This Earth Day, a focus on Earth's warming

Public awareness about climate change is growing; 83 percent of Americans now call it a 'serious' problem.

By , Staff writer

For years, Earth Day celebrants have hugged trees, dressed up as their favorite endangered species, and extolled the virtues of compost and organic gardening.

This year, April 22, the annual day to tout personal and community greenness, has a new emphasis for many people: global warming and its predicted effects on Mother Earth.

Around the country and around the world, a batch of recent opinion surveys show swelling public interest in and concern about climate change.

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There is "a significant shift in public attitudes toward the environment and global warming [with] fully 83 percent of Americans now saying global warming is a 'serious' problem, up from 70 percent in 2004," reports the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

"The last six months have been the most rapid period of change in public awareness and attitudes on climate change that I've ever seen," says William Moomaw, a Tufts University climate expert and coauthor of the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN-sponsored group of scientists.

Demand for climate-change briefings he's delivered for the past five years have jumped in the past year, says Dr. Moomaw. Audiences who were once polite are now actively engaged.

Now, after talks he regularly finds himself surrounded by mobs of questioners eager to learn more.

One of those who has questions about climate change and its possible impact on local weather patterns is Suzy Carpenter, a fourth-generation Arizonan who lives in Mesa. She's noticed a change in what she calls the summer monsoon season there.

"When I was little it would pour buckets every single night, and it was that way through the summers until I was probably in my mid-20s," says Ms. Carpenter, speaking of the 1970s. "Now it's cycled down to where we get three or four storms per summer, and we're always short on rainfall now."

Why all the heightened interest in global warming?

Several reasons: Media interest (splashy cover stories in The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, and Vanity Fair magazines); Al Gore's film "An Inconvenient Truth"; Democrats now controlling Congress and holding highly publicized hearings, plus a steady drumbeat of reports from the IPCC; retired military officers worried about the national security implications of climate change; and other government and academic sources.

Meanwhile, some high-profile politicians, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) of California, have been playing up the issue. Last September, Mr. Schwarzenegger signed the Global Warming Solutions Act, which aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the state 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 – the most stringent guidelines in the country.

The US Supreme Court has weighed in on climate change. On April 2 it ruled that the US Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

For some people, a particular event has captured their attention on the effects of climate change. Chela Sullivan in Phoenix was energized when she recently saw Al Gore give his Power- Point presentation in a packed hall at Arizona State University. But like a lot of young Americans, she had already started doing her bit to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

She leaves her yellow VW bug at home and carpools as much as possible. She installed energy-saving lightbulbs and appliances in her condo and doesn't use the clothes dryer. "If I have to make adjustments in my life – like walking more and spending less on gas – I will, because I think it's imperative," she says.

More and more, Americans are adopting that attitude. According to the recent Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy poll, 81 percent of those surveyed agree that, "It is my responsibility to help reduce the impacts of global warming." Sixty-three percent agreed that "our country is in as much danger from environmental hazards such as air pollution and global warming as it is from terrorists."

"Global warming used to be such an amorphous concept," says Melissa Goodall, associate director of the Yale Center. "Now, it's a lot more tangible for people."

Local communities are taking up the cause as well, which both leads and follows public opinion. Two years ago, Seattle mayor Greg Nickels challenged his fellow mayors to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets for US greenhouse-gas emissions – a 7 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2012. As of this week, 435 mayors have signed up.

And it's not just adults educating themselves about climate change and its implications.

Weekly Reader Research recently surveyed 1,657 students between ages 6 and 18 from schools around the country. The organization found that 64 percent of America's youth have discussed the environment and global warming in class, and a majority (especially girls) expressed concern.

Still, most people are not freaking out over the prospect of climate change, the Gallup polling organization finds.

"While Americans say they are worried about global warming, they also believe the worst manifestations of the problem are a long way off," writes Lydia Saad of the Gallup News Service in her analysis of a poll taken last month.

Gallup asked Americans how worried they are about seven weather events tied to climate change including hurricanes, droughts, rising ocean levels, tropical diseases, and species extinction.

"Generally speaking, not much more than one-third of Americans are 'very worried' about any of the seven effects of global warming measured in the survey," says Ms. Saad. "However, a solid majority are at least 'somewhat worried' about nearly all of them."

At the same time, Gallup finds, Americans by a wide margin – 58 percent to 34 percent – think "the government should put a higher priority on protecting the environment than on increasing energy production." Even though 92 percent think the energy situation in the United States is "serious" (of whom 37 percent say "very serious"), those surveyed favor energy conservation over production by 64-26 percent.

"A lot more people seem willing to go the extra mile, spending a few dollars to help the environment," says Steve Haskins, a Williamstown, Mass., home builder, who's seen a rapid increase in the numbers of requests for sustainable building practices. "Concern about climate is driving it. But it's also cost of energy and cost to heat the house."

Corporate boardrooms are getting the message, too. "There's been a dramatic shift in the business community's attitude toward the environment," says Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center. "Rather than seeing environmental issues as a set of costs to bear, regulation to follow, and risks to manage, companies have begun to focus on the upside, recognizing that society's desire for action on climate change, in particular, will create a huge demand for reducing carbon-content products."

Mark Clayton in Boston and Faye Bowers in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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