There have been more than 600 congressional hearings on climate change, according to my calculations, and numerous attempts to pass binding limits on carbon emissions. Despite those efforts, the United States has yet to take meaningful action on the problem — a discrepancy compounded by President Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the treaty altogether.
In the three decades since Hansen’s testimony, the scientific certainty about the human causes and catastrophic effects of climate change on the biosphere and social systems has grown stronger. This has been documented in five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports, three U.S. National Climate Assessments and thousands of peer-reviewed papers.
Yet CO2 levels continue to rise. In 1988, atmospheric CO2 levels stood at 353 parts per million, or ppm, the way to measure the concentration of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere. As of this month, they have reached 411 ppm, the highest monthly average recorded.
The effects of these increased concentrations are just as Hansen and others predicted, from disastrous wildfires in the western U.S. and massive hurricanes associated with historical flooding to extended droughts, rising sea levels, increasing ocean acidification, the pervasive spread of tropical diseases and the bleaching and death of coral reefs.
Massive gap on public opinion
Future generations will look back on our tepid response to global climate disruption and wonder why the world did not act sooner and more aggressively.
One answer can be found in the polarization of public opinion over climate change in the United States. The latest Gallup Poll shows that concern about climate change falls along partisan lines, with 91 percent of Democrats saying they are worried a great deal or fair amount about climate change, while only 33 percent of Republicans saying the same.
Clearly, a massive gap between Republicans and Democrats has emerged regarding the nature and seriousness of climate change. This partisan divide has led to an extreme political conflict over the need for climate action and helps to explain Congress’s failure to pass meaningful legislation to reduce carbon emissions.
Polarizing public opinion
The current political stalemate is no accident. Rather, it is the result of a well-financed and sustained campaign by vested interests to develop and promulgate misinformation about climate science.
My scholarship documents the coordinated efforts of conservative foundations and fossil fuel corporations to promote uncertainty about the existence and causes of climate change and thus reduce public concern over the issue. Amplified by conservative media, this campaign significantly has altered the nature of the public debate.
These findings are supported by recent investigative news reports showing that since the 1970s, top executives in the fossil fuel industry have been well aware of the evidence that their products amplify climate-warming emissions. Indeed, industry scientists had conducted their own extensive research on the topic and participated in contemporaneous scientific discussions.
The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, even circulated these research results to its members. By 1978, a senior executive at ExxonMobil had proposed creating a worldwide "CO2 in the Atmosphere" research and development program to determine an appropriate response to growing evidence of climate change.Johnny Silvercloud, CC BY-SA