The Oddly Tepid Political Fight Over Global Warming

The Atlantic

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Yesterday afternoon, a panel of experts was convened by a House subcommittee to discuss taking action on climate change. Earlier, the heavy machinery that was once Barack Obama's campaign team, Organizing For America, began a new push to hold politicians to task for having not yet done anything on the issue. The odds are good that you didn't know that either of these things happened. The urgency with which scientists and the environmental community looks at global warming has still not been translated to Capitol Hill — or to the rest of America.

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The House hearing, led by Republican Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, was never likely to create a massive shift in the politics of the climate. Stewart has long denied a strong human role in warming, writing an opinion piece for the Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month in which he claims that "the science regarding climate change is anything but settled." (Scientists disagree.) Stewart's essay did have one positive outcome: the Tribune was also the only media outlet to cover yesterday's hearing.

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In its own effort to gin up some political attention, Organizing For Action released a video — via a blog post titled "An embarrassing video" — compiling Republican denials of climate science. (Stewart does not make an appearance.) As of this moment, the video has been viewed 162,000 times — a decent number.

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How many of those viewers then went to BarackObama.com to take action is known only to OFA. The link to that page was shared fifteen times on Twitter.

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Political action and public opinion reinforce one another. If something starts to gain energy in the Capitol, it can often increase public attention. If the public begins worrying about something, Congress is likely to act. (See: flight delays.) The fairly milquetoast conversation in Washington about climate change — a conversation that's been pretty tepid for a while — reflects to a large extent, the stasis of public intensity on the topic. Pew Research has tracked the public's sense of urgency on climate action for five years. It's hardly changed.

At this point, it's not even clear how Barack Obama would respond to that poll question. Despite his State of the Union and inaugural pledges to fight for action on warming, the president hasn't had much energy for it, either. In an article this week, The Times notes that, following those speeches, "little more has been heard from the president or his cabinet on the matter." It outlined a few reasons — new leaders in energy-related Cabinet positions; a focus on other issues, like gun control — but left unanswered the perhaps-unanswerable question of what the president actually plans to do.

Beyond the fight over a few specific issues — fracking, which the House will discuss today, and the Keystone XL pipeline — Washington's discussion of climate change is mostly whispered. There's an analogy that some might apply to situation, involving frogs in warming water. But it's perhaps a little too on the nose.

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