LIANE HANSEN, host:
The number of Americans who believe that global warming is a scientific fact has been dropping. Environmental groups and climate scientists who say the evidence for warming is clear are scratching their heads over this reversal.
As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, they're scrambling to find a new strategy.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: 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."
Dan Lashof at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, says scientists rejoiced.
Dr. DAN LASHOF (Climate Center, Natural Resources Defense Council): We in the scientific community, by and large, said okay, science debate is over. We're going to move our efforts into what we are going to do about it. And that left the science debate in the public largely untended. That has been recognized as a strategic error.
JOYCE: 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 in this exchange between climate skeptic Marc Morano and climate activist Joe Romm.
Mr. MARC MORANO (Former Communications Director, Senator James Inhofe, R-OK): There is no warming, look at ocean heat content, it's all fantasy land. It's a fantasy land that...
Unidentified Man: Joe, your response.
Mr. JOE ROMM (Editor, "Climate Progress): Yeah, I do need to respond to it. The thing you have to understand about Marc Morano is that he basically makes stuff up and misrepresents science.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MORANO: Wow, let's go straight for the jugular there.
Dr. ROMM: I didn't interrupt you.
Mr. MORANO: No, you didn't.
JOYCE: Even Al Gore's Nobel Prize hasn't earned him deference from skeptics. Here he's testifying at a hearing before Republican Congressman Joe Barton.
Former Vice President AL GORE (Chairman, Current TV/Laureate, Nobel Peace Prize): At the same time, it's getting warmer in the troposphere, the lower atmosphere. That's exactly what the models predict.
Representative JOE BARTON (Republican, Texas): Mr. Vice President, your time expired two minutes ago.
Former Vice President GORE: ...what the science says and now the...
Rep. BARTON: What's your answer on the...
Former Vice President GORE: If I can complete my response, Congressman. The idea that CO2 and...
Rep. BARTON: I hope there's an answer in there somewhere.
Former Vice President GORE: May I...
JOYCE: 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 necessarily welcome among some conservatives.
Dr. RICHARD SOMMERVILLE (Research Scientist, University of California, San Diego): 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.
JOYCE: 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. I showed Meyer a brand new book on climate change.
"World on the Edge," and here is the table of contents: Falling Water Tables and Shrinking Harvests, Eroding Soils, Expanding Deserts, Rising Temperatures, Melting Ice, Environmental Refugees, Mounting Stresses, Failing States. This is grim.
JOYCE: Meyer agrees.
Mr. ALDEN MEYER (Director, Strategy and Policy, Union of Concerned Scientists): 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 that there's no way out and that we're doomed.
JOYCE: And there are some environmental scientists who think the threat has been exaggerated. Ken Green is with the American Enterprise Institute.
Dr. KEN GREEN (Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute): By focusing always on these extreme threats, I think they lost their credibility. I mean, historically, we have doomsayers. They keep getting it wrong and people keep seeing that they're getting it wrong.
JOYCE: Finally, there's the economy.
Dr. GREEN: When people feel less wealthy, they're less inclined to listen to arguments that they need to spend more money. And it also may mean doubting the motives of the person who's telling them, let's spend money.
JOYCE: 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 says the Conservancy's message is going to show that protecting the climate isn't just about saving polar bears - it's local.
Mr. MARK TERCEK (President-CEO, Nature Conservancy): We're talking about protecting what people need from nature. Clean water, clean air, good food.
JOYCE: All things that could suffer as the climate warms.
As for the messenger, well, the Conservancy has just hired a new marketing director from the professional wrestling business.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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