Climate change is “a long, slow process,” he says. “There is a lot of natural variability in the system, and global average temperatures jump around a lot.” In the early 1980s, “there was a very long period…when we were putting so much sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere it was actually cooling the planet and overriding the warming.”

The politics of climate change in the U.S. has involved “three different government agencies that haven taken three very different perspectives,” Carson says. “The Department of Energy wanted to adopt anything that would cause a delay in taking action on climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency wanted to do anything that would give them the power to regulate greenhouse gases. And the U.S. State Department wanted to control the politics and bargaining process.”

As governments are wont to do, international conferences were held in Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, and Kyoto, Japan. An outgrowth of the 1987 Montreal conference was an international treaty for the regulation of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), such as the Freon gas used in air conditioners, which were creating holes in the Earth’s ozone layer that provides protection from deadly ultraviolet regulation.
“They identified the problem and who would do what,” says Carson, and “the change came about fairly easily because there were ways we could not use Freon and still have our air conditioning.”

But he says, the success of the Montreal Protocol was followed by “an interesting and ugly notion that has, in some sense, poisoned the well ever since — a major campaign by some of the big energy interests, copying the model of the tobacco industry, trying to get across to the public the message that the science on climate change was unsound, that scientists disagreed.

“Their opinion polls showed that if people thought scientists didn’t agree, the public would be less likely to support doing anything. They put out the message that the concerns about climate were exaggerated, that government intervention was pointless, and that the problem could be solved later — if it actually came to be.

“It was a pretty scurrilous campaign, and there were people who got their hands dirty on this. The public’s voice has become highly politicized, aided by the news media’s approach that they can always find people to take positions on either side.”

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Now, Carson says, “Every time there’s a big hurricane like Katrina or Sandy, they want to jump on it and say it’s due to climate change. But that’s really hard to sell to most climate scientists, who know there’s enough natural variability in the system that it’s difficult to attribute any single catastrophic event to climate change — that these things are slowly increasing over time, and you don’t have big hurricanes one day and small hurricanes the next day. All this is really bizarre in terms of influencing American public opinion.”

Politically, Carson says, “most Democrats seem to think climate change is real; large fractions of Republicans contend climate change isn’t real; and Independents move up and down based on how far off you are from temperature averages on the day they are interviewed.