For the last several years, environmental leaders and writers have blamed stealthy misinformation efforts by a handful of global warming deniers for the lack of national political action on global warming. Two years ago, Mother Jones pointed to the $8 million Exxon-Mobil had pumped into 40 conservative groups between 2000 and 2003, concluding, "They've delayed action for 15 years." Greenpeace protested the company's activities and launched ExxonSecrets.com. And in a cover story in August, Newsweek declared that, "The reason for inaction was clear ... well-funded naysayers."
The truth is that global warming deniers have had little impact on public attitudes. In 1989, Gallup asked Americans how concerned they were with global warming. Sixty-three percent said they worried "a great deal" or a "fair amount" about it - by 2007, that number was virtually unchanged at 65 percent. Exxon-Mobil, it turns out, had wasted its money.
The problem isn't that the voters don't care about global warming. They do. It's that they don't care all that much. Consider that despite extensive publicity, Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," had almost no impact on public opinion. The Pew Center for People and the Press conducted a telephone survey in June 2006, at the height of media attention for the movie, and found that "out of a list of 19 issues, Republicans rank global warming 19th and Democrats and independents rank it 13th." After six more months of high-profile coverage, the relative importance of global warming had declined even further.
There are political consequences to all of this. In November 2006, months after the supposed "tipping point" for global warming, voters in California - a relatively liberal state - rejected a ballot initiative that would have taxed the state's oil production in the name of global warming.
In light of all this, to continue to blame a handful of frankly pathetic global warming deniers for lack of federal action on global warming is, in itself, a kind of denial.
The good news is that while global warming is at the bottom of voter concerns, bringing down the price of clean energy and achieving independence from foreign oil, are at the top. But a new global warming politics requires more than a new rhetoric. What's needed is for the global warming policy agenda to focus more on investment to make clean energy cheap than on regulation to make dirty energy expensive.
Few people realize that Washington-based environmental leaders have been a greater obstacle to this agenda than global warming deniers. Today's leading environmental groups were created to deal with pollution problems such as smog and acid rain - problems that required inexpensive technical fixes like catalytic converters on cars and scrubbers on smoke stacks. These groups see global warming as simply another pollution problem, and focus narrowly on winning greenhouse gas regulations. But energy experts estimate that new greenhouse gas regulations will achieve, at best, just 20 to 30 percent of the reductions we need in the United States, and will do little to nothing to reduce the price of clean energy in fast-growing countries such as China and India.
The key to radically cutting greenhouse gas emissions - as well as achieving energy independence and economic competitiveness - is technology innovation to make clean energy as cheap as fossil fuels. This effort should be modeled not so much on past efforts to deal with acid rain but rather on past national investments into national security, such as the ones the Defense Department made into computer sciences, the Internet and microchips during the 1950s and '60s. This investment-centered strategy also happens to be good politics. An April poll by Gallup found that 65 percent of Americans said the government should be "starting a major research effort costing up to $30 billion per year to develop new sources of energy." Happily, politicians are quickly going beyond the narrow regulatory agenda pursued by environmental groups. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed a $50 billion investment in clean energy. John Edwards supports $13 billion annually. And last Monday, Barack Obama called for $150 billion investment over 10 years. Even some Republican politicians, such as Newt Gingrich, have jumped into the fray, embracing public investments in clean energy.
In the two weeks since the release of our book, some environmental leaders and writers have responded defensively to our insistence that investments in clean energy investment should be our highest priority. But it is counterproductive to either deny the need for public investment, or to delay such investments until there are regulations on greenhouse gases. Any effort to do so will stoke, not overcome, public fears about the future.
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are authors of "Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility," (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) and co-founders of the Breakthrough Institute ( http://www.thebreakthrough.org/).
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle