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Climate scientists and environmental advocates face an uphill battle as more Americans deny that global warming is real despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Here, a Greenpeace member checks the inside of a hot air balloon before it's launched in Cancun, Mexico.
The number of Americans who believe that global warming is a scientific fact has been dropping, and environmental groups and climate scientists who say the evidence for warming is clear are scratching their heads over this reversal and scrambling to find a new strategy.
Three years ago, former Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Prize for publicizing the threat of climate change with his book and documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. After that, scientists rejoiced, says Dan Lashof, director of the Climate Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
"We in the scientific community by and large said OK, the science debate is over, we are moving our efforts into what we are going to do about it. And that left the science debate in the public largely untended," he says. "That has been recognized as a strategic error."
They hadn't won. Climate skeptics worked to convince the public that the scientific argument for climate change was dodgy and exaggerated. The debate sometimes got hostile and personal, as it did in an exchange between climate skeptic Mark Morano and climate activist Joe Romm.
Even Gore's Nobel Prize hasn't earned him deference from skeptics, as he found when testifying at this hearing before Republican Congressman Joe Barton in March 2007:
So now climate activists are doing some soul-searching about where they've gone wrong. For one thing, they've been preaching to the choir. Opinion polls show that attitudes about climate change increasingly fall along political lines: Conservatives are more likely to be skeptics; liberals to be believers.
Climate scientist Richard Somerville, at the University of California, San Diego, says scientists aren't welcome among some conservatives.
"They don't want to hear about it from scientists who they regard as opposed to them on many, many wedge issues — abortion and stem cells or evolution and creationism," he says.
And then there's the message: Alden Meyer, with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says climate activists need to offer solutions, not just problems. But old habits are hard to break.
"If you offer people only the bad news and the dire straits and no prospect of being able to address it, there's a natural human tendency to deny the reality of the problem because they don't want to believe there's no way out and we're doomed," Meyer says.
But there are also environmental scientists who think the threat has been exaggerated.
"By focusing always on these extreme threats, I think they lost their credibility," says Ken Green, an environmental scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "I mean, historically they have doom-sayers, they keep getting it wrong, and people keep seeing that they're getting it wrong."
Finally, there's the economy.
"When people feel less wealthy, they are less inclined to listen to arguments that they need to spend more money. It also may mean doubting the person who's saying let's spend more money," Green says.
So far, there's lots of talk about what to do. One group that's already changing its tune is the Nature Conservancy. It's now run by a former Goldman Sachs executive, Mark Tercek, who says the Conservancy's message is going to show that protecting the climate isn't just about saving polar bears — it's local.
"We're talking about protecting what people need from nature — clean water, clean air, good food," he says — all things that could suffer as the climate warms.
As for the messenger — well, the Conservancy just hired a new marketing director — from the professional wrestling business.