It’s hard to say what’s driving this Robert Samuelson piece criticizing the recent Newsweek cover story about global warming deniers . I think it’s an overdeveloped adherence to pragmatism combined with a misplaced sense of fairness. His complaint?
It’s an object lesson of how viewing the world as “good guys vs. bad guys” can lead to a vast oversimplification of a messy story. Global warming has clearly occurred; the hard question is what to do about it.
Samuleson goes on to argue that global warming deniers haven’t had much influence on public opinion, and besides, the reality is that we can’t do much about global warming in the short term. Ignoring the fact that his initial point is a bit of a non sequitor (Newsweek’s story that deniers have a powerful influence is misleading because…we only have the technology to curb emissions?), the real influence of the deniers is at the margins. In order to demonstrate the limited influence of deniers, Sameulson cites Gallup figures that say 63% of Americans worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about global warming in 1989 and 65% in 2007. He also notes:
Democracies don’t easily adopt painful measures in the present to avert possible future problems.
Which is precisely why challenging global warming deniers can have an impact–it improves the political constituency so necessary policy changes like carbon taxes and support for alternative energies can be enacted. Consider this breakdown of public opinion, also from Gallup:
According to Gallup’s environmental outlook index, a plurality of Republicans (47%) are positive about environmental conditions, contrasted with only 9% of Democrats. Most Democrats (and independents) are negative about environmental conditions.
That means there’s still a sizeable segment of the political population who can be swayed to support new environmental policies, taking key Republican legislators along with them. The Democrats have a majority (which is likely to grow in 2008), but it’s a narrow one that still needs votes from the right. If you can get ten senators and however many representatives from the House to switch their support, that’s the ballgame.
By muddying the debate on global warming, deniers have made political inaction that much more likely–a particularly troubling result considering that climate change is a time sensitive issue. If we can’t break the legislative torpor induced by “well gee, are we even the problem?” deniers, even the modest changes Samuelson recommends won’t come to pass.