Global Warming Creates a National Tipping Point

05/26/2006 01:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Al Gore's movie, An Inconvenient Truth, opens in regular distribution this weekend, with 100,000 advance tickets ordered. Here in Chicago, the Sierra Club sold out the theatres for the first couple of evenings, and I have invitations already to openings sponsored by Club chapters around the country -- in late June in Kentucky, for example. Gore's companion book to the film was favorably reviewed this week in the New York Times.

But An Inconvenient Truth is only one sign that we are reaching a tipping point on global warming with the American public. In my meetings here with businessmen, including a GM executive, the debate is about what to do -- not about whether there is a problem.

In Alaska the legislature, unanimously, just created a Climate Impact Assessment Commission tasked with examining the impacts of climate change on the state and developing and recommending policies to address those impacts. While the legislators genuflected to the notion that this resolution wasn't about whom to blame for climate policy, they clearly are aware that once the public understands that the debate over the reality of global warming is over, there will be a demand for action.

And yesterday the National Wildlife Federation released results of a poll of hunters and anglers on global warming. According to the results, a majority are already seeing changes in climate and attributing it to global warming. The Club has spent the last five years working to heal the wedge that the reactionary right had driven between urban and suburban environmentalists and outdoor sportsmen, and we are seeing the rift begin to close.

Washington Monthly recently published a long analysis of the split that emerged in the 1980s between environmentalists and sportsmen. It also cited recent evidence that the rift is healing -- driven, in large part, by the anti-land and water policies of the Bush administration, which seems determined to sell off or give away public lands where local people hunt and fish. But, the magazine concluded, "These struggles may pale in comparison to the brewing battle over global warming. As more red-state farmers find their crops affected by rising temperatures, more ice fishermen notice lakes that no longer freeze in the winter, and more hunters see wetlands where ducks breed begin to evaporate, concern about climate change is crossing old political boundaries."

The article finished by noting that in previous moments of great national consensus around environmental issues, the pattern was similar: "These multiple uprisings in response to global warming echo each of the nation's previous environmental awakenings. (When Sen. Muskie embarked on his national tour in the mid 1960s, his chief of staff Leon Billings remembers, 'People just came out of the woodwork.') Each time environmental concerns have risen to the top of the national agenda, uniting a broad array of the public behind the need for government action, it has forged new alliances and remade American politics with a progressive tilt."