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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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The political divide on the issue in the US seems to be widening. A late November Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that since summer 2008, belief that warming is occurring fell by 20 points among Republicans while holding close to steady among Democrats.

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"In fact, the louder and more alarmed climate advocates become in these efforts, the more they polarize the issue, driving away a conservative or moderate for every liberal they recruit to the cause," argue Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in the article "Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change," written for Yale Environment 360 magazine, a publication of Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

LOURDES MARTINEZ, A TACO VENDOR IN MEXICO CITY, says her No. 1 concern these days is water conservation. For good reason: In her community outside Mexico City, residents get to use running water only twice a week and often bathe with buckets.

The water shortage is one sign that climate change, to many Mexicans, has already arrived. Indeed, Mexico City, infamous for being one of the world's most polluted cities, is facing a severe water shortage, heightened this year by the worst drought in nearly 70 years. Coincidence or greenhouse gases?

"Water conservation is just as important as fighting poverty," Ms. Martinez says. "We have to take care of our children and grandchildren. Without water, how can we?"

In an informal survey of people in a half-dozen countries, the Monitor found people looking for leadership on the climate issue, wanting a clearer idea of what they should do, trying to "live green" more in their own lives – and sometimes, like Martinez, associating current climate disasters with global warming.

"There is a growing awareness of very severe environmental problems in China, and climate change is seen as part of that," says Yang Ailun, a climate change expert with Greenpeace China. Eighty-six percent of Chinese responding to a Greenpeace poll in February said they were "very concerned" or "quite concerned" about the environment. Climate change was seen as the second most serious threat to the planet, behind water and air pollution.

Still, in some parts of the world, people have never even heard the words "global warming." Ironically, it's in some of these countries that the effects of climate change may be most devastating.

Activists stress the need for more education in these areas. Javier Medina, head of strategic projects for Mexico's National Commission for Natural Protected Areas, says that while residents might face water shortages, they usually don't link them to climate change. He says environmental officials are pushing for mandatory environmental education at all levels.

"Education is very deficient," he says.