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Will the IPCC report spur U.S. policymakers to act?

Ben Whitford

1st October 2013

Ben Whitford says that despite the lack of coverage of the IPCC report in the US media and ongoing denial of the science from certain political quarters, climate change activists in the US are feeling motivated........

Most Americans never hear about the IPCC’s reports because it just doesn’t get media coverage

At midnight last night, the U.S. government closed its doors and sent home 800,000 federal employees, after Republican fiscal brinksmanship plunged the country into its first government shutdown for 17 years. The manufactured crisis is expected to take a big toll on the U.S. and global economy; it also almost entirely eclipsed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark fifth report, which flickered briefly across Americans’ TV screens on Friday before being replaced by round-the-clock coverage of congressional incompetence.

Even without a looming budget crisis, though, the IPCC report probably wouldn’t have stayed on Americans’ radars for long, says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. In a survey Leiserowitz and his colleagues conducted last year, only 14% of Americans could recall ever having heard of the IPCC. “Most Americans never hear about the IPCC’s reports because it just doesn’t get media coverage,” Leiserowitz says. “I’m not saying they don’t have an influence, but it isn’t a direct influence — people aren’t running out and snapping up copies of the IPCC report to see what it says.”

That’s a pity, says Sara Chieffo, legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters — not least because the latest IPCC report was unequivocal in affirming the reality of global warming. “Scientists are as certain that climate change is happening, and that it’s manmade, as they are that cigarettes kill,” Chieffo says. “That should be cause enough for us to see that we should act.”

The IPCC’s report may have gone unnoticed by most Americans, but it did make an impression on some D.C. policymakers. Secretary of State John Kerry was among the most vocal, calling the report “yet another wake-up call” and warning that “those who deny the science or choose excuses over action are playing with fire.” With each new IPCC report, Kerry said, “the science grows clearer, the case grows more compelling, and the costs of inaction grow beyond anything that anyone with conscience or common sense should be willing to even contemplate.”

Unfortunately, as the shutdown debacle demonstrated, conscience and common sense remain in rather short supply on Capitol Hill. The ink on the IPCC report was barely dry before Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate’s environmental committee, fired off a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency claiming that the report actually undermined the case for climate action. The report’s description of a recent “hiatus” in warming rates — which scientists say is at best a minor and temporary respite — undermines decades of research by “climate alarmists,” Vitter argued, and shows that there is no need for “immediate and costly” action. 

It wasn’t just Republicans who latched onto the report’s perceived shortcomings. Coal-country Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia quickly made clear that they wouldn’t temper their support for the fossil-fuel industry in the light of the IPCC’s findings. Whatever the truth behind climate change, Manchin said, the coal industry should remain untouchable. “Hammering the American coal industry, raising costs for consumers and manufacturers, and slowing economic growth is not the solution," he told reporters.

The conservative backlash against the IPCC report frustrated progressive Democrats on the Hill, who tend to view their climate-denying colleagues as disingenuous, industry-funded hacks. “Climate change deniers in Congress have run out of excuses to support action,” said Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a liberal Democrat. “If Senators truly followed the science in this report, we’d have more than 95 votes for action to match the more than 95% certainty that we are altering our planet for the worse.”

The truth, sadly, is that science is the last thing on conservative lawmakers’ minds, says David Goldston, director of the Government Affairs Program at the Natural Resources Defence Council. Climate skeptics have a vested interest in continuing to espouse positions favoured by their constituents and their deep-pocketed backers, regardless of what the world’s scientists say, Goldston explains.

That means the IPCC’s report is “unlikely to change the mind of any of the ideologues in Congress who have staked their entire political position on either denying or raising questions about the science of climate change,” he says. “There’s been so much evidence available to them already to undermine their beliefs. One more report from an entity they’ve tried to disparage is not going to make a difference.”

It’s easy to get discouraged in the face of such intransigence. Still, activists say they’re cheered by the IPCC’s report, and plan to redouble their efforts. Lawmakers might be determined to keep their heads in the sand, but after a summer of heat-waves, wildfires and droughts, many American voters are starting to accept that climate change is worth worrying about, says the LCV’s Chieffo. That growing awareness will gradually increase the pressure on lawmakers to mend their ways, Chieffo says. “We’re seeing the politics of climate change incrementally shifting here in the U.S.,” she says.

In the meantime, the IPCC’s report will give additional political cover to President Barack Obama as he seeks to bypass Congress and regulate power-plant emissions using his executive powers. That’s where Chieffo says the LCV plans to focus its energies in coming months, in the hope of building a broader acceptance of carbon-curbing policies that could one day pave the way for a legislative climate solution. “This is one more important piece of data in telling the story about how dangerous climate change is,” Chieffo says. 

Goldston agrees that the IPCC report, though no magic bullet, is a valuable asset for campaigners. There will be plenty of continuing resistance from climate skeptics, both in Congress and in the conservative media — but the science is clear, Goldston insists, and gradually, incrementally, activists will succeed in reshaping America’s political discourse. “Each step you take makes the next step easier,” Goldston says. 

He may be right. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that in America, at least, climate campaigners still have a long and bumpy road ahead of them.

Ben Whitford is the Ecologist's US correspondent. He can be reached at mail@benwhitford.com. Follow him @ben_whitford

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