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Climate skeptics sweep into Congress, but lack traction among young Americans

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The midterm elections brought an unprecedented number of climate skeptics into Congress, with no incoming Republicans acknowledging the existence of man-made climate change. Environmentalists have all but given up on passing significant climate legislation in the near future, but in the long term, it may be difficult for climate skeptics to hold their ranks: Young Americans are significantly more concerned about global warming than older generations, and there are no major organizations of young climate skeptics.

This raises the question: What will come of climate skeptics as young people begin to rise to positions of power?

[Environment1] The Washington Independent put this question to Warren Meyer, who runs the website climate-skeptic.com. Meyer, in an email, said younger generations are drawn to “the ‘civilization in peril’ line,” and he suggested that people’s views change over time. “The lack of teenage skeptics today is meaningless for whether there will be skeptics in 20 years,” he said.

Meyer said young people will eventually become more attuned to the economic cost associated with lowering greenhouse gas emissions. “This seems really compelling to the young,” he said. “Until you understand that on the other side of the equation is a 100% chance of really high economic costs.”

There is evidence to suggest that older people care much more about the cost of policies like cap-and-trade than younger people. A June National Journal/Society for Human Resources Management poll shows that while 65 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds favor “protecting the environment” — to 29 percent concerned with “keeping prices low” — those numbers change for older people: 40 percent of people over 65 care about protecting the environment, while 47 percent are concerned with keeping prices low.

Overall though, the issue breaks down along party lines. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that about 79 percent of Democrats and just 38 percent of Republicans believe the earth is warming. Among Republicans who identify with the Tea Party, just 23 percent say there is solid evidence of climate change. The majority of Tea Partiers are over 45, with just 7 percent between the ages of 18 and 29, according to an April New York Times poll.

In an effort to find young people who question the science behind global warming, I allowed Meyer to put a call out on his blog. During the last several weeks, I’ve heard from about half a dozen young people who question climate science.

Andrew Funk, a 27-year-old biologist at the Department of Agriculture, is one of those people. Funk rejects the term climate skeptic in favor of “rational optimist.” In a phone conversation, Funk said he believes climate science is “pretty shaky.” He added, “I think it’s a shaky platform to re-engineer large portions of society.”

In a city flush with young Democrats, Funk said he has found a small group of like-minded individuals. “I end up hanging out with friends that are more independent, a little more libertarian-minded,” he said.

Other skeptics preferred to remain anonymous. For example, one 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Maryland said in an email:

It would be imprudent of me to let my heterodoxy on this issue be publicly known, as, sadly, I feel this has become more of a political matter in academic circles than a scientific one. I would rather my name not be associated with dissent on this matter.

The student’s comments say a great deal about the way young people think about climate change and the potential implications for somebody who questions the broad scientific consensus on the issue.

Anthony Watts, a prominent climate skeptic who runs the popular and controversial site “Watts Up With That,” blamed the “liberal” education system for the lack of young climate skeptics. “I suppose such a group would be unlikely because our children are conditioned by textbooks and a generally liberal education process to believe in the [man-made global warming] premise as factual and without question,” he said.

“In colleges, there are so many activist groups recruiting to ‘save the planet’ that skepticism generally gets drowned in the cacophony,” he added.

Maura Cowley, national director of the Sierra Student Coalition, organizes the types of “save the planet” activists Watts criticizes. “My opinion is that this whole dialogue will just fade into the past,” she said. “If you look at the millennial generation, you look at a generation that is savvy and soon to be the best educated generation.”

Cowley said young people recognize what’s at stake if nothing is done to address climate change “It’s really clear that this generation has the most to lose with this issue,” she said. “I think that’s a big part of the reason they care about this.”

Polling shows that climate skepticism has increased significantly in the last couple of years, as the issue has heated up in Congress. A recent Pew Research Center poll shows that between April 2008 and October 2009 — a period that saw the passage of a cap-and-trade bill in the House and the beginning of debate on a similar bill in the Senate — the percentage of Americans who believe there is “solid evidence” that the earth is warming fell drastically, from 71 percent to 57 percent.

Joe Romm, a former Clinton administration official who now runs the popular blog Climate Progress, said any effort to address climate change in Congress will run into opposition from a number of powerful industry interests.

“The disinformation campaign is incredibly well funded,” he said. “There’s a staggering amount of money in it.

But he said the effects of climate change will become more obvious over time, forcing skeptics to change their tune. “Come 2020 we’re going to be desperate to respond to global warming and the skeptics will be condemned,” he said.

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