Polling data leading up to last week’s summit of The Climate Project wasn’t exactly inspiring. The widely respected Pew Forum says the share of Americans who believe the Earth is warming is stuck at less than 50 percent, while Rasmussen Reports—often accused of Republican bias—shows that the number has fallen to 34 percent. Both polls have proven track records from the 2008 Presidential election.
As one of some 2,500 volunteers trained by former vice president Al Gore to present his Inconvenient Truth slideshow, I was discouraged to learn more than half of all Americans still deny the science that links human activities to global warming. Over the past two-and-half years, Gore’s volunteer army has delivered more than 50,000 slideshows to 75 million people worldwide in order to raise public awareness about climate change; I’ve given about 20 throughout western North Carolina. While the polls suggested failure, the mood at the summit—a reunion of 600 global warming foot soldiers in Nashville, TN, from May 14 through 16, 2009—was positively celebratory. As Peggy Lehmberg of Jasper, GA put it: “We’re doing this because we can’t possibly not do it.”
On the other hand, I spent much of the three-day gathering trying to reconcile these frustrating results with the self-congratulatory tone that filled Hutton Hotel’s sixth floor. Gore invited a number of global authorities on climate change to reinforce his message that we were responsible for the Congressional committee working on a bill at that very moment that would cap greenhouse gas emissions. “It seems incredible that we could change enough minds and put it on the agenda,” Gore told us. “It was really was An Inconvenient Truth that galvanized everything,” insisted Canada’s arch-environmentalist, David Suzuki. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declared us “missionaries,” who, “Collectively and individually can bring about change.”
These messages were well-received in a room filled with activists wearing T-shirts bearing slogans like, “My carbon footprint is smaller than yours,” who all signed a contract vowing to give no-admission slideshows in return for nothing more than a lapel pin. There were those that drove and flew long distances—from as far as Nigeria and Macedonia—to hear our heroes remind us that what we’re doing is important. Many had anecdotal evidence that a tipping point—in public opinion, not climatic equilibrium—has been reached. Vivian Fulk, a wine-grower from North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley, told me her information booths on climate change are now embraced at trade shows, after first being dismissed two years ago. But that’s correlation, not causation. Is there any evidence the Climate Project is actually changing minds?
I managed to put that question to Gore himself, in the buffet line. “There are a lot of polls out there that do show progress,” he said, seeming a little surprised to be on the defensive by one of his own supporters. I asked if he could be more specific, and he replied without skipping a beat, “Mark Mellman just wrote something, I think.” Then it was someone else’s turn to get their picture taken. Gore was referring to a column that had recently appeared in The Hill, a Washington, DC policy newspaper. Mellman’s survey shows just 16 percent of Americans deny the reality of global warming. Other polls carried out by the Climate Project’s sister organization, the Alliance for Climate Protection, and its ally, the National Wildlife Federation, point to “strong support for global warming .”
Gore might have told me that my fixation with polls misses the point as changing public opinion is no longer the prime directive of The Climate Project. As part of the project’s “Phase Two” stage, as it’s officially called, we were later informed of a new mission: to write letters to editors, organize phone banks, and to do whatever it takes to convince Congress to support the Waxman-Markey bill.
Details of HR 2454, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, were made public halfway through the summit, met by thunderous applause. The Waxman-Markey bill, the first comprehensive attempt to cut US greenhouse gas emissions, is a far cry from what Barack Obama’s campaign promised. The president, along with Gore and the rest of the environmental community, wanted to auction off 100 percent of the permits that come with the latter half of the bill’s “cap-and-trade” emissions reduction strategy. Under this bill, just 15 percent will be auctioned off, and won’t cost industry anything for the first few years, at least.
I found out later that Greenpeace denounced the bill as unsupportable. However, for Gore, HR 2454 still represents progress. If it passes Congress, the US will be well-poised to take a leadership position at December’s Copenhagen conference, widely regarded as the world’s last chance to negotiate a useful climate treaty. “The US passing legislation and providing a solution is the goal,” Gore said. “If we get a bill with the core intact and if congressmen and senators vote for it, you will know that you’ve done a good job.”
Though not exactly a sea change, The Climate Project is pushing a new breed of motivators and a new way of creating change. “Now it’s time to step it up,” declared Steve Hildebrand, deputy national campaign director for Obama’s presidential campaign. “If we don’t create some serious noise in some critical states, we’re not going to win this battle.” It was not what we signed up for, but there was no evidence of discomfort as hundreds of newly minted political operatives poured into Nashville’s music district on Saturday night to celebrate. No one was talking about polls.
Front page image courtesy of World Economic Forum
Originally published May 23, 2009