Polarization on Climate Jumped in 2009 — Long After Gore’s 2006 Movie
Percent of Americans Who Believe the Effects of Global Warming Have Already Begun to Happen, by Political Ideology, from McCright and Dunlap
Conservative columnist Michael Gerson broke sharply from right-wing orthodoxy today when he ended an op-ed on climate change with this bombshell:
The extraction and burning of dead plant matter is not a moral good — or the proper cause for a culture war.
As evidenced by the presidential debates and recent Congressional hearings and speeches, it is in fact an article of faith for much of the national GOP that extracting and burning fossil fuels is a moral good, a matter of national security and economic security. Drill, Baby, Drill!
Imagine Gerson telling the attendees of the Republican National Convention that what they are chanting for isn’t a moral good. He’d be drummed out of the movement.
And in his op-ed, “Climate and the culture war,” Gerson gets that the planet is warming rapidly, creating many dangerous impacts, and the best explanation is human emissions of greenhouse gases.
Unfortunately, accompanying this bombshell is a dud, Gerson’s tired — and erroneous — blame-the-messenger strategy for the culture war:
No cause has been more effectively sabotaged by its political advocates. Climate scientists, in my experience, are generally careful, well-intentioned and confused to be at the center of a global controversy. Investigations of hacked e-mails have revealed evidence of frustration — and perhaps of fudging but not of fraud. It is their political defenders who often discredit their work through hyperbole and arrogance. As environmental writer Michael Shellenberger points out, “The rise in the number of Americans telling pollsters that news of global warming was being exaggerated began virtually concurrently with the release of Al Gore’s movie, ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”
Obviously, any “fact” offered up by confusionist Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute is likely to be a nonsensical myth — and this one most certainly is. There is no polling data to support that view, as is clear from the chart above from the 2011 journal article, “The polarization of climate change and the polarization and the American publics view of global warming.” I confirmed this with co-author Riley Dunlap when the study came out, which I’ll discuss further in a later post.
And yes, it is laughable that Gerson has the nerve to blame Gore or anybody else for the culture war or the polarization of any issue. Gerson “served as President George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 until June 2006, as a senior policy advisor from 2000 through June 2006, and was a member of the White House Iraq Group.” Gore just made a movie and then use the proceeds to try to depolarize the issue whereas Bush/Cheney politicized science, and specifically climate science, more than any administration in history.
As an aside, blaming the messenger is certainly an emerging climate strategy for many in the conservative movement since it lets them off the hook. You see, folks, it isn’t the disinformation campaign — which Gerson never mentions — or the power of the fossil fuel lobby — which Gerson never mentions. It’s those darn “defenders” of scientists who are to blame. I wonder who scientists could possibly need defending from? But I digress.
Let me go back to the polling data because it is certainly a widely held myth that Gore is responsible for polarizing this debate. That is a myth conservatives love to tout, of course, and it is one the Breakthrough bunch has repeated again and again. But it just isn’t true.
As an important aside, it is pretty well-known from social science research that people take crucial cues (as to their beliefs) from elites and that Republicans tend to take their cues from Republican elites and Democrats tend to take their cue from Democratic elites. So it would be hard for Gore by himself to polarize the debate in any case. Indeed, Gerson himself notes that:
In 2005, then-Gov. Mitt Romney joined a regional agreement to limit carbon emissions. In 2007, Gingrich publicly endorsed a cap-and-trade system for carbon.
Many, many Republicans embraced cap-and-trade around that time and didn’t flip flop on climate until 2009, suggesting again it was something other than Gore’s advocacy to blaim (see Tim Pawlenty: “Every one of us” running for president has flip-flopped on climate change). Let’s remember that the GOP presidential nominee ran on a platform of climate action and cap-and-trade — even his conservative VP, Sarah Palin, endorsed it. That’s a key reason again that you see in the top chart that the liberal-conservative polarization did not accelerate until 2009, when a certain person got elected with overwhelming majorities and the prospect of an actual climate bill became quite real.