On the US political stage, skepticism and denial of climate changeare as popular as ever, and experts say that world talks which opened Monday in Durban, South Africa are unlikely to turn the tide.
But while a binding deal on harmful carbon output remains elusive by the world’s second biggest polluter after China, some small signs of progress have emerged at the state and individual levels.
Last month, the most populous US state, California, approved rules for a carbon market that would start in 2013, with the goal of cutting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.
Previous attempts to create a cap and trade system to stem pollution at the federal level have failed due to concerns it would cause skyrocketing energy costs, a particularly bruising prospect in an already wobbly economy.
Also in October, a prominent climate skeptic whose research was funded in part by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers’ foundation announced he had found that mainstream projections ofclimate change were correct and unbiased.
“We confirm that over the last 50 years, temperature has risen 0.9 degrees Celsius, or 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the same number that the IPCC (UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) says,” physicist Richard Muller, director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, told lawmakers.
Muller said he hoped other climate skeptics would agree with his work, but his newfound stance — accepted by the vast majority of scientists — remains rogue, particularly among Republicans seeking to replace President Barack Obama in 2012.
Standout Republican Jon Huntsman — who ranks lowest in the polls — may have summed up the differences best when he tweeted earlier this year: “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists onglobal warming. Call me crazy.”
Indeed, many have. Seeking to drum up conservative support, the other Republican candidates have championed their doubts about human-caused climate change in recent debates just as vigorously as they have called for the return of waterboarding for terror suspects.
The entire nation is divided on the issue, according to the latest Gallup poll which shows 53 percent of Americans see global warming as a very or somewhat serious threat, down 10 percent from two years earlier.
“We have got a big problem, domestically, in terms of climate reality,” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
When lawmakers cannot agree that climate change is a problem for which solutions must be sought, gridlock ensues, according to Democratic lawmaker Henry Waxman.
“During this Congress, the Republican-controlled House has voted 21 times to block actions to address climate change,” he said at a hearing this month. “History will look back on this science denial with profound regret.”
Even an idea that was initially floated under the George W. Bush administration and sought no extra funds was recently shot down, when Congress blocked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from reshuffling its staff to create a National Climate Service.
NOAA had described the project as a “one-stop shop” for climate information, much like the National Weather Service.
Republican Congressman Andy Harris said his party’s “hesitation” came from concern “that the climate services could become little propaganda sources instead of a science source.”
Experts voiced little hope of the Durban talks rousing the United States into long-awaited action to slow fossil-fuel burning that leads to greenhouse gases.
But according to David Waskow, climate change program director at Oxfam America, the United States could make a significant contribution by resolving its objections to the design of the Green Climate Fund.
The fund, devised at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, would disburse, by 2020, at least 100 billion dollars per year to help poorer nations fight and cope with climate change.
Waskow said that sticking points for the US and Saudi Arabia are in the “institutional architecture, the structure, not the money.”
“We are very hopeful that the US will be in a role of moving that forward,” Waskow said.
“Congressional action may not be something we will see in the immediate term,” he added. “But a bit of pressure from the international community can be a good thing.”
With the end nearing of the Kyoto Protocol, a new binding agreement for the United States and China is essentially off the table, said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions.
“We should be focusing more at the national level. Frankly it’s where this action has to take place.”