary of the global warming issue, written by a well-respected hedge fund manager. It explains A LOT: (it's a PDF, and the climate-related stuff starts on page 7). Everyone needs to read this.

* Stephen Mark Monteith: Not the point. You asked why it was "melting" as an issue (nice turn of phrase, by the way). It's melting because Climategate, the hockey stick graph debacle, and the hypocrisy of its advocates (especially Mr. Gore himself) have netted an increase in global warming skeptics. Add that to what the other posters are saying about the more "practical" issues on everyone's minds, and you can see why fewer and fewer people care about something that still has not been proven definitively. I care about the environment, but I'm not willing to concede that catastrophic manmade global warming exists.

And by the way? The panel cleared them of any wrongdoing. It never said they were right.

* Robert Bonfante: Climategate has been disproven. Of course, the media doesn't feel its important to point that out, so for most people, they still believe that those hacked e-mails are real. Give Fox News credit, their crack team of lying hypocrits have done an excellent job of confusing the public.

The bill failed because the current political climate is anti-government, and environmentalists are, for whatever reason, linked with the "big bad socialist government". When corporations are successful in framing the political debates to suit their purposes, and they have been the past few months, we are all in trouble.

Obama staked his presidency on the health care reform bill that doesn't even come close to accomplishing what it should've accomplished (universal coverage); that "victory" may have came at the Climate bill's expense. From the unfortunate looks of it, things may have to get a lot worse before people realize that maybe this climate crisis is much worse than people thought.

* Bobby Johns: It is true...The earth has been warming since the ice age. No doubt about that. What folks question is whether it is man made. And as Stephen pointed out...Gore is just a big profiteer from his dribble that he won't even man-up and have a debate with anyone about.

* Bobby Johns: Just to find out...Did I make a mistake in thinking this was a page about cleaning up The Bay from polution and preserving it or is this about some hard left agenda?

* Paul Danaher: Hard left agenda? What makes you imagine that the Bay is polluted?

* Rosemary Connelly: I believe it and I care about it. I am saddened to think so many people deny the fact that these change are occurring - or would you rather stick your heads in the sand and bash Al Gore.

* Melissa Heldt Massey: Bobby, your theory that a clean energy or climate policy will be a huge new tax on energy companies MIGHT hold water, if they paid taxes to begin with. Look at BP for example...they paid NO Federal taxes last year. Yes, they may have to pay taxes now and probably (hopefully) wouldn't get the BILLIONS in rebates and incentives from the government. But that would mean rebates and incentives could instead go to clean energy startups in wind, solar and geothermal technologies, which would create JOBS, which is what we so desperately need. We're sitting around on our collective asses while China becomes the world leader in alternative energy technologies, and it will be one more reason we give all of our money away. What is so wrong with wanting home-grown energy??

* Smitty Dize: Ok! so it's been hot and dry here in the East, so here we go with global warming again, Don't get me wrong i believe we should do what we can but not at the expense of people losing thier jobs or company's relocating to India, China or wherever. taking extreme measures will only hurt. the United States can not do this alone, we can't afford to foot the bill, China pretty much already owns us and some extremest still want another bill to go through so we can spend more money that we don't have. for all you scientist out there that this bill may or may not have put you out of work, i will tell you like you tell the crabbers"FIND ANOTHER LINE OF WORK"

* Jillian Rajevich: I love all of the above responses ♥

* Matthew Murray: i don't get how having a clean environment or being against pollution is a 'hard left' issue. it will effect people regardless of their political stance. and to answer your posted question, i feel the issue is fading from sight because people are self absorbed. they are more interested in how an issue is immediately hurting them/their livelihood (not that much at present in the case of climate change) vs. how much it will hurt them, their children, and ultimately everything they know down the road. also, we like to pay lip service to ideals but not actually make difficult changes or sacrifices for them. this is why i think the pollution issue will be the end of us. if it's not via climate change, it will be through plastic/garbage in general, fracking, screw ups with nuclear power/oil drilling (which have very little margin for error, are ridiculously destructive when errors occur, and are pretty much impossible to clean up disasters from). we want what we want, and hell with anyone who suffers for that, including our children and neighbors.

* Bobby Johns: Oh geez...can we pull the emotional strings a bit more? Is this a page that focuses on the bay or is about global political crap. Pick one...PLEASE. And BTW...anyone that attempts to talk about envitonmental jobs going to China is a comp...lete idiot and needs to stop listening to the snake oil salesman.

Melissa...PB is a foreign company. Catch up, please. I do like your diplomacy however.

Focus people!!!!

How much traffic is coming into the bay?
How many gallons of farm waste is being dumped?
What is the fish population doing?
How much shoreline building is going on?

There are plenty of other groups to yap and debate about this other GlobalGreen stuff. We all care about the bay and want to encourage the average citizen and company that reside here to take some measures and do their part. If we come up with a formula that works and we all work could spread. Clean your house...clean your town...clean your city...clean your state...clean your coast...clean your country...clean the planet. The organization here is so out of wack.

* Bobby Johns: And Matt...please read more. There is a huge difference between pollution and a global warming agenda. I said this above. Nice twist however!

* Nick Kopsinis: Think Globally, Act Locally.

* Robert Bonfante: The Chesapeake Bay Foundation already has a pretty strong opinion about global warming, as do all environmental and scientific groups. As climate change will have an adverse affect on the Bay, you can be pretty damn sure that CBF has that as an agenda. I think Bobby, that you are out of touch with CBF's official stance.

Moreover, climate change is a pollution problem as it is our pollution that's causing it. Those are the facts. Anything varying from it is either a lie or just wrong. I'm not going to try to go into anyone heads and persuade them of anyt...hing, but I will point out what I believe to be true and what isn't. Fact: anthropogenic climate change is real, I"m convinced of that. You can debate politics or what the focus of an organization is supposed to be, or whether you like AL Gore or not, but the fact remains that climate change is real, its human caused, its is a real crisis, and like most other "pollutants" has negative consequences to the Chesapeake Bay. If you don't feel CBF should be addressing this issue, then I feel you joined the wrong group. See More

* Chesapeake Bay Foundation (Tom Pelton) Thanks, Robert. Climate change is already having an impact on the Chesapeake Bay -- by eroding shorelines and flooding wetlands with rising sea levels; by heating up the Bay's waters and changing the balance of life and aquatic vegetation; and by creating the conditions for more harmful algal blooms, just to name a few changes. I am concerned about these man-made changes in the Bay, just as I am about sewage, stormwater pollution and overfishing. It is not a sign of some political agenda to care about these things.

* Nick Kopsinis: Rising sea levels. . LOL. . Not a political agenda. . . LMAO.
Sorry Tom, your linking of the theory of global climate change to the Chesapeake Bay and citing the cause as "man-made changes" is propagating a political doomsday ideology ...of fear, based unsubstantiated political dynamite.. . and is in the clear minority of public opinion. I don't think I'll be able to continue donating money to support your radical liberal political agenda, based on flawed theory and falsified data. Consider me done with this group.

* Bobby Johns: I love opinions presented as facts. sound like a passionate kid. Show me your credentials or piss off.
I'll do my part personally for the bay just like I do for my home. You made your focus clear and should seriously conside...r changing your title to something more broad and honest. I will do my part to make sure your agenda is clear to those living on the bay. I think I will second Nick!
Wow...this could have easily been a group where everyone came together! Your brains were clearly not leading. How on Earth could you have messed this one up so bad?

Have a nice day!

* Paul Danaher: Hmm. And your credentials, Bobby Johns?

* Polly Smock: Whether we agree on the climate change issue or not, taking care of the environment is simply a sensible and responsible thing to do. Do we want clean water? Clean air? Do we care about our health and the health of other living things?

* BC Wilson: Conversations like this one make me nuts. Anthropogenic Global Warming is not a political issue, it is a scientific one. The theory of AGW has been affirmed by the highest scientific authorities in the US (the National Academy of Sciences),... the UK (the Royal Academy), and other bastions of science. The fact that Al Gore also affirms this theory does not make it invalid, even if you don't happen to like him as a person.

This whole "debate" has a historical precedent in the argument over the theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory pissed a lot of people off when it was initially proposed. Although it is broadly accepted today, it STILL has detractors who refuse to accept it, mostly on completely non-scientific grounds. AGW is a sound scientific theory, supported by ample evidence and accepted by most of the scientific community. It is also opposed by many groups that have compelling non-scientific reasons for denying it. The problem is, the consequences of denying AGW are possibly much graver than those of denying evolution.

This debate has gone completely sour, not just in this thread, but in the country and around the globe. Science has failed to convince a large number of people, mostly because of the vehemence and the tremendous influence of the non-scientific opposition. This makes me sad.

In the short term, I buy green power. I walk and ride a bike. I try to conserve and use less. The science has convinced me that these things, and more, are necessary, and I realize that the change we need starts with me, and so I change, and I hope that others will do the same.

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