Perhaps because science and technology have always been dominated by educated, sometimes arrogant elites, and are far beyond the attention spans or formats of conventional media, few scientific issues manage to attract the attention of large numbers of people. Gene mapping and genomics could change the nature of life itself, but few national political figures in the U.S. talk much genetics, or the impact of fertility drugs on kids and families. Spielberg raises some profound moral issues involving A.I. in his new movie, drawing a number of critical raves but proving a disappointment at the box office. And Hollywood hasn't yet even heard of nano-technologies. The emerging exception appears to be global warming, which Americans are suddenly very worried about. Maybe this is the beginning of a new era for science and politics.
This concern about global warming is significant, especially in light of the fact that the government's existing environmental policies (along with growing perceptions of technological and cultural imperialism) are making the U.S. once again the most resented country in the world. Already high on the agenda of Western Europe and a cause on U.S. college campuses, this could be the first in a series of techno-political issues that will rise up in the 21st Century. Issues like genomics will morph from gee-whiz cover stories in Time to very real concerns for individuals.
Most Americans are now aware of global warming, says a comprehensive report cited in American Demographics magazine, even though significantly fewer express concern or understanding about its impact.
In August 2000, the Harris poll asked Americans about their beliefs concerning global warming and, more specifically, about the relationship between temperature changes and forest fires. Many more than in previous surveys said they believed that global warming exists and is a serious environmental issue, although only 35 percent believe it was directly responsible for increasing forest fires in the United States.
In l997, 67 percent of Americans surveyed believed that increased carbon dioxide and other gases released into the atmosphere would, if unchecked, lead to global warming and increasing average temperatures. By last year, the figure had risen to 72 per cent. Even though they weren't aware of any specific or urgent impac on their own lives, and thus weren't particularly alarmed, nearly half thought that global warming should be treated as a "very serious" problem. In fact, only 13 percent of Americans said global warming wasn't a serious problem, a record low.
But science and the environment are becoming among the planet's hottest political issues. President Bush touched off a firestorm when he refused to sign the Kyoto accord. Although the reaction in the U.S. was less pronounced, a March 2001 Time/CNN poll found that two-thirds of Americans think the President should develop a plan to reduce the gas emissions that may contribute to global warming.
The U.S. has largely remained reluctant to address science through politics no matter how serious the issues. Big media political coverage tends to focus attention on scandal and confrontation, away from explanations of issues like global warming, or the equitable distribution of technology. Although they differ on certain scientific and environmental issues, neither of our two increasingly similiar dominant American political parties pay much attention to technological issues, or have anything resembling a scientific ideology or agenda.
When a serious matter like medical research involving stem cells from frozen embryos arises, politicians worry at least as much about religious support as they do about what scientists advise.
One might think members of Congress would be up in arms at the growing control of genetic research by a handful of bio-tech corporations; instead, there's hardly any debate about it at all.
My prediction: global warming will become the first issue of science and politics that captures the imagination of large numbers of American voters and becomes a national political issue (one on which the President definitely seems to have taken the unpopular side.) Why? Because it's a tactile phenomenon; people can feel that the weather is changing. They can see pictures of penguins dying in Antarctica. They read that skin cancer rates are rising.
Unlike more abstract scientific issues like genetics (which may become a highly visible political issue, but which isn't yet), or technologically-related social issues like intellectual property and copyright, even the myopic American political and media system, which focused for nearly two codependent years on Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, will have to start paying attention to global warming.