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Breaking through to climate change skeptics

Photo courtesy USFWS

Anthony Leiserowitz directs the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He says the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is real. It’s mostly caused by people. And it’s serious.

“We know through multiple studies that over 95% of scientists agree about this.”

But... he says his studies and others show the number of Americans who believe climate change is happening has declined. 

Leiserowitz says there are a lot of reasons for that. A tough economy... declining media coverage...

“Then there’s actually been a very active campaign to discredit the science, to put out disinformation about the science. And that really kicked into gear in 2008 and 2009 because Congress was about to pass climate legislation. Forces that are perfectly happy with the status quo worked very, very hard to stop that effort and they were successful.”

So as a result of these factors and others... he says many Americans are confused about what to believe... or downright skeptical.

This was the topic of a conferenceput on by the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and the Union of Concerned Scientists at the University of Michigan last week. There were social scientists and climate scientists, religious leaders and members of the business community. They were here to talk about how the public climate change debate has become more about personal values and how you see the world than about the science.

Reverend Richard Cizik is the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. He says a decade ago... he just didn’t believe climate change was happening.

“I was dismissive and ridiculed, like millions of others did, Al Gore and his book Earth in the Balance. So I was a skeptic, a denial-ist, a scoffer if you will. But I changed.”

He says he changed his mind when he went to a conference at Oxford University and learned about the science.

“It was simply an exposure for the very first time to the facts of climate change and the reality which is that the earth will change as a result forever in ways we don’t even fully comprehend today.”

But Reverend Cizik says when he talks to young Evangelicals... he doesn’t use science as a starting point.

“My message really isn’t to persuade anybody of the science of climate change which I do believe. It’s rather to persuade them of their own biblical responsibility – if they call themselves a believer. There’s no way you can love God and your neighbor if you’re polluting his or her air.”

This idea... that you can’t talk to all Americans with the same message on climate change... was a main take-home message of the conference this past week.

Bob Inglis is a former Congressman from South Carolina. He describes himself as a conservative Republican.

He says for his first six years in Congress, he was an ardent denier of climate change. He was out of Congress for a while. Then he got re-elected.

“When I got back to Congress, I had the opportunity to be on the Science Committee and I went to Antarctica twice actually, and in those visits, saw the evidence. That evidence persuaded me and so the result is I decided I really needed to act and I needed to be involved.”

But he says this position cost him his job.

“The most enduring heresy I committed against the Republican orthodoxy was saying climate change is real and let’s do something about it. That actually got me in the most hot water of anything I did, and I would say it’s the largest reason I lost the primary in June 2010.”

Lately, Bob Inglis has been going around, talking to groups like the College Republicans. He says he’s trying to persuade them that there are conservative solutions to our climate problems.

A report from Yale: Global Warming's Six Americas

A quiz: Which of the Six Americas do you belong to?



Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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