Chris Mooney takes a look at how global warming will change the United States and, with time, American politics.

mooneydfa.jpg Credit: Mark Weiss

Growing up in New Orleans, I always thought of our local paper, the Times Picayune, as a conservative, establishment voice, one fond of kissing up to Louisiana’s powerful oil and gas interests. In 2000, partly for reasons of energy policy, the Picayune firmly supported George W. Bush over environmentalist Al Gore for president. “That is a big-time pocketbook issue for Louisiana, and it is a compelling reason to choose Mr. Bush,” the paper editorialized. “He lives right next-door, and he’s an oilman.”

How times have changed. Exactly three months after hurricane-driven floodwaters enveloped New Orleans, I caught a Times Picayune editorial on global warming, an issue that had gone totally unmentioned in the paper’s 2000 endorsement of George W. Bush for president. The new editorial took the form of a stern rebuke to the Bush administration, expressed in tones that might have made Al Gore himself proud. “Americans have now seen what can happen when rising waters overwhelm a major coastal metropolitan area,” wrote the Picayune post-Katrina. “The United States should be leading efforts to combat global warming, instead of straggling behind.”

Every time I hear griping and complaining about the United States’ intransigence on global warming, my mind reverts to that Times Picayune editorial. Without a doubt, the US owes the rest of the world an apology for its frustrating inaction on this issue. We ditched Kyoto without offering an alternative. We suppress and ignore our taxpayer-funded government scientists. We put our fingers in our ears and scream “la-la-la” when countries want to discuss anything other than voluntary means for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But the Times Picayune editorial tells a different, more hopeful story—about how the treatment of global warming in the United States may begin to differ considerably from the past. What will break our national impasse, a situation of policy gridlock that is of grave concern not just at home, but to nations of the world? If change comes, it will surely be triggered by real impacts of global warming in Americans’ backyards—or, as in the case of New Orleans, the increasingly apparent threat of such impacts.

Global warming didn’t cause Katrina. But the ensuing disaster rightly heightened concern about global warming’s impacts on hurricane strength, precipitation and sea level rise. And for other regions of the United States—from the Great Lakes to the Southwest to the Rocky Mountains—the story is similar. California, for instance, is worried about declining mountain snowpack, which poses an ominous threat to water supplies in an already parched region. That, too, remains a concern for the future, but some devastating impacts of global warming are already underway. The Arctic, for instance, is quite literally melting. A definitive scientific work, the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, stated that global warming is responsible for declining sea ice and loss of permafrost in the region—which have had a severe impact on native Inuit cultures. Alaskans at the present moment are experiencing the most dramatic climatic change on earth.

In response to these current and future changes, the time is more than ripe for a political shift in the American global-warming debate. This isn’t an abstract discussion about atmospheric processes anymore. That story has been told and retold ad nauseum. Now, it’s time to talk about real-world effects of global warming, many of which are already taking place.

Such a change of focus is political dynamite. Media scholars like Matthew Nisbet of Ohio State University have shown that how much attention an issue receives is closely linked to how it’s defined, or framed. If an issue is framed in technical terms (i.e., “Do industrial emissions cause global warming?”) it doesn’t scare people as much. It’s easy to obfuscate, and hard for non-specialists to access or understand. But if an issue gets dramatized, personalized, humanized—well, then the public can get really roused. At the present moment in the United States, global warming is on the cusp of precisely such a shift.

Understandably, this prospect appears to terrify those who have a strong interest in preserving the status quo. The administration’s most dogged attempts to silence NASA expert James Hansen on the subject of global warming followed a speech he gave warning that if we don’t act quickly, we’re risking catastrophic sea level rise. Similarly, the Bush administration has abetted a conservative campaign to suppress a Clinton-era study entitled “Climate Change Impacts on the United States” (often called the “National Assessment”), a region-by-region account of the potential consequences of climate variability and change. Although National Assessments are required by law every four years, the Bush administration has shown no intention of producing another, updated, one based on new science that was unavailable during the Clinton years.  Ignoring the issue won’t work forever, though. Many of the changes brought about by global warming will entail real increased risks of damage to people and property. And that will bring not just finger-pointing, but litigating. Recently the attorneys general of several progressive-leaning states brought a lawsuit against a group of US electric power companies, trying to hold them responsible for the current and future impacts of global warming on their respective states. The lawsuit has stalled, but it’s just the opening salvo in what could be a flurry of global warming litigation. And as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced, plaintiffs should have an easier time gaining standing in court. “You can’t be contributing to the destruction of the planet’s climate with millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions and not be committing some kind of a tort,” global warming litigator Matt Pawa told me last year. “It’s just impossible.”

A few years from now, we may look back upon Hurricane Katrina as the event that truly began to unleash the political potential of global warming. Or perhaps that focusing moment has not yet arrived for anyone except the people of New Orleans. Perhaps it hasn’t even arrived yet for them. Time will tell.

But what’s beyond doubt is that global warming will continue to change the face of the planet, including places we all know and love, and that its impacts will only increase with time. That means that in any country with a responsive political system—even the United States—its political signal will eventually emerge from the noise.

Originally published April 16, 2006


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