If you were going to pick a single issue whose treatment exemplifies the forces at work in this midterm election, the best choice would be one over which there's been relatively little contention — climate change.
That's not because there is any broad agreement among the candidates on the severity of global warming or human activity's contribution to it. To the contrary, the question seldom has been discussed in this campaign because views on it have become utterly politicized. Skepticism about human technology's role in accelerating climate change, and doubt concerning the phenomenon's very existence, have become, at least on the Republican side, a matter of lock-step partisan orthodoxy.
For example, 19 of the 20 GOP candidates who are in closely contested races and have expressed a position on the issue say they have doubts about the scientific evidence for global warming, despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists. That includes Arizona's John McCain, who formerly supported legislation to reduce carbon emissions. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who voted for cap-and-trade as a congressman, is the lone Republican holdout. Some of the other senatorial candidates express ambivalence about the science but firmly reject any legislative or regulatory remedy; more agree with Louisiana's David Vitter, who calls the evidence for climate change "pseudo-science garbage."
Recent polls show just how deeply partisan the split over global warming has become, and how closely it conforms to the deep fissures that have reshaped this year's electoral landscape. A survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, for instance, found that over the last four years, the percentage of Americans who believe there's solid scientific evidence for climate change has declined from 79% to 59%. In 2006, half of us believed that global warming was caused by human activities; today, only 34% do. An Opinion Research Corp. survey found that while 82% of Democrats feel the United States should take a leading role in addressing global warming, only 39% of Republicans now do.
In part, public opinion researchers agree, the rise of the "tea party" movement accounts for both the growing skepticism and the demand, which we now can recognize as characteristic, for ideological conformity. In its survey, for example, Pew found that 70% of self-described tea party sympathizers don't believe there's convincing evidence that the Earth is warming. A New York Times/CBS poll found that only 14% of tea party supporters say that "global warming is an environmental problem that is having an effect now." Opinion Research reported that only 27% of tea party adherents support the idea of America taking a leading role on the problem.
The New York Times also has documented among some tea party adherents a strong streak of religious objection to the reality of climate change. As Norman Dennison, one of the group's Indiana founders, told the paper, global warming "is a flat-out lie.... I read my Bible. He made this Earth for us to utilize." Another Indiana tea party member asserted that "being a strong Christian, I cannot help but believe the Lord placed a lot of minerals in our country, and it's not there to destroy us."
The fundamentalist delusion, whether about the Constitution or theology, and demands for a purified orthodoxy are defining characteristics of this campaign. When it comes to the politicization of a purely scientific question — climate change — so too is the role of money quietly or covertly dispensed by big business and the self-interested rich. Some of the tea party's biggest funders, including Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, are creatures of the oil and coal companies. They've also supported virtually the entire network of fringe scientists, think tanks and publishers who over the past few years have raised a host of spurious questions and allegations concerning the consensus on climate change among reputable scientists.
They're the same individuals and companies putting up big money to support Proposition 23, which would gut California's attempts to reduce carbon emissions. Koch Industries and Murray Energy Corp. already are major givers to the U.S. Senate's biggest deniers, including James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has called global warming "the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
Think back to the billions Big Tobacco spent on the long guerrilla war to stave off regulation of its death-dealing products and you've pretty much got the picture here, though this time around, the corporate manipulators are hoping that they've co-opted the climate skeptics in order to fill the oil and coal companies' coffers for years to come.