Monday, July 14, 2008

Remember Global Warming? That's Okay, Most People Apparently Don't, Either

[This article also appears on You can access it from my author page here.]

An inconvenient truth? More like a forgotten one.

Sure, Al Gore won a Nobel Prize and an Oscar (the latter being the bigger achievement in the minds of too many Americans), but what has been the result? Not much, if you follow what's going on in the United States right now.

On Friday, the Bush administration decided not to do anything about greenhouse gas emissions for the rest of the Bush presidency. Despite an earlier report by the Environmental Protection Agency that found that the Clean Air Act could be used to regulate these emissions, the White House intervened and rejected the proposal, sending the issue back to Congress to deal with. Considering Bush had been critical of the Supreme Court's decision last year allowing greenhouse gases to be regulated by the Act, the administration's latest action is not surprising, especially since Bush knows that just last month, only 48 senators signed on to a bill regulating greenhouse gases.

What has the public reaction to the Bush administration's decision to pass the buck on global warming for a year (a year we may not be able to spare) been? Vast silence. And the media barely covered the announcement. There was a bit more media coverage of the G8 agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050, but there was very little criticism of the voluntary and speculative nature of the agreement (as Michael McCarthy pointed out in The Independent, the language was intentionally vague). Nor was there wide coverage of the fact that the goal adopted by the G8 is well below the standard most scientists believe is necessary to really combat climate change.

Similarly, last week, the media barely talked about Jason K. Burnett, a former EPA official, who said that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney pushed for the deletion of references to the effects of climate change on public health in congressional testimony for fear it might make it more difficult to avoid regulating greenhouse gas emissions. It's one thing for the Bush administration to have been a disaster on the global warming issue, denying the existence of the problem for years, and then subsequently obstructing efforts to address it. It's another thing entirely to intentionally pollute (no pun intended) the record. This is not the first time the administration has sought to gag its own agencies from addressing the global warming crisis, and it's certainly not the first time the White House has shown such disrespect for Congress and the American people. But it is striking evidence that Bush and Cheney knew that global warming was a problem, even if they didn't want to admit it or address it publicly.

And where was the outrage? Where was the massive media coverage of Cheney's alleged tampering with witness testimony? I'd love to know.

It's not like there weren't more scientific findings in the last week that the global warming phenomenon is causing dire problems with the environment.

Buried in the news was the discovery that the ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf to Charcot Island near Antarctica was "hanging by its last thread," weakened by global warming-related meltage. Prof. David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey said: "Wilkins Ice Shelf is the most recent in a long, and growing, list of ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula that are responding to the rapid warming that has occurred in this area over the last fifty years." If the ice bridge goes, the stability of the whole ice shelf will be threatened.

Today, scientists weighed in on something that has been assumed for years: Hurricane seasons are getting longer and more deadly. The change has been "pretty striking," Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist with the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said in the article, especially since 1995. And the culprit? You guessed it: global warming.

Despite all the dire warnings, the media coverage of the issue, both as part of and outside of the presidential race, has been minor, at best. When it comes to substantive issues, the media have concentrated almost solely on the economy and national security. For example, Carly Fiorina, as a surrogate for John McCain's campaign, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., speaking for Barack Obama, appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday, and host Tom Brokaw did not ask either of them a single question about the candidates' plans regarding global warming.

Then again, it's hard to blame Brokaw or any other reporter for ignoring the issue. Al Gore often says that until U.S. citizens make global warming a priority, the government won't make the major changes necessary to regulate the problem. And as of now, global warming doesn't even seem to be on the nation's radar.

Global warming didn't even make the list in a January Rasmussen poll asking voters what issue was most important to them. The economy led at 40 percent, Health care was second at 14 percent, and the war in Iraq and national security ranked third and fourth, with 13 percent and 12 percent, respectively. Immigration, government ethics and social security rounded out the list. Global warming and/or the environment were nowhere to be found. A recent RealClear Politics article referenced a July poll that similarly found the economy, Iraq and health care to be the top three issues voters care about. Again, no mention of global warming and/or the environment.

Even younger people, who are supposed to be more in tune with the global warming crisis, prioritize it as lowly as older folks do. A CBS/MTV poll in April asked people between 18 and 29 years old to rank the top issue facing their generation. The economy and jobs ranked first with 22 percent, and the war in Iraq placed second with 13 percent. The environment was fourth with only 5 percent, and that was a drop from 8 percent in 2007.

So if Americans don't care about global warming, why should the media and the presidential candidates feel a need to address the issue?

Well, maybe because we rely on leaders to lead. Maybe it's time for leaders, whether they be journalists or politicians or concerned citizens, to step up and say, "Now is the time to do something, before it's too late." And maybe that's why the issue needs to be aired. Because if we don't address the global warming issue, the threat from climate change can dwarf any danger posed by the economy, Iraq or terrorists.

And, of course, addressing global warming can actually help with issues voters care about most. Van Jones has talked of a "Green New Deal," which would, among other things, put dying American manufacturing industries to work on green products, such as wind turbines and solar panels. And breaking U.S. dependence on foreign oil would go a long way to addressing the threats the U.S. faces now from Islamic terrorists.

It's time to make global warming a central part of the American discussion and, certainly, an important part of the presidential campaign. As a country, we can only stick our heads in the sand for so long before it will be too late to address this looming catastrophe. And the sand is getting hotter by the day.