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Washington Post Labels Global Warming a ‘Wedge Issue’ — But Doesn’t Seem to Know What That Term Means

By Joe Romm  

"Washington Post Labels Global Warming a ‘Wedge Issue’ — But Doesn’t Seem to Know What That Term Means"

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The second lead story in today’s Washington post is a so-so piece on climate science merged with a very confused political analysis.

Contrary to the sub-head, for instance, the scientific consensus — or, more accurately, the scientific understanding — around climate change and its threat to humanity has strengthened considerably in the last few years (see links below).

But it is the use of the term “wedge issue,” which the article never defines, that is the source of the political mischief.  For the record, “A wedge issue is a social or political issue, often of a divisive or otherwise controversial nature, which splits apart or creates a ‘wedge’ in the support base of one political group.”

Where there is confusion on climate change and politics, Roger Pielke, Jr., is often found.  The article quotes him as the sole source on the “wedge issue” claim:

“Climate change has become a wedge issue,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado professor who has written extensively on the climate debate. “It’s today’s flag-burning or today’s partial-birth-abortion issue.”

Pielke cites two well-known wedge issues that split Democrats, issues that Republicans have used to their advantage to drive a wedge between liberal Democrats and more moderate or conservative ones (as well as independents)

But the article actually makes the case that climate change is an issue splitting Republicans, and thus — intentionally or otherwise — it makes the case that global warming potentially can be used to the advantage of progressives.

That isn’t typically the view of Pielke and his fellow “climate pragmatists,” who argue that the best way climate activists and others can achieve mitigation and adaptation policies is to downplay climate change or stop talking about it entirely.  Of course, there is no evidence for this view whatsoever and much evidence to the contrary (see “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?” and “The GOP War Against Climate Adaptation“).

That said, the article actually seems to treat the term “wedge issue” as if it just means  “divisive issue” or “controversial issue.”  Let’s look at the story:

Four years ago in New Hampshire, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, John McCain said to voters, “I do agree with the majority of scientific opinion, that climate change is taking place and it’s a result of human activity, which generates greenhouse gases.” He made global warming a key element of every New Hampshire stump speech.

This week in New Hampshire, the governor of Texas and newest presidential contender, Rick Perry, said scientists have manipulated data to support their “unproven” theory of human-influenced global warming. He said increasing numbers of scientists have disavowed the theory altogether.

This is not simply a case of two very different politicians saying two very different things. The political discussion about global warming has lurched dramatically in four years — even as the scientific consensus has changed little. McCain’s 2007 description remains the scientific consensus: Human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is pumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and warming the planet.

Two things.  First, why don’t the authors of this piece mention the fact that the Washington Post itself has already given Perry “4 Pinocchios” for his climate lies?

Second, the scientific understanding around climate change and its threat to humanity has strengthened considerably in the last few years.  This may not seem like a large point, but this was a front-page story and another seriously wasted opportunity  to explain what’s really happening in the science.  That goes double in a piece that repeats some denier myths and talking points (which I may discuss in a later post).

Our  understanding of basic climate science is so strong now that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded its recent review of climate science, saying it is a “settled fact” that “the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”  Last year, Time magazine reported on a comprehensive new review paper of “100 peer-reviewed post-IPCC studies” in an article titled, “Report: The Case for Global Warming Stronger Than Ever” noting:

By looking at a wide range of observations from all over the world,  the Met Office study concludes that the fingerprint of human influence on climate is stronger than ever. “We can say with a very high significance level that the effects we see in the climate cannot be attributed to any other forcings [factors that push the climate in one direction or another],” says study co-author Gabriele Hegerl of the University of Edinburgh.

In a AAAS presentation last year, the late William R. Freudenburg of UC Santa Barbara discussed his research on “the Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge“: New scientific findings are found to be more than twenty times as likely to indicate that global climate disruption is “worse than previously expected,” rather than “not as bad as previously expected.”

Another missed opportunity for the Post.  Back to the story:

But that scientific conclusion has become a lively point of debate in the GOP presidential campaign. Joining Perry on the skeptical side, for example, is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who suggested Wednesday that “manufactured science” underpins what a questioner called the “man-made climate-change myth.”

The nominal GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney, drew sharp fire from conservatives when he said in June that he accepts the scientific view that the planet is getting warmer and that humans are part of the reason. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) on Thursday tweeted: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

“Climate change has become a wedge issue,” said Roger Pielke Jr., a University of Colorado professor who has written extensively on the climate debate. “It’s today’s flag-burning or today’s partial-birth-abortion issue.”

Historically, climate change has ranked near the bottom of issues that voters care about as they evaluate presidential candidates. It wasn’t a factor in 2008’s primary season or general election. The major parties’ nominees endorsed the scientific consensus and believed that the government should curb carbon emissions.

Again, the last paragraph above suggests that the Post mistakenly thinks the term “wedge issue” merely means “politically divisive” — that climate change hasn’t been politically controversial or the source of “hot politics,” but now it is.  I think the Post makes a serious mistake in not defining the term explicitly because the general reader can’t possibly know exactly what argument the reporters are making.

Ironically –  and possibly unintentionally — the piece makes a strong case that climate change has become a wedge issue dividing Republicans.  That’s what Hunstman’s viral tweet suggests.

And the story goes further:

During this period, Americans — particularly conservative Republicans — became less convinced about global-warming science….

A Pew Research Center poll published in October 2010 showed that over the previous four years, the number of respondents believing there is “solid evidence” that the Earth is warming dropped from 79 percent to 59 percent. There was a striking divide along partisan lines: Some 79 percent of Democrats believed in global warming, compared with 38 percent of Republicans.  A Washington Post-ABC News poll in November 2009 found conservative Republicans were least likely to believe global warming was occurring, with 45 percent saying it was happening.

The Post could have pointed out that that in the October 2010 poll, 56% of independents agree there is “solid evidence” that the Earth is warming, and 62% of independents agree that it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem.  Indeed, independents in that poll say by a 44 to 31 majority  it is “a problem requiring immediate government action.”

This view is supported by considerable polling, including an analysis last month from Stanford professor Jon Krosnick, which found:

Political candidates get more votes by taking a “green” position on climate change – acknowledging that global warming is occurring, recognizing that human activities are at least partially to blame and advocating the need for action – according to a June 2011 study by researchers at Stanford University.

It may have come into play in last year’s elections — see “Did Ken Buck’s global warming denial cost the Tea Party favorite a Senate seat?” — though as that discussion makes clear, it is not possible to disaggregate climate change from other issues in the overwhelming majority of campaigns.

The bottom line is that the Post wasn’t clear in what it was arguing, but to the extent that it understands what “wedge issue” actually means, the piece adds to the growing evidence that global warming divides Republicans — and that it is an issue that can be used by progressives to divide the extreme anti-science Republicans, who have taken over the party via the fossil-fuel-funded Tea Party, from moderates and independents.

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