Dramatizing Climate Change

The cause of combating climate change has taken a big hit. It is not just that the world failed to agree to much of anything in Copenhagen, it is that there has been a startling drop in American public support for acting on climate change. Without the public, America can’t act. And without America, the world won’t move.

In January 2007, 82% of registered voters surveyed by Fox said that they believed in global warming. Democrats, not surprisingly, were the most certain, with 91% agreeing. Republicans and Independents also overwhelmingly said they believed in climate change, with 72% of Republicans and 84% of Independents answering “Yes.”

But by December 2009, Republican and Independent attitudes had changed dramatically. Democrats still believed in global warming (84%), but Independents who believed in global warming had fallen to 61%. Republicans who answered “Yes” dropped from 72% to 46%. And most damaging, those who answered “No” rose from 21% to 51%.


What is going on here? It is not that the science is any less clear. Indeed, if anything, the evidence has continued to mount. Nor is it (solely) that the economic crisis has pushed climate change aside. If so we would expect similar impacts across party lines (and European attitudes would show similar declines, which they do not). Rather it is because the narrative that has been at the heart of the global movement to build support for action on climate change is under attack by a counter-narrative that is resonating with great effect among conservatives.

It is worth stepping back for a moment to ask how the general public forms views on climate change. Obviously, climate change is not something that any one of us can understand from personal experience. It is only by sifting through vast amounts of historical data from around the globe that climate scientists can detect the subtle changes under way. We could read the scientific literature, of course, but for most of us, it just isn’t worth it. How, then, do we form our views on climate change? And how is it that so many people have passionate opinions about something they cannot possible know for certain? The answer is that our attitudes on climate change, as with so many issues, depends on the stories we hear and the story we believe.

For two decades, the dominate narrative was that climate change was happening, that there was consensus in the scientific community, and that unless we acted soon, disaster would strike. “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 documentary of Al Gore’s crusade to educate the public on climate change is perhaps the purest embodiment on the pro-climate change tale. In Gore’s telling, climate change is not just a scientific issue (although he presents plenty of facts and figures), it is an impending tragedy for humanity—unless we answer the call the act.

So, how do you fight a story? With another story.

Over the last few years, the right has constructed another tale and told it with increasing frequency in the conservative blogosphere, right-wing talk radio, and Fox News. The story told by climate change deniers is not just that scientists have got it wrong, but, as Glenn Beck says, that they are perpetrating a “hoax.”

Weatherman John Coleman, one of the most prominent of the deniers, says “It is the greatest scam in history.” Rush Limbaugh explains that “they have a political agenda behind global warming and it is more government, more spending, less freedom, higher taxes and so far and so on.”

In this story the characters have been recast. Al Gore is now the bad guy, along with the UN, big government, the liberal media, and, remarkably, scientists. The heroes are the Rush Limbaughs and Glenn Becks of the world, who stand with regular Americans against government control and for freedom.

Why does this tale work? In part, it works because it is now the dominate story reaching conservatives who tune into Fox News or listen to Rush Limbaugh. But, it seems to me that the primary reason it works because it resonates with the wave of right-wing populism afoot in American, whose fundamental mythology of about freedom under attack from controlling elites.