Written by Richard Schiffman
In a special message to Congress, a president of the United States made the following statement: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through … a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”
Who was that president? Not Barack Obama, although he has said similar things, and not George W. Bush, whose standard line was that we needed to study the problem more. It was President Lyndon Johnson, issuing what may have been the first ever warning by a political leader on the potential for what we now call climate change – way back in 1969.
Johnson, of course, had a foreign war on his hands and other more pressing issues to deal with at home. And while there was already a scientific consensus at that early date that the burning of fossil fuels would gradually warm the planet, nobody could say for sure how soon the impacts would be felt or how significant they were likely to be.
Fast forward to today. Climate change is no longer a theory about the conjectured future, but a fact documented by climatologists and apparent to just about anyone who has been paying attention to their local weather. Yet if you have been following the story in the media, you can be forgiven for thinking that the researchers are not yet agreed on what is taking place. A recent poll found that 40 percent of Americans believe the scientists are still arguing about whether climate change is real.
This is simply not true. The science only gets better with time, and climate change is now virtually undisputed – by the people who are doing the science, at any rate. That it remains a “controversial issue” long after the results are in is thanks to a well-funded cabal of free-market think tanks, corporations and business groups that hope to win in the political arena a fight that they have long since lost in the halls of science. They are abetted by a media whose relish for conflict and a scientifically nonsensical sense of supposed “balance” has led them to give the deniers equal airtime.
In May, the Heartland Institute put up a billboard on the Eisenhower Expressway outside of Chicago comparing believers in climate change to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. A firestorm in the press quickly convinced the Institute to pull the plug on the offensive billboard campaign.
While the efforts of the Heartland Institute and other likeminded groups have so far not managed to convince – over 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change is either happening now or will be soon – many remain divided about how serious the problem is; 42 percent of those polled by Gallup in March believed that the impacts were being exaggerated.
This confusion seems to have been the intention of the denialists all along – not to disprove climate change (the evidence is too strong for that) but to cast just enough paralyzing doubt to muddy the waters and prevent the United States from getting serious about restricting greenhouse gas emissions. The appearance of controversy has given our elected officials the political cover to do nothing.
Another likely intentional result has been to put a damper on public discussion of the issue. Newspaper coverage of global warming dropped more than 40 percent in 2011 since its peak two years earlier, according to a study by The Daily Climate. Environmentalist author Bill McKibben says that in 2011, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox spent twice as much time discussing Donald Trump as climate change.
Image from Heartland Institute website
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