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Global warming doubts could hamper climate legislation

With more people expressing doubts about global warming, passing climate legislation in Congress will be more difficult.

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“In the US, it’s going to be more difficult [to pass climate legislation] than it might have been a year ago,” says Adil Najam, a lead author of two IPCC reports and the director of Boston University’s Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future. “The same legislation is going to find more opposition, because the political mood has changed.”

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Dr. Leiserowitz attributes that change in political mood documented by his poll to a string of scandals and external factors such as the economy and the media.

“This is a perfect storm,” he says. “It’s been called the winter of climate science discontent.”

The first issue?

“It’s the economy, ” says Leiserowitz. “The economy is dwarfing everything. It’s pushed [climate change] off the priority list.”

The media have also largely neglected covering climate change, apart from the Copenhagen conference late last year, effectively removing the issue from most peoples’ radar, he says.

“Climate change is abstract, it’s distant — it’s Bangladesh in 50 years. The media play a critical role of reminding us of it, so if it’s not in the media, it’s not in our attention,” he says.

Politicians and advocacy groups have also been increasingly successful in shaping public opinion and stalling climate legislation, he adds. “Utilities, fossil fuels, chambers of commerce – certainly there’s a lot of political push-back.”

Finally he says, a string of recent scandals and errors found in prominent climate change reports have eroded public confidence in the issue.

Climate change skeptics have found a series of mistakes in 2007 report by the IPCC, a United Nations scientific body considered the authority on global warming. The report concluded that human activity and man-made emissions of heat-trapping gases are partly to blame for atmospheric and oceanic warming.

The most embarrassing mistake: The IPCC report said Himalayan glaciers could melt by 2035 because of global warming. That finding, which even climate change advocates describe as "crazy," was erroneously picked up from an Indian news report – not an independent scientific study.

The report also said 55 percent of the Netherlands is below sea level. It is actually 26 percent.

“These mistakes suggest the review process didn’t work properly, and the IPCC needs to do much better job of enforcing its rules, frankly,” says Leiserowitz. "But it doesn’t cast doubt on the fact that glaciers are melting or that climate change is happening and human caused.”

The mistakes, say Najam of Boston University may have lasting effects on the public’s confidence in science. “I hope what we are not seeing is an erosion of trust in science,” he says. “Societies need to be able to trust science, and scientists need to inspire trust. Climate scientists have to be more careful.”

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