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Weekly Mulch: Politics confuse public perception of climate change

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Americans don’t know what to think about climate change anymore. A few years ago, the public more or less trusted the science that said human activity was raising global temperatures, but now that Congress and the Obama administration have hemmed and hawed about climate issues, we’re not longer so sure.

Forty-eight percent of Americans—more of us than ever before—believe that reports of global warming are “generally exaggerated,” according to a new Gallup poll. Climate science hasn’t changed, so it’s not crazy to look at these numbers and think that conservatives’ incessant critiques of climate change may be working.

A perfect political storm

These shifts in opinion started around 2008. Aaron Wiener at the Washington Independent argues that the politics of climate change are driving American opinions about the reality of global warming. The percentage of Americans willing to put the blame for climate change on humans is about equal to the percentage of Americans still behind President Barack Obama’s agenda, he notes.

“What was once a broad moral and scientific issue is now a centerpiece of the Democrats’ legislative agenda,” he writes.

Republicans have taken a political stand on climate change, too, one that reinforces the message that we can afford to ignore global warming. At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum links the Gallup numbers to confusion about Copenhagen and to negative “Climategate” stories about a few climate scientists’ unprofessional emails.

But taking a wider view, Drum points out another big problem: “The Republican Party has largely decided that climate change simply doesn’t exist. It’s a hoax,” he says.

Green xenophobia

It’s also politically convenient for a party that throws a tantrum every time the president produces a policy idea. But in another corner of the right’s world, conservatives are eager to defend the country’s environment against the burden of immigration.

Jamilah King reports for ColorLines that Progressives for Immigration Reform (PFIR), which is linked to a conservative anti-immigrant group, is warning that immigration “is pushing our country deeper into ecological deficit.”

King refutes this notion, citing reports that population and pollution are not directly linked. “In fact, newly arrived immigrants are probably among the most ecologically friendly folks around,” she writes. “They’re more likely to use public transportation and less likely to waste food.”

Impacts of climate change

Conservatives who’d prefer that immigrants stay on the other side of the border would do better to worry about Republicans’ studied blindness to climate change. Without action, global warming could send waves of people north, as places like Mexico grow warmer and can no longer support the same amount of agriculture.

Inter Press Service lays out some of the detrimental effects of climate change on poorer countries, particularly on the female half of the population. Women are more vulnerable to the natural disasters that accompany global warming, and the tasks that they take on, like collecting water and firewood, will grow harder as water becomes more scarce.

Overall, Thalif Deen reports, “The negative fallout from climate change is having a devastatingly lopsided impact on women compared to men.”

Slow Senate progress

The Senate is trying to move forward on climate change legislation. A key group of Senators met this week at the White House with President Obama, but coming out, the legislators had only “vague observations” to share about progress, according to Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard.

Part of the problem with the Senate’s process is that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) have already said that they’ll likely discard the sort of cap-and-trade provisions that the House bill used to regulate carbon emissions. From an environmental point of view, the Senate is getting close to doing nothing at all.

“It’s really clear that whatever attains 60 votes in the US Senate at this stage in the game is at best an extremely incremental step forward,” Gillian Caldwell, campaign director at the environmental group 1Sky, told Sheppard.

The new progressive energy

The Senate seems more eager, along with President Obama, to embrace nuclear energy as a climate solution.

“I happen to be one of the Senators who’s concerned about waste,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said at a recent summit, reports TPMDC. “But most progressives in the Senate believe nuclear power is part of the solution at this time.”

“If we don’t expand nuclear power, there are going to be more coal plants and more oil plants,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) added. “Nuclear power has been accepted as part of the solution [to climate change] among progressives.”

Considering the political will the Senate has been able to muster behind climate legislation, one might as well believe that reports of global warming are “greatly exaggerated.” After all, you’d think that if there was a potentially catastrophic threat looming in the future, our elective representatives might want to, you know, do something about that.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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