Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Why are we still debating climate change?

By Carol Costello
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2102 GMT (0502 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 97% of scientists say humans are causing climate change
  • Carol Costello: Why pretend that there's still a debate going on?
  • Politicians, conservative organizations seek to foster denial of the reality, she says
  • Costello: Lack of trust in scientists is one reason the phony controversy continues

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday.

(CNN) -- There is no debate.

Climate change is real. And, yes, we are, in part, to blame.

There is a 97% consensus among scientific experts that humans are causing global warming. Ninety-seven percent!

Yet some very vocal Americans continue to debate what is surely fact.

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

The question is, why?

Trust certainly plays a part.

According to Gordon Gauchat, an associate professor of sociology from the University of Wisconsin, just 42% of adults in the U.S. have a great deal of confidence (PDF) in the scientific community.

It's easy to understand why. Most Americans can't even name a living scientist. I suspect the closest many Americans get to a living, breathing scientist is the fictional Dr. Sheldon Cooper from CBS's sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." Sheldon is brilliant, condescending and narcissistic. Whose trust would he inspire?

Cruz: Data doesn't back global warming
Expert: Sea levels make flooding worse
Gingrich: Secretary Kerry is delusional
Nye to Ham: God's not in climate change

But trust isn't the only factor in why many Americans doubt climate change.

I asked Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. His group has been studying the "why" question for more than a decade.

"We've found there are six very (specific) categories that respond to this issue in different ways," he said.

He calls these categories "Global Warming's Six Americas."

Opinion: Obama's efforts on climate may not be enough

The first group, "The Alarmed," is made up 16% of the public. They believe climate change is an urgent problem but have no clear idea of how to fix it.

The second group (27%) is "The Concerned." They believe climate change is a problem but think it's more about polar bears and tiny islands than a problem that directly affects them.

The third group, "The Cautious" (23%), are people on the fence. They haven't made up their minds whether global warming is real or if it's a man-made problem.

The fourth group, "The Disengaged" (5%), doesn't know anything about climate change.

The fifth group, "The Doubtful" (12%), do not think climate change is man-made. They think it's natural and poses no long-term risk.

Leiserowitz says it's the sixth group, "The Dismissives," that is the most problematic, even though it comprises just 15% of the public.

"They say it's a hoax, scientists are making up data, it's a U.N. conspiracy (or) Al Gore and his friends want to get rich." Leiserowitz goes on to say, "It's a really loud 15%. ... (It's a) pretty well-organized 15%."

And thanks to the media and the political stage, that vocal minority is mighty.

Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told Glenn Beck on Fox News in 2011, "There is no such thing as global warming." Santorum went on to tell Rush Limbaugh, "It's just an excuse for more government control of your life, and I've never been for any scheme or even accepted the junk science behind the whole narrative."

And just last week, tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz told CNN's Dana Bash, "Climate change, as they have defined it, can never be disproved, because whether it gets hotter or whether it gets colder, whatever happens, they'll say, well, it's changing, so it proves our theory."

Meanwhile, the climate change "counter movement" has been helped along by an infusion of cash from, among others, some in the powerful fossil fuel industry.

A recent study by Drexel University found that conservative foundations and others have bankrolled climate denial to the tune of $558 million between 2003 and 2010.

"Money amplifies certain voices above others and, in effect, gives them a megaphone in the public square. Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat," writes environmental scientist Robert J. Brulle, the study's author.

The good news is, those uninformed minority voices are being quieted by nature and by those who have powerful voices.

Extreme weather is forcing people to at least think about how global warming affects them directly. And, perhaps more important, many religious leaders, including evangelicals, are now "green." They concur with the scientific community and take it a step farther. They say we have a moral obligation to save the planet.

Even the enormously popular Pope Francis may soon speak out on global warming. The Vatican press office says Francis is working on draft text on ecology. That text could turn into an encyclical, or a letter to bishops around the world, instructing that the "faithful must respect the environment."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carol Costello.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1626 GMT (0026 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT