U.S. stands out for climate-change skepticism

DALLAS (Reuters) - Many Americans are skeptical about global warming and that makes it harder to get a bill through Congress.

Skiers brave snow squalls as they make their way down Constitution Avenue along the National Mall in Washington February 10, 2010. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“My personal leanings are that it’s more cyclical than a permanent trend,” said Jimmy Pritchard, a Southern Baptist pastor in a Dallas suburb.

“And I think It’s a little presumptuous to put so many resources and energy into something that may change direction in the next few years.”

Such views, widespread in the U.S. heartland, drive conservative opposition to President Barack Obama’s bid to get a bill through Congress that would cap U.S. emissions of the greenhouse gases linked to climate change.

“It’s a very different debate in Europe, where there is no discussion about whether climate change is occurring. But in the United States it is about whether it exists,” said John Wright of pollster Ipsos.

It is a skepticism that stands in contrast with prevailing views in Europe and has been linked to the influence of U.S. talk radio, the “oil lobby”, an enduring love affair with cars, and a history founded on limiting the role of government.

Science can be controversial in a country where evangelical Christians make up a quarter of the adult population. Many, for example, doubt the theory of evolution because they believe it contradicts the Bible.

“In other countries academics hold a more revered position ... And so some of these Europeans look at America and say there is all this evidence, why don’t you believe? And many of these American evangelicals say look ‘who’s producing the evidence,’” said Michael Lindsay, a political sociologist at Rice University in Houston.

Climate legislation aimed at controlling greenhouse gas emissions had been a top priority of the Obama administration but like his efforts to reform the expensive healthcare system, it has stalled in Congress.

Countries around the world are waiting to see what the United States will do on global warming but there is growing doubt there are enough votes in Congress to pass the legislation in this congressional elections year.


In interviews with Americans across the country, global warming is often seen as exaggerated, part of a plot to sabotage the U.S. economy or an intrusion in people’s lives.

“They’ve committed a fraud,” said Nancy Meinhardt, a paralegal in south Miami, referring to efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

A co-chair of her local Tea Party -- part of a nationwide conservative grassroots movement leading opposition to Obama’s agenda -- Meinhardt said a proposed cap-and-trade regime that would require industry to buy and trade pollution permits would be ruinous.

“Economically, cap and trade will destroy us. Have you any idea how much the electricity bills are going to go up?” she asked.

This is also a theme driven home daily by conservative commentators in the media and by some high-profile talk-radio hosts who say that climate change is a hoax.

They say that action to contain it would destroy a uniquely American way of life, which relies on widespread car ownership, heavy resources consumption, consumerism and an economy, the world’s largest, overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels like oil and coal.

The “Climategate” scandal at the University of East Anglia has bolstered skeptics. Leaked e-mails from its Climatic Research Unit last year led to allegations that its researchers fudged data to support the case for man-made global warming.

The U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill but legislation has stalled in the Senate -- and its unpopularity is clearly one reason for the gridlock.


An opinion poll of more than 1,000 Americans by Ipsos released in December found that 43 percent of Americans blamed global warming on human activities. Around a quarter said temperatures were rising but felt the patterns were natural while 28 percent said global warming was not happening at all.

On a global level, Pew found last year that concern over global warming was far less pronounced in America than elsewhere. It found that 44 percent of Americans thought it was a “very serious problem” versus 90 percent of Brazilians.

In France it was 68 percent and in Japan 65 percent. Other polls have shown similar differences.

Some environmentalists blame the powerful U.S. oil lobby.

“I don’t think it’s that Americans are confused about global warming, it’s that they’re being confused,” said the incoming executive director of conservation group Sierra Club, Michael Brune, who blames big spending by oil, coal and other energy industries. But he did allow some historical context.

“The mechanisms to address climate change can incite long-held fears by many people about government involvement in their lives,” he said.

Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Miami and Peter Henderson in San Francisco