Was it really just six years ago when a documentary about climate change -- Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth -- could draw $24 million at the U.S. box office? That was back when the words "housing bubble" were just entering the average American's lexicon, back before the liquidation of Lehman Brothers, back when we would voluntarily fork over cash to sit in a dark room while a former vice president told us that we're all boiling ourselves to death.
There was, for a brief period then, a sort of optimism about what the United States could accomplish on climate change. President George W. Bush, already on his way out the door in April 2008, affirmed that human activity was causing global warming and vowed that the "ingenuity and enterprise of the American people" would help us overcome it. Barack Obama won the White House later that year with the promise that the next four years would be remembered as the time "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal" (a pledge that became a punch line for his Republican challenger this time around).
Since then, the United States has failed to do anything significant about climate change. The issue has disappeared from the national radar, even as the scientific evidence has piled up. Political leaders no longer care about it, outside the occasional obligatory mention, in large part because voters don't either. Internationally, the situation isn't much better. Despite all the hype about the 2009 United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, there's still no binding international accord that sets emission limits for both the United States and China. And this past June, a conference held on the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit -- billed as a "once-in-a-generation chance" to set out a vision for a sustainable future -- was similarly disappointing, concluding with a flimsy political statement.
The lack of enthusiasm for all things environmental is pretty easy to explain: It's the recession, stupid. Yet climate change skeptics -- a camp that includes both the hired guns of the fossil-fuel industry and some true unbelievers -- like to claim they are winning the debate. (Remember "Climategate," the ginned-up scandal in which emails from scientists were stolen, edited, and spread around the Internet to make it seem like climate change is a giant hoax? Or the big 2010 "Snowmageddon" storm in Washington, D.C., when the family of the Senate's leading climate denier, Oklahoma's James Inhofe, built an igloo and labeled it "Al Gore's New Home"?)
There's no lack of science on the subject; the risks associated with pumping too much carbon into our atmosphere have only gotten clearer in the past six years. But the climate naysayers have been the beneficiaries of the dismal economy. Americans' interest in cutting emissions has sagged almost in lockstep with the rising unemployment rate. Who has time to worry about melting glaciers when the mortgage payment is late or the supervisor is shuffling pink slips? The deniers are pushing on an open door.