August 21, 2013

You really should be paying close attention to the ongoing battle between the League of Conservation Voters and Tea Party Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. In addition to being highly entertaining, there’s a great deal at stake here — whether it’s possible to hold public officials accountable for climate science denialism.

Just to catch you up, LCV recently announced plans to launch a $2 million campaign attacking Republicans in Congress for climate change denialism, including a TV ad attacking Johnson. The Senator responded with a fundraising appeal calling for cash to fight against an “environmental jihad.”

Now LCV is back with a second ad responding to the “environmental jihad” barb and reiterating the case that Johnson is ignoring the consensus of civilian and NASA scientists on climate:

As I noted here the other day, there’s more to this than you might think. It’s not about electoral politics — after all, Johnson isn’t up for reelection until 2016. Rather, environmentalists view this as a long game designed to change something that’s frustrated them for some time: the fact that crazy climate change denialist statements just aren’t nearly as politically toxic as outsized statements about, say, abortion or immigration often prove to be.

LCV’s public fight with Johnson is a very deliberate effort to try to draw media coverage to the climate change issue at a time when networks continue to give it very little attention. There is no prospect for Congressional action on climate change anytime soon. When public officials seek to draw attention to it — as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse does with weekly speeches on the Senate floor — it generates about as much attention as it might if the topic in question were something as eccentric and inconsequential as Gussie Fink-Nottle’s hobby of collecting newts in P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie-and-Jeeves novels.

And so, note that LCV’s ads smuggle a few facts into the discussion: both of them note that the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that climate change’s primary cause is human activity.

The larger question here is whether officials who question the human causes of global warming will be pressed to account for their views. Indeed, Jeff Gohringer, a spokesman for LCV, tells me the group is not aware of Johnson being pressed recently by any reporters to explain his views on climate science. (If evidence otherwise surfaces, I’ll update.) Back in 2010, Johnson heaped scorn on climate science and blamed “sunspots” for global warming, though a spokesperson later backed away from the remark. Johnson recently released a statement responding to the first LCV ad in which he claimed that “I believe in a clean environment” without addressing the topic of climate change.

All of this comes as the United Nations is set to release a report finding that the scientific consensus behind the idea that climate change is created by human activity is stronger than ever. Yet public opinion is, if anything, moving in the opposite direction.

So, yeah, this experiment by LCV is kind of important. But it’s kind of sad that the effort to force public discussion of the issue requires going to such lengths.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.