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More Heat, Less Light

Which means that at noon on Saturday, June 26, organizers hope that hundreds of thousands of people in almost every state (and more than a dozen countries) will go to their beaches (or somewhere symbolic, like the White House) and hold hands in what could be the most visible public response to the environmental catastrophe in the gulf to date. “People have been asking, ‘Where’s the outrage?’ ” says the Sierra Club’s Frank Jackalone. “The outrage is going to be very clear on June 26. Hands Across the Sand will be a major turning point to push things in the other direction and toward a clean-energy future.”

It was only two summers ago that Barack Obama and John McCain were each pledging, if elected president, to dramatically cut greenhouse-gas emissions and, according to a Washington Post–ABC News poll, 80 percent of Americans believed global warming was real. Then the roof began to cave in.

Between Obama’s Iowa caucus win and his inauguration, Pew found a fifteen-point drop in the number of Americans who believed global warming should be a “top priority.” The economy was tanking, and the White House’s new occupant decided that passing comprehensive climate legislation would have to take a backseat to dealing with the financial crisis and achieving health-care reform.

Last November, a Washington Post–ABC News poll detected an eight-point drop in the number of Americans who believed global warming was happening. That same month, thousands of private e-mails between prominent British and American climate researchers were hacked from a computer server at the University of East Anglia. The e-mails, while embarrassing (in one, a climatologist describes the death of a leading climate-change skeptic as “cheering news”) did nothing to undermine the science behind global warming. But that didn’t stop global-warming deniers from claiming the e-mails did just that (“This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud,” one told the Times) and, in a feat of political jujitsu reminiscent of the Swift Boat vets, spinning them into a pseudoscandal that was soon dubbed “Climate-gate.”

In December, the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen—the culmination of a two-year process that was supposed to result in an international treaty curbing carbon emissions—ended without any binding agreement, in no small part because of the failure of the U.S. to enact its own climate legislation. Then, in February, an epic blizzard blanketed much of the East Coast—including America’s media and political capitals—with several feet of snow. “It’s the most severe winter storm in years, which would seem to contradict Al Gore’s hysterical global-warming theories,” Sean Hannity crowed from the Fox News studio in New York. Meanwhile, in Washington, Oklahoma senator Jim Inhofe—Congress’s No. 1 climate-change denier—built an igloo near the Capitol and festooned it with signs reading HONK IF YOU ❤ GLOBAL WARMING. The following month, Gallup reported that 48 percent of Americans thought the seriousness of global warming was exaggerated—the highest percentage since it started asking the question thirteen years ago.

The relentless string of setbacks the climate movement had been subjected to over the preceding eighteen months had coalesced into something worse. “It wasn’t just drip, drip, drip,” says one climate activist. “We were past that. The patient was bleeding out.”

Worst of all, the rapid collapse of the public consensus on climate change had occurred at a time when the scientific consensus about global warming was growing stronger. “After $100 million has been spent in the last year, why don’t have we have more power?” Betsy Taylor, co-founder of the climate-change group 1Sky, found herself wondering this spring. “Why isn’t this a hot-button issue? Why haven’t we engaged more deeply with the public?”

Or as Andrew Revkin, who late last year left his job as the Times’ climate-and-environment reporter to write an opinion blog for the paper’s website and work as a senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University, puts it, “I could spend the next twenty years trying to write really good stories about climate, the way I’ve spent the last twenty years doing that, but I lost the sense that that was a route to efficacy. If the social-psychology research shows people don’t change their stances on these issues based on new information, and I’m in the information business, then what the hell am I doing?”

The elemental mistake environmentalists made over the last few years—and one that Al Gore in particular can be faulted for—was assuming that people approach the subject of climate change the way environmentalists do: seriously. But they don’t. For a few reasons, including perhaps the fact that the threat poses a planetary existential crisis, Americans are wildly impressionable, inconsistent, and illogical in their opinions on the subject. Indeed, public consensus in some respects can be as unstable as the weather: Jon A. Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford, has attributed some of the lower polls in part to an unusually cool 2008 and this past harsh winter.