By Glynn R. Wilson
The Global Warming QuestionScientists have debated the global warming question since 1898, when Swedish scientist Svante Ahrrenius first warned that carbon dioxide emissions, from coal and oil, could accumulate in the atmosphere and lead to global warming. The debate picked up steam in the 1980s when computer models of world climate projected temperature rises, and then NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress in 1988 that global warming "is already happening now." The first climate change treaty was signed by 170 nations in 1992, although many scientists and policymakers still harbored doubts.
A major turning point occurred, ironically, in the fall of 1995, a few months after a new wave of conservative Republican Congressmen took the oath of office, according to the New York Times (Stevens, Sept. 5, 1995). A consensus seemed to be emerging that not only was the greenhouse effect real, and that the global climate was indeed warming, but that human activity was largely to blame. Consider this lead in to the Times story, and keep in mind that this is the national newspaper of record, a paper with a long history and stellar reputation in covering science issues.
In an important shift of scientific judgment, experts advising the world's governments on climate change are saying for the first time that human activity is a likely cause of the warming of the global atmosphere.
While many climatologists have thought this to be the case, all but a few have held until now that the climate is so naturally variable that they could not be sure they were seeing a clear signal of the feared greenhouse effect . . .
But a growing body of data and analysis now suggests that the warming of the last century, and especially of the last few years, "is unlikely to be entirely due to natural causes and that a pattern of climatic response to human activities is identifiable in the climatological record," says a draft summary of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (p. 1A).
From this juncture forward, it is fair to say that a consensus was forming, although not without its critics. Before we get to a discussion of the science and policy debate, however, it seems appropriate to define a few key concepts.
Virtually all public controversies include philisophical and practical disagreements. This is true of ideas in the climate change debate and in the realm of public opinion. Values are often at the core of disputes, especially when they become politicized. A few of the key competing ideas are discussed below.
The Greenhouse Effect
In spite of what you may hear on talk radio, or read on the Internet, there is little dispute in the scientific community that there is a greenhouse effect around the earth. The presence in the atmosphere of gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane allow incoming sunlight to pass through, but absorb heat radiated back from the earth's surface, causing the atmosphere to trap solar radiation. This process works much like a plastic cover over a greenhouse for plants, thus the name greenhouse effect. If not for the heat generated in this way, we could not grow crops in the ground or even survive ourselves. In short, the heat from the greenhouse effect allows humans and other life forms to survive on planet earth.
The problem is, greenhouse effect is often used as a synonym for global warming or climate change by reporters and laypersons. Even some researchers have begun combining the terms into greenhouse warming, and in some cases refer to the problem as the enhanced greenhouse effect, to indicate the human influence on the natural greenhouse effect. While these terms are understandable to those of us emmersed in understanding the problem, I wonder what effects these terms have on public understanding and opinion. While no evidence exists to date, I suspect the absence of a consistent frame of reference leads to confusion on the part of some members of the public at large.
The science and policy dispute centers on whether the mean annual temperature of the earth is actually increasing due to the buildup of greenhouse gases, released primarily from the burning of fossil fuels as a byproduct of industrial processes. These include carbon dioxide released from automobiles. A consensus among climatologists emerged in the 1990s that the effects are real and potentially threatening, although it seems some physicists, industrial sources, and political conservatives continue their dispute of the issue, potentially turning off and confusing certain segments of the population.
The global warming question is also where the reporting gets interesting--observing the stakeholders in the debate try and out expert each other. It is the point at which much of the general public tunes out the media coverage, due to the nature of how reporters tend to cover controversy. According to Miller (1998) and other researchers there are three reasons why the news media distort the agenda: traditional news values, professional constraints, and journalists' relationship to official or expert sources. For accurate information on a highly complex issue such as global warming, the informed public should turn to specialized science writers in large news organizations such as the New York Times.
As this paper was being prepared for presentation during the last week of April, 1998, the New York Times published several stories revealing a telling incident in the global warming dispute. A petition signed by 15,0000 scientists, mostly physicists, was circulated in a typeface closely resembling the National of Academy of Sciences journal. It was accompanied by an unpublished, non-peer reviewed study making the outrageous claim that carbon dioxide emissions pose no climatic threat, and in fact amounts to "a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution" (Stevens, April 22, 1998). The Academy quickly distanced itself from the petition and study, citing its own 1991 report, which concluded that global warming posed a threat and merited a prompt response.
That story was followed a few days later by another exposing a multi-million dollar plan by an informal group of people working for big oil companies, trade associations and conservative policy think tanks to try and reframe the global warming story. One idea was to recruit scientists who share industry's views and train them in public relations, to try and convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to spend money on pollution controls. This group reportedly met several times at the Washington office of the American Petroleum Institute, and documents showed participants from Exxon, Chevron, and Southern Company (Cushman, April 26, 1998).
An Op-Ed piece in the Saturday Times shined more light on the controversy. University of Maryland physics professor Robert L. Park said he received a note from Frederick Seitz, a physicist and a past president of the National Academy of Sciences, asking him to sign a peitition card opposing the global climate change accord. The message said to make the world a better place by burning more hydrocarbons. Park asked why scientists with access to the same data come to such passionate disagreement?What seperates the two sides may not be so much an argument over scientific facts, scientific laws or even the scientific method, but profoundly different political and religious views . . . The great war over global warming, then, is more about values than it is about science (Park, May 2, 1998).
While competing ideas of what constitutes a public can be found in the academic literature, some consensus exists between sociologists, political scientists, and communication scholars. Opinions can be seen as individual opinion or public opinion. According to Price (1992), the most common conception of public opinion can be equated with an "aggregation of individual opinions," the stuff of public opinion polls today (p. 22). The sociological model used today is the direct descendent of Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau, Mill and Bentham, although it harkens back to the ideas of Aristotle (p. 5). Democratic theory developed in the context of social pressure on government institutions in the nineteenth century to counter abuses of power, and forms the basis of our notions of freedom of information and the watchdog press (p. 14).
On the macrosocial level, Miller stratafies the public into elites, the active public, the informed public, the available public, and the inert. The elites have access to power, the active get involved, the informed keep up but do not always get directly involved but may vote, for example. At the bottom of this schema are the inert, the "Beavis and Buttheads" in society (Miller, April 8, 1998).
Within the sociological paradigm, the social movements perspective divides the knowable world into layers or orbits of public opinion, specifically as it relates to opinions on environmental quality (Dunlap, et al., 1995).
- Activists form the heart or core of opinion on an issue and can be defined as those most intensely concerned and involved. Surrounding activists are the following stratifications:
- The attentive public, those highly interested and occasionally involved;
- The sympathetic public makes up the largest segment of the population. This layer of individuals is defined as those persons not highly attentive, but who express support for efforts to protect the environment when polled, for example;
- Neutrals are a group of individuals outside the circle who hold no strong views on the environment;
- Opponents make up the final orbit, and are said to hold anti-environmental views. Sometimes they become active in opposing environmental clean-up efforts, especially government regulations, often in the name of economic development efforts to provide growth, opportunity, new jobs.
It is not clear whether these categorizations should be pared down to the fewest possible groups, or whether an exhaustive, mutually exclusive list would better serve social science researchers. So for now this analysis moves on to the issue of public debate and discourse, then to competing stakeholders.
Central to an analysis of how public opinion is formed in so-called democratic societies is the notion of public debate (Price, 1992). A number of scholars note that "politics consists largely of the creation and suppression of issues" (p. 32). And it is widely accepted that actors "expend considerable energy trying to frame the conflict in a way that best serves their interests" (p. 32, emphasis added).
A careful analysis of media coverage of global warming--and the public relations battle on the Internet--confirms that this process of public debate and framing is at work on this hot socio-public issue. Hot Bot and Excite searches for global warming on the World Wide Web produced more than 631,000 hits.
Competing Interest Groups or Stakeholders
Stakeholders in the global warming debate obviously exclude the inept and most of the congenial public, even some of the enlightened public, those who do not get involved in public policy or appear in the media coverage of the issue. Stakeholders can be divided into proponents and opponents of legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to reduce global warming. Proponents include activists in environmental organizations, policymakers and governments of ecologically sensitive nations, and business groups whose clients stand to gain from regulations on fossil fuel-based industries. Opponents include anti-global warming regulation groups, such as manufacturing interests, coal and oil industry lobbyists, as well as governments from nations which see a global warming agreement as a threat to their economic future. The liberal-conservative labels, philosophical or political, would not be fully descriptive in this case. Consider these examples.
According to coverage of the Global Warming Summit in Kyoto, Japan late last year by the New Scientist, (Dec. 1997), most environment groups favor tough measures to curb global warming.
- Climate Action Network, an international umbrella group representing a large number of smaller organized environmental interest groups, tops the list. This group came out in support of the small-island states (AOSIS) in their call for a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by the industrialized countries by the year 2005. They oppose emissions trading and other flexibility measures as loopholes.
- Greenpeace and a few other groups expressed distinctive agendas. Greenpeace International conducted an independent analysis of the greenhouse problem, calling it "carbon logic," and concluded that to maintain global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and sea-level rise below 20 centimeters, the world needs to set a ceiling on atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at around 500 parts per million. This would require a maximum global emission of 225 billion tons of carbon in the next century--roughly 36 years worth of current emissions. To meet this, Greenpeace has directly targeted fossil-fuel companies for actions and challenged them to stop prospecting for new reserves of coal, oil and gas, and to invest instead in renewable energy technologies, especially photovoltaics (batteries for electric cars).
Greenpeace USA is now calling on the Clinton administration to push for early ratification to be one of the first countries to do so. Administration officials are not even submitting the treaty to Congress yet, however, knowing it could be dead on arrival with the Republicans in control. It may be delayed until after the 1998 political calculus comes in. If the Democrats have a chance to regain a majority in the Senate, it may be held until after the congressional elections (Baker and Dewar, 1997).
- The Union of Concerned Scientists also issued a call for action against global warming at the Kyoto conference.
- The Sierra Club global warming team has been calling for a 25 percent reduction in carbon emissions at least since 1996 (Baker and Dewar, 1997).
- Another international environmental organization active in the global warming battle is the World Wildlife Federation, which has pieced together a country-by-country map of CO2 emissions.
- A third grouping has emerged among environmentalists in developing countries. Many of these argue for a fair approach to rationing remaining space for CO2 emissions. This would entail a formula based on population. Supporters of this idea include Anil Agarwal, the influential director of the Centre for Science and the Environment in India.
Proving that politics makes strange bedfellows, groups representing the natural gas industry and the insurance lobby also favor curbs on greenhouse gas emissions.
- The Business Council for a Sustainable Energy Future emerged on the scene in 1994, splitting the commercial sector's response to climate change. Members include companies that stand to benefit from controls to head off global warming, such as manufacturers of solar panels, energy conservation equipment, and others which see opportunity in a green future. Many American gas companies joined with this group, including the American Gas Association. Machines burning natural gas emit less CO2 than those run on gasoline or coal, and unlike nuclear power, no radioactive waste is generated.
- Many insurance companies, especially those insuring the insurance industry itself, have formed an unlikely alliance with green groups. The insurance industry usually sides with conservative causes, especially when government regulations are involved. Health care and court reform are prime cases in point. But when it comes to global warming, even they become believers, fearing a rising tide of monetary claims for climatic catastrophes. Global warming is thought to lead to severe climactic disruptions such as floods and violent storms, which can lead to large-scale property damage and crop failures. Most climate models predict that the frequency and intensity of such events will increase as the planet warms on average, with the tropics growing hotter and the arctic regions even colder.
On the other side of the debate are opponents of government regulations to curb global warming.
- At the top of the list is the Global Climate Coalition, a lobbying organization set up in 1989 to coordinate business participation in the scientific and policy debate on the issue of global climate change. This organized network includes many big American producers and consumers of coal, oil and electricity, most notably Dow Chemical and the National Coal Association. Its public relations strategy seems to be to attack the notion of an enhanced greenhouse effect, and to take a protectionist position for U.S. jobs. Its literature reads like the epitome of academic objectivity, yet smacks of issues management and political spin. Consider these examples.It is an open question whether manmade contributions of greenhouse gases have contributed, or will ever contribute, to an "enhanced greenhouse effect." Climate models can neither confirm that global warming is occurring now, or predict future climate changes (New Scientist on-line, Dec. 1997).Emissions targets, it warns, "would create a competitive advantage for our international trading partners at the expense of U.S. jobs." Last year, the GCC launched a $10 million TV advertising blitz against the Kyoto Summit and the Clinton administration's proposals, although some observers say the campaign only hardened the Clinton's Administration position.
- Oil companies in the U.S. are also against any international measures to curb fossil fuel emissions, although European companies take a softer position. Exxon chief executive Lee Raymond has been widely quoted as saying: "It does not make sense to cripple the economy by making changes in the environment that may prove unnecessary, premature or don't stand the test of rigorous cost-benefit analysis." This is typical of the tactics often employed by U.S. manufacturing interests in fighting environmental regulations, although there is little evidence that any economy will be "crippled" by international agreements to slow global warming. Chris Fay, the head of the United Kingdom's Shell Oil, on the other hand, said: "Shell believes that the time for precautionary actions to prevent possible climate change has come." BP has taken a similar position, leaving the GCC in 1996 because of its increasingly strident opposition to emissions targets.
- Utility companies such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and industry groups such as the Western Fuels Association should also be counted among the stakeholders who oppose government regulations to curb the burning of fossil fuels, which leads to global warming. Western Fuels has been promoting the position since the early 1990s that carbon emissions are actually good for the planet, since plants need carbon to grow. It projects an increase in worldwide agricultural production as carbon levels in the atmosphere accumulate. This is an extremely misleading argument, however, since it fails to take into account rising population levels, deforestation, and other unpredictable climatic disruptions, such as floods and draughts.
- Then there are conservative public policy think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, which argue there is no evidence to support drastic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.
- An organization called the Media Research Center claims that many polls show that a majority of scientists are skeptical of global warming, even that reporters "freeze out" skeptical claims by scientists, although the MRC website does not clearly identify what the organization stands for or where it obtains funding.
In the next section, measures of public opinion on global warming will be assessed.
Copyright © Glynn R. Wilson, 1998.
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