News & Politics

Weathering a Political Storm

Never mind the facts. When it comes to climate change, the politics have become more important than the science. Here’s an Earth Day timeline of the debate in the halls of power.

1965: “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale,” LBJ tells the Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty, the first time a sitting President has tackled the issue.

1970: The first Earth Day is celebrated with bipartisan support.

1975: The term “global warming” is coined by geochemist Wallace Broecker in Science, replacing “inadvertent climate modification.”

1988: Global warming has begun, proclaims the New York Times after NASA’s James Hansentestifies to Congress that the phenomenon is caused by humans. For the first time, the problem captures the public’s attention.

1992: The human impact on the greenhouse effect is real, say 68% of Americans.

1998: A month before his impeachment, Bill Clinton backs the Kyoto Protocol, requiring nations to reduce greenhouse gases—thereby converting the issue into a political football.

June 2005: 16% of Americans aren’t “at all convinced” global warming is happening, according to an ABC poll.

Movie poster by Alamy.

December 2005: Under the George W. Bush administration, NASA orders reviews of James Hansen’s papers and interview requests and warns of “dire consequences” if he continues to talk about climate change.

May 2006: An Inconvenient Truth,conservative nemesis Al Gore’s documentary, is released. Says Yale scientist Anthony Leiserowitz: “It doesn’t matter what [Gore] says, they’re going to disbelieve him.”

November 2009: E-mails between climate scientists, stolen from the University of East Anglia, betray scientific misconduct—evidence, critics say, that global warming is a hoax.

September 2010: A Yale study finds that US citizens are more likely to reject climate-change science if they favor free markets.

2010: $558 million has been spent since 2003 on anti-global-warming policy initiatives and PR.

July 2012: After scientists project that North Carolina’s sea level will rise three feet in the next 100 years, the state passes a law forbidding its coastal planning commission to take the projection into account.

February 2013: Tom W. Smith, of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, finds that the wealthy are more likely to worry about climate change.

November 2013: 23% of Americans say global warming isn’t real, up 7 points since April; 12 percent say it’s a UN plot or other conspiracy.

January 28, 2014: President Obama states with certainty, “Climate change is a fact.”

This article appears in the April 2014 issue of Washingtonian.