Post-IPCC Political Handicapping: Count the VotesFebruary 6th, 2007
Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.
The National Journal has updated its poll of opinions on climate change among members of the U.S. Congress, which it first presented last April. The results, with a few exceptions, are much the same. What the poll indicates are that while there are indeed partisan differences on how members of congress view the science of climate change, there is nonetheless a strong majority of members who accept that “it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made pollution.” Given this finding, one might wonder what marginal value exists in continuing to debate the science (one answer found below). Here are a few further details.
In its February 3, 2007 issue the National Journal finds (PDF) that 97% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans answered yes (or “consensus” or “part of cause”) to the question: “Do you think it’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made problems?”
Let’s assume, for the present discussion, that “beyond a reasonable doubt” is interpreted identically to the IPCC’s “very likely” (meaning >90% certainty, the NJ poll was taken before IPCC’s release last week). Let’s also assume that the poll of 72 members is in fact representative of the 535 total. Finally, let’s set aside the debate of whether partisanship drives views on science or vice-versa.
What does this poll signify?
It means that in the Senate there are 57 members who believe that there is no “reasonable doubt” on the cause of global warming, and in the House this number is 258. These are strong majorities.
With respect to the policy questions asked by the National Journal here is how the numbers break out for those favoring various policies:
Mandatory CO2 Limits:
Cap and Trade
These counts (again, if an accurate reflection of members’ positions) suggest a few important conclusions.
1. The issue of science is no longer relevant to debate in Congress. A majority in both chambers accepts the human role in climate change, and further a majority accepts the need for action, including mandatory caps on carbon dioxide.
2. A carbon tax is largely unrelated to debate over the science. Even if the entire House were to be comprised of members who accept the science of climate change, as this factor alone drove voting behavior, the vote would be even. However, among Democrats only 50% favor a carbon tax, indicating that there are significant factors at play beyond just views of the science. If one posits that Republican views on a carbon tax are different than Democrats (big stretch), let’s say half as favorable (to be generous) with respect to their views of the science, then this would mean that Congress would have to be at least 75% Democratic to get a majority favoring a carbon tax. Under the present political landscape – not gonna happen.
Bottom line – the votes for action appear to be there. So too is broad public acceptance of the reality of climate change and a need for action. Why then is not action happening more quickly?
There are probably a few answers:
1. When push comes to shove. It may be the case that among many people global warming is an issue with more emotional affect than implications for action. In the U.K. for instance, where climate change is squarely on the agenda, only 11% of respondents to a recent poll indicated that they would fly less to reduce their emissions. The current debate in Europe reflects the difficulties of actually reducing emissions even in the context of apparent strong political and public support.
2. Political overreach. Some who want action on climate change have suggested that it might be best for the 110th Congress not to act in order to wait for a Democratic president to be elected in 2009 (or a least someone who is not GWB). The thinking is that even stronger legislation will be possible under those conditions. This might be wishful thinking. A good rule in politics is to take what you can when you can get it.
3. Those skeptics. Just when you thought that we’d seen the end of the debate over climate skeptics, it turns out that some scientists are busy trying to keep them in the limelight. Yes, you read that right. Consider that immediately upon release of the IPCC Summary for Policy Makers the RealClimate blog immediately followed up its 1,280 word review of the IPCC SPM with a 1,585 word essay on some anti-IPCC statement from a group of self-appointed climate skeptics. Without RealClimate’s generous lavishing of attention and imputed significance, the anti-IPCC document would probably have gone unnoticed by most folks. Like old Cold Warriors longing for the Soviet Union the complete and utter domination of the IPCC consensus view seems difficult for some to accept. This issue runs far deeper than bloggers worried about being out of a job, as it will no doubt manifest itself in debates over climate change research budgets. A strong case can be made that now that the science is settled, at least from the standpoint of justifying mitigation, that there is ample room to downsize significant aspects of the climate research enterprise. After all, plate tectonics is not a big area of research.
4. Fighting is more fun than winning. The dynamics of debate over climate change in the blogoshpere might be a good indication of the broader political dynamics for many. It is easy to transform the issue into skeptic vs. nonskeptic in order to debate science, or Republican vs. Democract to debate politics, or environmentalist vs. capitalist to debate the economy/environment, or any of a number of wedge issues that people find fun and exciting to discuss. We see that achieving pragmatic action on real issues — which might involve moving beyond the science or reaching a political compromise with one’s sworn enemies seems pretty tame and unexciting for many. I have little doubt that for some people, climate change is all about the fight, not the victory, so preserving conflict is paramount.
Bottom line from this post: The votes are there. What is lacking, as I’ve often asserted, are a wide range of policy options to exploit the current political receptivity. In the absence of good options, it is likely that we’ll continue see symbolic action (at best) and loud exhortations, as the battle over climate change continues.