Public Opinion's Climate-Change Ping-Pong

Americans seem to be of two minds on the reality of climate change, and which mind is ahead depends on when you ask.
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Two years ago, when the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore received the Nobel Peace prize, many of us thought the global warming debate was over and it was time to address what they had identified as a problem threatening mankind.

But there always have been skeptics of the panel's conclusions, and they have not gone home quietly.

A recent Gallup poll suggests that their continued — and lately more vocal — dissent may be having an effect on Americans' attitudes.

According to poll results, a record-high 41 percent of Americans think global warming, as presented in the mainstream media, is exaggerated — the highest level of public skepticism about global warming seen in more than a decade of polling by the organization.

Gallup reports the trend in the "exaggerated" response has been volatile since 2001 — with a previous high point of 38 percent coming in 2004.

This weekend, the New York Times Magazine is presenting a courteous examination of perhaps the most respected and eloquent climate change skeptic, physicist Freeman Dyson.

Here's a snippet from the lengthy piece: "The warming, he says, is not global but local, "making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter." Far from expecting any drastic harmful consequences from these increased temperatures, he says the carbon may well be salubrious — a sign that "the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse," because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields."

So, the debate goes on and it's drawing more participants on both sides.

Among them are members of the Heartland Institute, free-market advocates who rallied in New York in early March.  More than 600 people met at the International Conference on Climate Change to contend that "global warming is not a crisis, that the question of what causes it and how extensive it's going to be are wide open in the scientific community," claimed Joseph Bast, president of the institute. (A Chicago-based group, the organization has taken some lumps for received money from Exxon Mobil through 2005. It also made an appearance in our story last year on "The Doubt Makers.")

On the other side of the fence is scientist James Hansen, NASA's top climatologist, who testified before the U.S. Congress last summer that we could be reaching "tipping points" in constraining atmospheric carbon dioxide ... that lead to disastrous climate changes that spiral dynamically out of humanity's control."

Dyson, in that Times piece referenced above, takes a shot at Hansen: "The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers."

Hansen is employed by the U.S. government — and so are a lot of the skeptics. A recent blog post carried on the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works site claims Hansen's former supervisor at NASA, John Theon, was "embarrassed" by Hansen, who, Theon said "has created worldwide media frenzy with his dire climate warnings."

Theon was quoted by poster Marc Morano, from an e-mail he sent to the Minority Office at the Environment and Public Works Committee. In it, Theon wrote that he believes "climate models are useless" and that "some scientists have manipulated the observed data to justify their model results."

Last week Morano posted again on the subject: an update to a U.S. Senate Minority Report with a title that explains its content: More Than 700 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims: Scientists Continue to Debunk "Consensus" in 2008 & 2009.

Another national agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, joined the fray last week, finally announcing that greenhouse gases endanger human health — a finding made after the Supreme Court two years ago ordered it to determine how carbon dioxide from tailpipes should be regulated.

A post on ClimateProgress.org asserts that climate change was "the single most taboo subject in the entire Bush administration" and "it was easier to find people in the Bush administration to talk about torture or warrantless wiretaps than it was to get someone to speak on (or off) the record or on the likely impact of Bush's policy of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions on Americans." (Climate Progress is edited by Joseph Romm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and in charge of energy efficiency and renewable energy for Bill Clinton's Department of Energy.)

The Obama administration seems poised to address global warming head-on and the Washington Post reports its newly appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chief, Jon Wellinghoff, is rolling up his sleeves with that in mind. The president will find some allies across the pond, including Prince Charles, who told a gathering of business leaders in Brazil recently, "The best projections tell us that we have less than 100 months to alter our behavior before we risk catastrophic climate change."

Another Brit, Nicholas Stern, an economist who wrote a seminal report on the high costs of climate change in 2006, is similarly concerned. He recently told climate-change scientists meeting in Copenhagen that the effects of global warming would be worse than predicted. He said rather than the European target of limiting world temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, policymakers should consider the possibility of world temperature increases of up to 6 degrees Celsius.

One of the most interesting scientific work by the skeptics is a paper by Indur M. Goklany, a former scientist at the U.S. Department of the Interior, now associated with the Cato Institute. (Cato is a good source of information for skeptics, featuring two books on its main page, one titled Climate of Extremes: Global Warming Science They Don't Want You to Know and the other, Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.)

Goklany uses data from assessment reports, many of them authored by IPCC members, to argue that the world's population would be better off if scientists and policymakers focused on technological advances to help developing countries and tried to mitigate the effects of global warming while keeping the global economy strong. He concludes that "human and environmental well-being will be highest under the 'richest-but-warmest' scenario and lower for the poorer (lower-carbon) scenarios."

If it still is a debate, it's interesting to see the pattern of thought taken in a new direction.

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