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.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor
'Rather than add more government rules that people will try to get around, it should be up to people to change their behavior.'- David O'Connor, a retired judge from Boston, who hasn't owned a car in 20 years.
Takehiko Kambayashi
'When I was a student, it used to be much colder in December. I remember we had to wear heavy winter clothing. But in recent years, we have not seen snow, even in winter. I'm very concerned about changes in climate.' - Tadashi Hashimoto, retired construction executive in Tokyo
Tony Avelar/The Christian Science Monitor
'Water conservation is just as important as fighting poverty. We have to take care of our children and grandchildren. Without water, how can we?' - Lourdes Martinez, a taco vendor in Mexico City, who blames water shortages on global warming
Carmen K. Sisson
'If there was global warming, why would it be snowing? Huh? You tell me that.' - Robert Grant, fishing in Orange Beach, Ala.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Pawel Kopczynski/Reuters
People walk on the street with a huge globe in the background in Copenhagen December 6. Copenhagen is the host city for the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009 from Dec. 7-18.

It's a classic Kodachrome day in Orange Beach, Ala. Cerulean skies contrast against a dazzling white shoreline dotted with rainbow-hued beach umbrellas. Jenna Rutledge slides flip-flops from her feet and wedges her toes beneath the cool sand. Bliss. In fact, only one thing seems odd about this technicolor tableau: That it is so balmy on this November day, even along the Gulf Coast.

Ms. Rutledge, like many people, attributes the lingering summer weather to global warming. But the more she listens to environmental pundits, the more perplexed she becomes.

"I don't know who to trust," she says, tucking a magazine into a canvas tote bag. "You hear evidence that seems to back global warming, but then you hear it's a cyclical thing the earth goes through."

Welcome to public attitudes in this year of Mother Earth, circa late 2009. As the US and other nations prepare for a global summit on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark, Dec. 7-18, the biggest problem facing delegates may not be all the political differences between rich nations and poor, between developed countries and developing ones, between big smokestack nations and lesser ones.

It might be waning public attitudes about climate change worldwide.

True, people in most countries believe there is some kind of problem with Earth's thermostat. Gone are the days when many people thought global warming was the delusion of a few Cassandra greenies who lived in recycled rubber-tire houses, their Priuses parked out front.

Instead, the questions today usually revolve more around: Just how bad is the problem and how far should nations go in trying to curb it? On those issues, consensus is elusive, as will likely be evidenced over the next 10 days in Copenhagen, where getting all the nations to sign on to a new protocol seems dead even before the summit begins.

All this is why public attitudes about the problem are so important. Scientists continue to amass evidence showing that global warming is one of the most pressing problems to ever confront humankind. Former Vice President Al Gore, in his latest book timed exquisitely for Copenhagen and commercial success, argues that climate change is more than an environmental pandemic: It's a profound moral issue that this generation has a sacred obligation to solve for succeeding ones.

If the disparate nations of the world are ever going to unite on a solution, it may require a nudge from the public. Or even a swift kick with a pair of eco-friendly boots. Yet the question underneath persists: How do you keep the world engaged in a problem that will unfold over decades and even centuries?

JIA JIFENG, A FURNITURE SALESMAN IN BEIJING, doesn’t need to wait for a calved iceberg to float down from the top of the earth to know global warming is something to take seriously. He has watched as typhoons, floods, and droughts have brought home the reality that something different is going on with the weather. “The climate is very closely related to our lives,” he says. “We get extreme weather much more frequently than before.”

In China, the world's leading emitter of greenhouse gases, people increasingly worry about the proper balance between two intertwined forces – a healthy economy and a healthy environment. Zhang Lianchao, wrapped up against an unseasonable snowstorm in Beijing, is one of them.

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

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.

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.

"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.

An April Gallup poll found that only small minorities in many African countries have heard about global warming. In contrast with 99 percent of those polled in Japan and 97 percent in the US, for example, only 31 percent of South Africans knew something about global warming, 30 percent of Rwandans, 26 percent of Ghanians, and 15 percent of Liberians.

The effects of global warming are likely to hit India – with its 1.1 billion-plus people – harder than many other places. But there, too, most urban residents aren't well-schooled on the issue.

As global warming occurs, many experts say that the crucial monsoon could become increasingly unreliable. The summer rains were the lightest in years. And the Himalayan glaciers, which feed India's three great rivers, are melting. This means worse flooding in eastern India, and, if the glaciers disappear, much less water flow.

"The monsoon has also become completely unpredictable," says Souvik Mukherjee, a farmer in Patiala, in the Punjab region. "When you desperately need water, there is no rainfall, and when the crops are ready and a drop could harm the paddy, there will be heavy showers, completely ruining our crops."

For many people, personal experience is the most concrete evidence that something is awry with Earth's thermometer.

"When I was a primary school student, it used to be much colder in December than it is [now]," says Tadashi Hashimoto, a retired construction executive in Tokyo. "I remember we had to wear heavy winter clothing back then. But in recent years, we have not seen snow, even in winter."

Julie O'Neill, a doctor from Burton Joyce, a village in the English Midlands, remembers the incessant rains in her area in 2007 that triggered flash flooding.

"I think it's inevitable that people draw a connection between their own experiences and climate change when flooding like that happens," Ms. O'Neill says. "The depressing thing, though, is that even after that, most people seem to think that someone else will do something about it."

"What we need and what we want are not the same," he says. "I find there are some things that are just not necessary, that I don't have to have."

Chloe Lewis, an actress in South London, typifies a young generation of environmentally aware Britons trying to reduce their carbon footprints. She grows many of her own vegetables, including tomatoes, basil, and arugula, and rarely travels by plane anymore. "In the last three years, I've only made one flight and always take public transport," she says.

The British in general seem to take a warming planet seriously. Bob Ward, a climate change expert at the London School of Economics, says as many as 80 percent of the British people are willing to cut their carbon emissions. "The majority of people accept that climate change is happening," he says. "But the big problem is lack of information about how to act."

While the world tries to figure that out, Jenna Rutledge, on the beach in Alabama, will simply enjoy this year's Indian summer: She's content to keep her toes buried in the sand a bit longer.

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