Addressing a capacity crowd at MIT last month, President Obama pressed the case for the sweeping climate change legislation currently being drafted in the Congress. In the process, he took a swipe at those opponents of the bill who question its basis in sound science. "The naysayers, the folks who would pretend that this is not an issue, they are being marginalized," Obama announced.
"He's not the first person to make that claim," said Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative science policy think tank. "Others have made it before. I think he hopes that by saying it enough, it will become true."
Indeed, for as long as environmentalists, scientists and lawmakers have argued that human-caused global warming could dangerously destabilize the Earth's climate, there have been doubters. But while the voices aren't as prominent as they once were, recent months have seen a burst of activity among skeptics as both chambers of Congress start considering serious legislation.
"There's an opening for our side I would say now, because reality is intruding on Washington," said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute and an outspoken critic of efforts to stem greenhouse gas emissions. "The reality is that Americans are not particularly concerned about global warming."
In August and September, outsider analyses raised questions about the data behind two studies showing rapid warming of the Earth's climate. Skeptics were quick to seize on the findings as evidence of bad science. but climatologist Michael Mann told National Journal recently that such claims were like "finding a misspelling or typo and then claiming you've brought down the entire pillar of support" for global warming.
But a flattening-out of global mean temperatures in the past decade has only given doubters more ammunition, prompting a skeptical article in the Wall Street Journal and further attacks on the computer models scientists use to project future changes in the climate. (The long-term temperature trend remains more worrisome.)
Doubts about dangerous warming have seeped into popular culture as well. For example, the new book SuperFreakonomics, sequel to the huge bestseller by journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt, concludes with a chapter questioning the severity of climate change and comparing its proponents to religious fanatics. A new documentary, "Not Evil Just Wrong," offers a similarly contrarian take, comparing the issue to past scares such as the Y2K bug, killer bees and the population bomb. The movie will be screened for lawmakers on the Hill later this month.
"It certainly is frustrating how persistent this line of argument is," said Dan Lashof, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's climate center, who points to the "unprecedented level of scientific assessment and peer review that's been done on the science of climate."
In the last presidential race, both candidates agreed on the need for action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Skeptics remain in Congress (see: Inhofe, Sen. James), but the debate among policymakers has largely moved beyond whether warming is occurring to ask how it can be dealt with. The introduction of specific legislation, however, also means critics have something concrete to sink their teeth into -- and put a price tag on.
"I look at these bills as a teaching moment for members, for the administration, for the public at large," Kueter said. In op-eds, policy reports and meetings with legislative staffs on the Hill, Kueter's Marshall Institute and other free-market think tanks focus on the cost of proposals such as cap-and-trade or low-carbon fuel standards, which set limits on emissions from the production and consumption of fuel. Until the science is more certain, they say, it would be folly to undertake such expensive measures.
Polls suggest the public, already preoccupied with the economy, is open to such arguments. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that only 57 percent of Americans thought there was solid evidence that the Earth is warming -- a point that not even many climate skeptics make anymore in the face of concrete evidence to the contrary. In a similar Pew poll conducted in April 2008, 71 percent had said global warming was real.
Lashof attributes the drop to what pollsters call "issue crowding": "People are worried about the economy, they're worried about jobs, they're worried about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. So you ask them whether they want to worry about global warming now also, and a few more people than before say, 'I want to believe that that's not a problem I have to worry about.'"
Whatever the reason, the drop in momentum suggests that supporters of climate legislation should be concerned about getting too far out ahead of public opinion if they fail to beat the drum on the underlying need for some kind of emission controls. That may explain why Obama gave two addresses on energy issues at the end of last month even as health care and Afghanistan continued to dominate his immediate agenda.
Twisting Blue Dog arms on policy specifics such as cap-and-trade will be made even tougher given the explosion of lobbying around climate and energy issues. According to analysis from the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, the number of groups lobbying on climate change jumped by 30 percent in the weeks before the House passed its bill. There's little chance that number will decrease as the Senate takes up its own legislation.
Environmentalists dismiss the influence of global warming skeptics, tending to side with the president's estimation of their role in the debate. But the die-hard doubters know that their case is the easier one to make in Washington.
"Our view all along has been that cap-and-trade will eventually die; we just have to outlast it, we have to stymie it, we have to keep blocking it, slowing it down so that the public can become more aware of the consequences," Ebell said. "I think we're in a good position right now."