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2014-05-11 14:30:00

USA: NO ONE TRUSTS

USA: NO ONE TRUSTS

The 841-page National Climate Assessment released by the US government this week has been described as "sobering", but Americans do not appear sobered. The report goes into astonishing detail about what severe climate change would mean – and what it means already to specific villages, mountains and beaches.

Permafrost is melting in Alaska. Storms are bringing more rain to New England. Bark beetles are multiplying out west. The warnings have been jazzed up with user-friendly graphic interfaces on the government website, the report's dozens of authors have been made available to the press, and President Barack Obama discussed the report with TV weathermen before travelling around the country to talk about it.

Americans have been receiving such warnings for a decade. None has managed to rouse the country from its seeming indifference. Asked by The Wall Street Journal and NBC in January which of 15 issues were an "absolute priority for this year", Americans ranked climate change last, far behind jobs, the minimum wage and the Iranian nuclear bomb.

Almost a third of voters (29 per cent) said nothing should be done about it at all. According to a January poll by the Pew Center, Canadians, Asians and Latin Americans all consider climate change the single largest threat to their countries. Americans rank it barely above "instability in Pakistan".

It is usual to blame the blasé American response on ignorance of the science, and then to zero in on the Republican party as the focal point of that ignorance. This is not quite accurate.

The public actually has a pragmatic view on the climate – and it gets more environmentalist with every passing year. The Pew poll shows that even Republicans back stricter emissions controls on power plants, something many expect Mr Obama to push for in June.

But the issue of climate change comes saturated in politics. On Wednesday, before the ink was even dry on the climate assessment, Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid gave a speech on the floor of the chamber denouncing David and Charles Koch, top Republican donors, as "one of the main causes of global warming". Under the circumstances, Republicans are no more likely to help Mr Obama pass his climate-change agenda than Democrats are to help Republicans hold hearings on the murder of the US ambassador in Benghazi in 2012.

The report begins by noting that "corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience". Iowans are always courted by politicians because they have an early presidential primary, but oyster growers and maple syrup producers are perfect examples of the kind of people neither party gives a hoot about.

The timing of the report's release is opportune, given Mr Reid's promise to hold a vote on the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, which Mr Obama has doggedly opposed. Certain oil-state Democrats would like to get on record a (meaningless) vote in favour of the pipeline, but the climate change report will help cover the many more Democrats who will have to vote against.

Some of the report's authors call their publication "actionable science". That is a good expression. While there is scientific information in it, it will be more useful as a source of talking points for climate change activists. Each chapter begins with a section of bullet-pointed "key messages", and the chapters are packed with environmental vignettes. The authors seem to have forgotten that weather is not the same thing as the climate; they have mixed in vivid weather stories. One photo caption reads: "Construction near forests and wildlands is growing. Here, wildfire approaches a housing development."

Former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman wrote recently of having watched a debate at which "all the Republican candidates chuckled at a question on climate change – as if they had been asked about their belief in the Tooth Fairy". Mr Obama said last January: "Climate change is a fact."

Mr Huntsman and Mr Obama assume the argument about global warming is over science. That is true in the academy. It is false among the public at large, where probably 99 per cent of those urged to form an opinion on global warming cannot verify the science independently.

This includes almost all the politicians and – let us be clear – most reporters and columnists, too. Their only choice is to find a trustworthy authority on whom they can rely. In the age of the Iraq war and the Affordable Care Act, where is such an authority to be found? Until government re-establishes a reputation for baseline competence and probity, the public will be rightly suspicious of any big project for which enthusiasm must be drummed up.

ft.com

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