How to stop global warming – even if you don’t believe in it

In the global-warming debate, scientists are, admirably, still trying to save the day. Last week, the American Geophysical Union announced plans to mobilize about 700 climate scientists in an effort to improve the accuracy of media coverage and public understanding of their field. Separately, a smaller group of scientists organized by John Abraham of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota said it was putting together a “rapid response team” to bring accurate climate science to public debates.

On the face of it, such efforts certainly make sense. The scientists hope, not unreasonably, to bring more attention to the climate-change crisis. More crucially, they seek to halt the slide in public opinion on the issue, with recent polls finding Americans’ belief in the evidence for global warming on the decline, along with their view of the need for immediate action to slow climate change. And it’s true that science education, when done well, may help accomplish these goals.

But will it lead to meaningful policy? Or will this latest round of efforts instead result in another spate of news stories about scary end-of-the-world scenarios, another series of debates over whether global-warming science is a hoax and more wasted time – time we don’t have?

There is good reason to think that those who are worried about climate change would make greater progress – especially among Republicans, who profess increasing skepticism about warming – if they focused less on arguing the scientific reality and more on building support for specific solutions that all sides can agree on.

The first problem with focusing on the science debate is that the spectacle of dueling scientists confuses people. We have already seen this story unfold in the media: Two opposing sides, given similar exposure, argue about complexities that most Americans feel they have little ability to assess. Instead of focusing on the causes of climate change in simple terms that people can grasp and act upon, it is all too easy for scientists to get trapped in a debate with skeptics about whether they can prove that warming is real and how they can show definitively that its effects are imminent. Faced with this sparring, it becomes fairly easy for the average person to dismiss climate change as an open question and cross it off the list of things they need to worry about.

Which brings us to a related problem: People are already overwhelmed with worries about unemployment, economic insecurity, federal debt and even terrorism. We should not expect them to start worrying about whether the Earth is warmer, glaciers are melting, or floods and droughts will become more common. A global warming crisis simply can’t compete with the long list of crises average Americans already face.

Finally, the global warming debate increasingly turns more on political belief than on scientific fact. Until relatively recently, environmental issues were largely nonpartisan. Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon have historically achieved significant environmental gains, and voters across party lines used to express fairly equal levels of support for environmental protections.

But while some environmental priorities continue to be shared across the political spectrum, global warming is not one of them. Surveys show a sharp and increasing political divide on a range of beliefs involving climate change, with tea party conservatives voicing the greatest skepticism. Mention “global warming” in a room full of average Americans, as I have done on several occasions, and you will find that they quickly align with one camp or the other. The idea that global warming is a hoax is no longer a fringe perception but a part of the Republican Party brand.

Even if climate scientists manage to convince some conservative skeptics that global warming poses an urgent threat, Republican leaders have backed themselves into a corner. The issue has become so politically polarizing that it would be nearly impossible for them to retreat from their stance and to get behind legislation that is thought to concern global warming.

I’m not suggesting that we halt efforts to educate the public about warming. For all sorts of reasons, such initiatives are critical. But we must stop thinking that these efforts are a necessary precondition for getting anything done on this issue.

So what’s a conservative politician who secretly cares about climate change to do? How can Republicans, in Congress or in legislatures around the country, make the case to their colleagues – and how can they bring conservative voters along?

They must start by focusing on climate-friendly policies and stop assuming that we must first achieve unanimity on global warming science. People can support the transition to a carbon-free energy future without believing, or even knowing, that it might influence glaciers, coral reefs or Arctic ice.

There is a long list of carbon-reduction measures that strong majorities of Republicans, Democrats and independents firmly support, including mandating better fuel efficiency, increasing federal funding for clean-energy research, spending more for mass transit, raising efficiency standards for homes and other buildings, and requiring utilities to produce more energy from renewable sources. They even support limits on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases – just as long as they are seen as anti-pollution measures, not “caps.”

For instance, an October poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 73 percent of Republicans favor requiring better fuel efficiency for cars, trucks and SUVs; 64 percent want more federal funding for research on wind, solar and hydrogen technology; and 55 percent favor spending more on public transportation. Pew polls over the summer, meanwhile, found that 74 percent of Republicans favor requiring utilities to produce more energy from renewable sources, while 57 percent back limits on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Even as avowed a climate-change denier as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) is open to considering action on black carbon (more commonly known as soot), thought to be the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. As he told the Guardian last year, his interest in black carbon stems from concern about poor families in Africa who suffer lung disease as a result of cooking with wood stoves. “I am surprised that anyone would be at all surprised that I would be trying to find out about black carbon while I don’t buy the idea that anthropogenic gases are causing global warming,” he said.

In focus groups conducted by my firm on behalf of numerous environmental organizations over the years, climate skeptics almost always tell us that such steps are good things to support, even if global warming isn’t real. New energy approaches are good for the planet, for human health, for energy independence and for our economy, they say.

The current political and economic terrain isn’t fertile ground for cap-and-trade or for other comprehensive legislation to address global warming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress on the many solutions that people agree on across party lines. So let’s set a bold target for the clean-energy production we will need in 10 or 20 years and start demanding a plan that will achieve it.

The wary, the unconvinced and the downright skeptical don’t have to be a barrier to change. They might even join in.

Meg Bostrom, co-founder of the Topos Partnership, a communications strategy firm. Together with the Social Capital Project, Topos researched and authored the 2009 report Climate Crossroads: A Research-Based Framing Guide.