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Global warming: Why public concern declines

On eve of the global warming summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, an informal global survey shows that public interest in the issue is waning. But many people are taking individual steps to curb global warming.

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"Economic development and environmental protection clash," he says. "The government focuses on development right now, but it should pay attention to environmental protection, too."

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Those same sentiments are echoed by many in the US, the world's No. 2 producer of greenhouse gases, but not with as much vehemence on the green side as they used to be. In a recent poll, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that only 57 percent of Americans say there is solid evidence global temperatures are rising. That compares with 71 percent in April 2008. When asked if human activity is the cause of warming, just 36 percent said yes. In April 2008, it was 47 percent.

Traditionally, fewer people in the US have been true believers in global warming than in many other developed countries. But the trend lines can be found elsewhere, too. In a November 2009 poll in Australia, for example, 52 percent of respondents said urgent action on climate change was needed. In a 2006 poll, that figure was 72 percent.

Slipping support may have already taken a toll. US Senate majority leader Harry Reid has put off debate on a plan to cap US greenhouse-gas emissions until next spring. And the Copenhagen gathering now looks as though it will, at best, reach only political agreements, not the legally binding commitments called for by the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty whose emissions reductions expire in 2012.

The decline in concern is taking place despite what many consider overwhelming scientific evidence of human-induced global warming, including the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the Nobel Prize with Mr. Gore. Since then, other studies have shown a darkening picture, such as more rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and a reduced ability of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Serious talk has begun about using geoengineering techniques that sound as if they're from a Ray Bradbury novel – shooting particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays, for instance – to cool Earth.

And to be sure, other barometers show that concern about the issue remains strong. In a recent poll taken in 12 countries that represent just over half of the world's population, 65 percent of people say it's very important that a deal be reached at Copenhagen. Fully 79 percent of the respondents to the survey, sponsored by the HSBC Climate Partnership, made up of several global environmental and business groups, want some kind of emissions-reduction targets put in place.

Close observers offer many explanations for the sliding support. Chief among them is this conundrum of convincing people to act – or sacrifice – now to ward off something in the distant future. Global warming is also a threat that doesn't have a personal face like, say, Osama bin Laden represents in the West. The biggest villain here is invisible carbon dioxide.

Experts reason that, after years of warnings of future disaster and protracted negotiations to achieve a climate treaty, a sense of fatigue has set in. The worldwide recession also has people focused on keeping their jobs, if they even have one, and on keeping a roof over their heads. That may be one reason President Obama rarely talks about climate change itself but frequently mentions the "green" jobs that fighting it will create.

Some even argue that Gore – his Nobel Prize notwithstanding – is a poor standard-bearer for the cause because he is seen as a partisan politician.

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