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Michael Hiltzik

Who's responsible for climate change denial in Congress? The voters

Why do politicians like Inhofe and Gohmert deny climate change? Blame their voters

The adage "all politics is local" points to both a virtue and a flaw in the American system of democracy: It helps provide that every vote counts but also that regional cranks get an outsized voice in national, even global, issues.

New research from Yale and Utah State universities shows how the latter process works in the field of climate policy. It tracks local opinions on climate change by state, congressional district, and county. Using a series of color-coded interactive maps, anyone can link up these opinions with the state and federal elected officials representing the geographical units.

The stark conclusion is that some of the most determined climate change deniers in Washington reflect the opinions of their constituents, as is the case for climate change activists. Whether this is because they have well-tuned political antennae or because they're cut from the same cloth as their voters isn't clear but scarcely matters. 

Consider the case of Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), an outstanding climate change denier who last month brought a snowball onto the floor of the Senate to prove, ostensibly, that global warming can't be happening. Inhofe's home state is one of the most climate-change skeptical in the union. The maps show that only 44% of Sooners believe that climate change is caused by human activity and only 34% believe that "most scientists think global warming is happening." (The scientific consensus is well above 90%.)

At the granular level of congressional districts, the data show that acceptance of a human role in climate change tends to be concentrated along the coasts, especially coastal California, Oregon, Washington, Florida and the Northeast.

The highest ratio, with 65% in agreement, is in California's District 12, the city of San Francisco, which is represented by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Two districts are especially low, Texas District 1, with 38%, and the extravagantly gerrymandered Alabama District 4, with 39%. As Jeremy Schulman of Mother Jones observes, the first is represented by GOP Rep. Louis Gohmert, an Inhofe-style adherent of the argument that cool weather disproves global warming, and the second by the GOP's Robert Aderholt, who has labeled research on climate change "bad science."

One interesting finding is that the American public seems to be largely convinced that climate change is real enough to "harm future generations." In every state but one, that opinion is held by at least 50% of residents, according to polls. The exception is Wyoming (48%), where climate change skepticism appears to be very strong across the board.

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