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Al Gore and the battle for climate opinion

By Dan Vergano (USA Today) - September 19, 2011

Al Gore isn’t going away. And neither is global warming.

With Gore’s latest high-profile global warming-awareness event, “24 Hours of Reality”, now over, political science still looks like the trickiest discipline in the entire realm of climate science.

“Lots of people out there are wondering why floods, droughts and storms are more powerful than in the past,” Gore says. “While the political system too rarely is responding.”

The event saw speakers in cities worldwide provide hourly presentations on local effects of climate change to some six million viewers. It came as the National Climatic Data Center announced the northern hemisphere had felt its fifth-warmest summer on record.

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it would delay regulations of power plant greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases, such as the carbon dioxide produced by burning oil, coal and natural gas, are the leading source of about a 1.4-degree warming to the surface atmosphere seen in the last century, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and numerousotherreports. Anywhere from about 2 to 11 degrees more warmth is likely coming, according to those reports, largely depending on how much more greenhouse gas is pumped into the air.

But who cares? Well, about 83% of people nationwide (plus or minus 3%) agree that the “(w)orld’s temperature has been going up in the past 100 years,” in a Stanford University-supported poll taken this month of 1,134 adults. (That’s a jump up from 75% agreement a year ago in the same poll.) And about 42% of them thought global warming was “extremely” or “very” important. Meanwhile, the folks who thought global warming was “(n)ot important at all,” in the poll increased to 14%, up from 9% a year ago.

Reaching the public is the reason for Gore’s campaign, which he calls, “a kind of sequel to An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 film that —along with Hurricane Katrina— helped push climate change to the top of the news. Unlike the movie, a primer on climate science, the “Climate Reality” effort looks to let people know about regional effects, such as heat waves and flooding, that scientists such as Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, are pointing to as already worsened by global warming now.

“We are also answering the three or four most common ‘denier’ arguments, just by presenting the science,” Gore says, referring to habitual climate science naysayers.

Part of it includes talking about similarities between tobacco company tactics to deny lung cancer was caused by cigarettes, and oil and coal company-funded folks who attack climate scientists. (A recent book by science historian Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, documents this history). “It is very cynically the same strategy,” Gore says.

Well, that’s great, but will it convince anyone not already convinced about global warming? “There still could be people in the middle,” says sociologist Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, who has looked at the political battle over climate and public perceptions going back to the 1980s.

He says that a strategy of “tarnishing as industry shills” opponents of climate science who are funded by corporate think tanks might help convince people otherwise uninvolved.

But is Al Gore the person to deliver that message? “Basically Gore appeals to liberal academic type people, like me,” says science writer Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. “I don’t think he is going to do anything but stoke the liberal (political) base.” For conservative voters, in contrast, Gore serves as a club to attack opponents with, as Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have demonstrated this month in attacks on their rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

But someone, Gore suggests, has to inject some doubt into the convictions of climate naysayers, the 15% of mostly conservative folks in the Stanford poll who say climate change “isn’t happening.”

Last year’s Citizens UnitedSupreme Court decision, he notes, allowed corportate funding to flow freely to political campaigns. “What politicians hear is we’ll give you this money if you join in denying the science of global warming,” Gore says. “Otherwise, we’ll go give this money in your primary election to someone else.”

Gore points to former Rep. Bob Inglis, R.-S.C., who called for cutting subsidies on fossil fuels and shifting taxes to help tackle global warming and lost his 2010 primary battle, as a victim of these politics.

Asked about all this, Inglis says his votes against the troop surge in Afghanistan and the 2008 “bailout” of the U.S. financial system also hurt him. “But I commited the ultimate heresy by talking about climate,” he says. “It certainly was a big factor.”

Conservative politicians, Inglis adds, might understand the “no such thing as a free lunch” argument that he and Reagan Administration economist Arthur Laffer have made that subsidies to the oil and coal industry distort the real market for energy in the country. An Energy Policyjournal study last year found the U.S. military policing the Persian Gulf’s oil lanes cost the country $6.8 trillion from 1976 to 2007, for example. “But they look out a window at a hypothetical primary voter and think, ‘that’s a hard sell’ right now,” Inglis says.

Actually, Gore trying to change public opinion over climate change puts the political cart in front of the horse, says sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University in Philadelphia. “People are busy, if Rush (Limbaugh) tells them it’s crap, it probably is and that’s good enough for them,” he says. “All the research suggests that what really changes people’s views are their opinion leaders saying something.”

The political divide between Republican and Democrats on environmental issues is simply a long-growing four-decade fact of American life, Brulle adds. “This is really all about political power .” Until unexpected voices start venting different views, Brulle doesn’t see climate politics changing.