Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Changing Political Climate on Climate Change

The photo shows Ed Muskie and Mo Udall, who helped lead the charge for environmental protection in an earlier era, just as Al Gore is doing today. Ultimately, however, major changes in environmental aren't driven by political leaders; they're driven by changes in culture and public opinion. The process remains something of a mystery. We still don't know why there was such a huge upsurge of public interest in the environment in the late 1960s and the 1970s, resulting in a wave of federal legislation that still defines this field of law.

The fairly rapid switch in American attitudes toward climate change is also a puzzle. Here's a graph showing media attention to the issue:

This figure is from a blog posting by Chris Mooney. Mooney observes:
Much as has occurred with the devastating drought in Australia, Katrina -- a single dramatic event -- seems to have helped galvanize public and political attention to climate change. This is of course rather awkward from a scientific standpoint, in that for both Katrina and for the drought, any direct causal attribution to global warming remains deeply problematic or even impossible.

The movie poster for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth features a smokestack belching forth a hurricane, dramatizing how these storms became new icons of climate change. And with that film's release, Gore became, even more than before, the climate issue's top messenger and communicator, while Hollywood -- through the release of Gore's film and, later, by awarding him an Oscar -- blazoned a message about the urgency of addressing climate change. As Gore himself understood -- and as is also plainly evident when we contemplate the Live Earth concert -- using entertainment media to communicate such a message was critical because their broad reach extends far beyond the narrower audiences who tune in regularly to science or policy coverage.

And even as Gore reached many people who may never before have grasped the importance of global warming, in November of 2006 the Democrats regained control of Congress for the first time in over a decade and proceeded to invite Gore to testify before them. With control of congressional committees, Democrats could at last set the political agenda and include global warming as a prominent part of it. Whereas under Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee had served as a forum for the debunking of climate change, under Barbara Boxer of California it has become a driving force for addressing the problem.
All of this seems very true, but there also seems to be a somewhat deeper change relating to public attitudes toward government and the recent troubles of the conservative movement. A few years, it would also have been utterly implausible that a former mayor of New York would be the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Mooney promises more postings, and perhaps he'll be able to shed more light on this subject. By the way, he also has an interesting looking new book, available here.


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