The Monitor's View

A climate gadfly’s job

Americans are obsessed with the economy. Gadflies like Al Gore do a service by reminding them that the problem of climate change isn’t going away.

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A lot has changed in the five years since Al Gore won an Oscar for his documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” and a Nobel Peace Prize for his dramatic warning about the dangers of climate change.

Back then concerns over climate seemed to be winning hearts and minds. The question was shifting from “Should we do something about climate change?” to “How are we going to do it?”

Then came 2008 and the Great Recession. Priorities shifted again. Passing US legislation to curb climate change, already a tough sell, became a costly nonstarter.

In recent decades, when the Gallup poll asked Americans whether they would favor protecting the environment, even if it harmed economic growth, they said “yes.” In 1991, 71 percent to 20 percent favored protecting the environment – even if it meant slowing economic growth.

That flipped in 2008, except for a brief period immediately following the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year. Today 54 percent to 36 percent favor economic growth, even if it harms the environment.

On Sept. 14 Gore launched his “24 Hours of Reality” Internet broadcast on climate change into the headwind of that changed public mood. The man who was once an international celebrity is more a gadfly now, an annoying reminder of a problem that many Americans have shoved to the back of their minds.

The 24-hour series of events and videos that took place around the globe drew a considerable audience: 8.6 million viewers, according to Gore’s Climate Reality Project, which sponsored the event.

It wasn’t enough to change the political equation. What to do about climate change will stay off the political menu for now, especially since the action is all on the Republican side as that party determines who’ll face President Obama in 2012. The major GOP candidates either deny that humans are altering the climate by burning fossil fuels or argue that enough doubt exists that no action is needed at this time.

That makes for good politics right now, when Americans are transfixed on whether or not they’ll have a job. But it puts off dealing with a problem that scientists say will only worsen in the decades ahead unless action is taken.

For now, groups like Gore’s, as well as US and international scientific organizations, will continue their efforts to educate the public about the reality of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels. They need to keep the issue alive until the political winds shift again.

Gallup found that one of the few segments of US society still favoring environmental protection over economic development were young adults 18 to 29. These Americans may have the most at stake in finding solutions to this slow-moving, long-range problem.

Perhaps the effects of climate change, or “global weirding,” are being felt now. Texas has just endured its hottest summer ever recorded, hotter than the 1930s Dust Bowl. It’s also locked in the worst drought in its history.

For the nation as a whole, 2011 produced the second-hottest summer ever: 6 of the 10 hottest years on record have come in the last decade. Ten natural disasters, including most recently Hurricane Irene on the East Coast, have each caused at least $1 billion in damage, the most ever in a single year.

Responsible climate scientists won’t insist that any specific climate disaster is the result of climate change. But the general pattern fits with their predictions of a changing climate: hotter, drier than before in some regions, wetter and stormier in others.

As a gadfly, Gore needs to keep biting, until America again pays attention.

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