Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

A climate change convert

In this July 2007 photo, an iceberg melts off Greenland’s coast. Facts got in the way of D.R. Tucker’s opinion, so he changed.

Associated Press (2007)

In this July 2007 photo, an iceberg melts off Greenland’s coast. Facts got in the way of D.R. Tucker’s opinion, so he changed.

Until a few months ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more classic climate skeptic than D.R. Tucker. A conservative author and radio talk show host, he didn't buy the notion that greenhouse-gas emissions were causing temperatures to rise. He was pretty sure global warming was a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore and a cadre of liberal, grant-hungry scientists.

Then Tucker did what partisan pundits and climate skeptics rarely do: He changed his mind. "I was defeated by facts," Tucker announced on FrumForum, the popular conservative blog. In an April 18 post, "Confessions of a Climate Convert," Tucker told readers how he came to question the ideologies of the climate debate, examine the science, and conclude that global warming was, in fact, very real. Tucker's post sent a giddy ripple through green circles and stoked the ire of his libertarian colleagues.

This sort of thing doesn't happen often. Or at least, it doesn't seem to. Only 48 percent of Americans believe that global warming is at least in part "a result of human activities," according to a 2010 Gallup poll, down from 60 percent in 2007 and 2008.

Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, attributes this decline to five factors: The economic collapse, a severe decrease in media coverage, weather events like "Snowmaggedon," the efforts of the "denial industry" (the network of industry-funded think tanks and political advocacy groups that push skeptic views) and the "ClimateGate" debacle.

This shift toward climate-change skepticism makes Tucker's "conversion" all the more remarkable. So how did it happen?

Leiserowitz has been documenting trends in American climate belief for the past decade. He divides American attitudes toward climate change into six categories: "alarmed," "concerned," "cautious," "disengaged," "doubtful" and "dismissive."

The "alarmed," at one end of the spectrum, are green activists and Prius drivers. At the other end are the "doubtful" and "dismissive" climate skeptics. Leiserowitz calls these skeptics "naysayers," and until recently they accounted for a small minority of Americans. When he began studying climate-change attitudes in 2002, naysayers accounted for just 7 percent of Americans. By last year, that number had risen to 26 percent. (By comparison, 23 percent are "cautious," 31 percent are "concerned," and 14 percent are "alarmed.")

Tucker was a naysayer. "I bought into Rush Limbaugh's view that the environmentalist movement was 'the new refuge of socialist thinking,' " he tells me. Tucker figured Al Gore and Van Jones (Obama's onetime green jobs adviser) were leading liberals in a plot that used the specter of climate change to snare more power. Leiserowitz would call this "dismissive" thinking.

Tucker's conversion began when he read Morris Fiorina's Disconnect, which outlines the way partisan divisions take shape between Democrats and Republicans, and points out that environmentalism used to be one of conservatives' chief concerns. Tucker's curiosity was piqued.

"Why was it that environmentalism was only associated with the Democratic party now? And it was from those political questions that I became open to the scientific questions," Tucker says. "It went from politics to the science."

After that, a friend convinced Tucker to take a look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report — the authoritative synthesis of the most recent peer-reviewed climate science. "Initially I was a bit skeptical. But I kept on reading it, and there was just so much evidence, and it was so detailed, and it was so backed up, and it was so documented, that I was like, 'Holy s---, this is for real.' "

In the months since then, Tucker has become an active proponent for climate legislation: He works with groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby, writes letters to his state representative in defense of the EPA, openly calls for a carbon pricing system, and continues to engage his libertarian friends on the issue.

But Tucker hasn't found much solidarity since his confession. "I have not received any — any — e-mails or any contacts whatsoever from people who have said they've had a similar journey," he says.

Before he wrote the piece, though, Tucker did meet two fellow climate converts: the married couple Susan and Roger Shamel, ex-Republicans from Bedford, Mass. They had converted back in 2006 after watching Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Before that, the Shamels had been "doubtfuls," in Leiserowitz's terminology. Both were lifelong Republicans, though Susan's commitment had begun to wane as the GOP attacked women's reproductive rights.

After their daughter urged them to watch the film, they began researching climate issues, dropped their affiliation with the Republican party, and started the nonprofit Global Warming Education Network.

But since then, they have been largely unable to convince their friends and family of the veracity of climate science, and were eventually ostracized. "We found new friends," Susan says wryly.

This is unsurprising — entrenched ideologies often simply trump facts. People are prone to what psychologists called "motivated reasoning;" we instinctively bend available data to support our preexisting beliefs. Which means that when confronted with facts alone, skeptics usually don't budge.

That's why Tucker had to question politics first, before wrestling with the science. And the Shamels' slackening ideology likely opened the door to clear-headed analysis. Having friends and family members who are willing to goad you along helps, as does a willingness to open-mindedly wade through stuffy scientific reports.

Most Americans remain persuadable. Polls reveal that most Americans' opinion of climate is relatively fluid, and shaped largely by current events. So what might lead the nation's skeptics and undecideds towards such meaningful conversions?

For skeptics, it'd probably require dismantling major chunks of the "denial industry"— the multinational corporations, conservative think tanks, and partisan cable networks that have an interest in promulgating doubt about climate science. This won't happen anytime soon.

The merely unconvinced need, above all, more and better exposure to the science. With the scientific evidence growing ever more incontrovertible, and the impacts of warming becoming increasingly visible, it's possible that more and more Americans will slosh towards "concerned" — and stay there.

A climate change convert 05/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 6:24pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Navy expected to relieve admiral in charge of 7th Fleet in response to deadly disasters at sea

    Nation

    The Navy will relieve the senior admiral in charge of the service's 7th Fleet based in Japan in response to four embarrassing accidents this year, two of which killed sailors at sea, two U.S. officials said.

    Tugboats assist the guided-missile destroyer John S. McCain on its way to Changi Naval Base in Singapore on Monday. [U.S. Navy]
  2. Trump chides media over Charlottesville

    National

    President Donald Trump is blaming the media for the widespread condemnation of his response to a Charlottesville, Va., protest organized by white supremacists that led to the killing of a counter-protester.

    Trump met service members before the rally.
  3. Jones: Koetter-Winston exchange highlights latest 'Hard Knocks'

    Bucs

    There are certain things that make HBO's Hard Knocks must-see television.

    Jameis Winston, left, has an exchange with Dirk Koetter that highlights Hard Knocks.
  4. Rays are full of ideas they'd like to share when commissioner visits

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Commissioner Rob Manfred is coming to the Trop today. Hmm. Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg will be there to greet him. Hmmmm. And they have a scheduled joint media session. Hmmmmmmmmm.

    Commissioner Rob Manfred isn’t expected to say anything definitive about the Rays’ stadium situation when he visits the team today.
  5. Mayor Rick Kriseman endorsed by another police union

    Blogs

    ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman is already backed by the city's largest police union, the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association.

    Mayor Rick Kriseman has secured another police union endorsement