Starting Over

By Keith Kloor | January 21, 2011 7:27 am

Joshua Green at The Atlantic does a recap of just how far and fast U.S. climate hopes have fallen in the last two years. Weirdly, reading it reminded me of a recent football game I still can’t shake. (Do fans take this stuff harder than the players?) To appreciate the analogy, you have to understand this: on December 20, with only three games left in the season, the NY Giants were 21 points ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles with seven minutes left to play. They had dominated the game. Losing was incomprehensible. The Giants were positioned to win their division and glide into the playoffs.

Now let’s go to the other meltdown that Green nicely summarizes:

Not long ago, it appeared likely that the United States would take meaningful action to mitigate climate change. In the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain touted plans to limit carbon emissions under a cap-and-trade scheme. Even Sarah Palin supported the idea. Much of the business community did, too. Adding momentum was the recent Supreme Court ruling, in Massachusetts vs. Environmental Protection Agency, that required the EPA, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Lawmakers, it was presumed, would take the matter into their own hands rather than cede that authority.

Of course, this didn’t happen. Over the strenuous objections of Republicans and coal-state Democrats, the House of Representatives passed a cap-and trade bill in 2009 that met an ignominious death in the Senate. Along the way, cap-and-trade — originally a conservative idea — came to be vilified as “cap and tax” and regarded by a substantial part of the conservative base as a form of fascist oppression. Today, fewer Americans believe in the reality of global warming than did so two years ago, and many took out their wrath last November on Democrats who’d supported a climate bill.

Oddly, Green doesn’t mention the impact of “climategate,” which I’ve come around to believing played an important role in propelling the downward slide he outlines. Regardless, the stunning reversal in fortune on the climate front has indeed been swift and no doubt just as devastating for climate advocates to watch unfold. Two years ago, I bet many of them were feeling pretty good about the prospects for climate action, just as last month I believed the Giants in the third quarter of the Philly game were assured of victory and destined for the Super Bowl. (They lost the game in the final seconds–in a humiliating coda–and didn’t make the playoffs. Sheer agony.) At the moment, for Giants fans and climate advocates, it’s hard not to be bitter.

But you know the old refrain: there’s always next year.

  • RickA

    I think the weather also had a lot to do with it.
    Three cool winters in a row in the UK – none of which was expected by the MET.
    I also think that the AGW folks were over the top in many of the pronouncements, a form of serial exaggeration, which caused a lose of credibility.
    Last but not least, despite one of the warmest years on record, the climate has not behaved as projected over the last 10 years, leading many to wonder – if you cannot predict the climate for over the last 10 years correctly, why should anybody believe they can predict the climate in 90 years?

  • kdk33

    “I also think that the AGW folks were over the top in many of the¬†pronouncements, a form of serial exaggeration, which caused a lose of credibility.”

    Not that it’s gotten any better.¬† My Yahoo page ran a story:¬† Global warming puts California at risk for SuperStorm – just like the one 150 years ago.¬† The claim is absurd on it’s face.¬†¬†Ditto a-posteriori attribution claims:¬†¬†non-falsifiable, utterly unscientific, garbage. The¬†hallmark of charlatans and carnival seers.¬†

    It scares certain people, I suppose.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    “he impact of “climategate,”¬Ě which I’ve come around to believing played an important role in propelling the downward slide he outlines.”
    Care to elaborate Keith?
    I’d have thought that the worst recession in nearly a century would be the elephant in this particular room….

  • Eric

    Marlowe gets it right, I think. Green amplifies the perception that “fewer Americans believe in the reality of global warming than did so two years ago”, which I believe runs counter to the best objective polls conducted by the academics. Indeed popular opinion on the “belief” issue has not shifted much, which calls into question the true impact of climategate. It’s hard to imagine that climategate, a story that only lasted more than a few days in the blogs (and perhaps the UK Guardian) can be a bigger factor than 3 years of daily reporting on growing unemployment and economic decline.

  • thingsbreak

    Bingo. Let’s not forget that the “Great Recession” caused people to flip on the Gallup economy vs. environment question, for the first time in its history.

  • harrywr2

    I agree with Marlowe.
    The predominant signs of ‘climate action’ tend to be how much fossil free or low fossil generating capacity is being built.
    Since the recession, at least in the US the amount of generating capacity being built at all is pretty close to nothing.
    A lot of the proposed nuclear projects got pushed back due to the combination of slumping electrical demand and a glut in natural gas supply which has pushed the price of natural gas to historical lows.
    With or without Cap and Trade coal fired plant retirements are likely to exceed coal plant new builds.
    Coal fired new builds vs coal fired retirements has been equal since 1990. Given that coal is at historical highs in much of the US and natural gas is at historical lows it’s create an economic scenario where coal fired retirements don’t exceed coal plant new builds.
    In the US Northwest a contributing factor in slowing windmill construction is the lack of off peak electrical demand to absorb the electricity generated at 3 AM.
    Then we have to analyze whether cap and trade would place us on the desired path. If out desired goal is a 20% decrease in CO2 emissions then a per ton fee on CO2 emissions would tilt the economic table towards lower emissions technologies. That table is already tilted toward natural gas.
    If the desire is 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 then building natural gas plants won’t get us where we want to go.
    So we need a mechanism that tilts the table in favor of ZERO emissions technologies. Cap and trade doesn’t do that.
    Secretary Chu has been floating a Renewable Energy Standard which is probably sellable if Nuclear and Coal with Carbon Capture are left on the table.
    There are at least 15 states with poor wind resources which means 30 Senators will be voting no on a renewable energy standard limited to Windmills and Solar Panels.

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Good points.¬† Here in Ontario, the effects of the recession have been so significant that utility planners now concede that we’ll be in a surplus situation for years to come.¬† Not too long ago the concern was how to replace all those coal fired plants that are being phased out…
    On the nat gas side, I’m often puzzled by how little coverage this gets in enviro circles in N. America (i.e. as a bridging fuel to lower carbon technologies).¬† It really is one of the few ‘good’ news stories in recent years, both in terms of GHGs and local air quality (and mercury).¬† Not too long ago the argument against coal phaseout was the high price of natural gas….

  • Tom Fuller

    I would say that Climategate had an important effect, but not the one normally associated with it. It would appear to me that it deflected and distracted the ‘warmist’ community more than it gave ammunition to the skeptics. (I may be the only one on this planet that thinks so.)

    I really do think that it was a part of the Big 3 ‘bad news items’ that let the air out of the ballon, the other two being COP15 and a very cold start to the winter in media capitals of the developed world. But I think it took all three in close succession to actually have the effect that it did.

  • L. Carey

    KK: “But you know the old refrain: there’s always next year.”
    The error in that statement is exactly the problem here, Keith.¬† Like you (until 2008 in my case) I was relentlessly optimistic about improvements in the human condition (despite lots of continuing problems in various issues) – more people were living longer, healthier lives and a variety of issues like tropical diseases, potable water, rural communications, etc. were being attacked.¬† However, if one credits the general thrust of the latest climate-related sciences (including oceanography, cryology, botany, paleoclimate, etc., and allowing that any individual paper is subject to correction or refinement) it is now abundantly apparent that (vastly unlike football or other minor diversions) addressing the climate / ecology mess will at some point not allow us the luxury of waiting until “next year”.¬† That is what has eventually scared the bejeebers out of me — there are real natural processes at work in the world that we could likely address if we tried, but which have the real potential to spin well beyond our ability to impact if we let them go on for not much longer.¬† After that point, all of those gains I mentioned regarding living standards, health, hunger, etc. are likely to be mooted.
    Best regards.

  • Keith Kloor

    @8: I was going to mention Copenhagen, but then I saw that Green was specifically referring to U.S. legislation.

    @7: natural gas as bridging fuel has, in fact, gotten a lot of media play and also has been talked up by think tanks across the spectrum. The flip side of that story (and probably why greens/climate advocates don’t like talking about it) is that it keeps the discussion on fossil fuels, when they want to talk about wind and solar and mitigation.

    @4: You’re right, and this is something that RPJ and others have pointed out–that polling on global warming has remained pretty consistent over the last decade or so, notwithstanding those blips up or down.

    @3: You’re right, the recession should be factored in. As for the influence of climategate, well, for a while I shrugged it off as a story that only a tiny minority paid attention to–mostly in the climate blogosphere. But then I saw how Republicans piggybacked on it during the election year and even seemed to buy into the whole Morano/climatedepot worldview, that climate science is some kind of fraud. And that meme got traction because of climategate.

    Ultimately, though, I see that meme petering it out.

    @1: I agree. The weather definitely played a role, too.


  • harrywr2

    @7 Marlowe
    Helpful table here
    1990 US Natural Gas Net Summer Capacity – 119 GW, 2009 Net Summer Capacity 359GW
    Natural Gas is doing just fine without government interference.
    Everything else except windmills has been flat since 1990.

  • Steve Reynolds

    While I agree with many of the others that there are several factors, I hope one not mentioned was important:
    Waxman-Markley was a horrible bill intended to provide opportunities for graft and corruption, not reduce CO2.
    Even James Hansen was against it.

  • Roddy Campbell

    The recession had an impact, but decline in popular support for paying for mitigation (as distinct from thinking AGW is real/a problem) would have happened anyway imho.¬† The public are not stupid, and are now aware that all mitigation costs a ton of money, especially in Europe where we now (see Germany etc) have a real cost via feed-in-tariffs for wind and solar, it’s a significant household cost.¬† People are always in favour of something being done until they have to pay.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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