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American Public More Complacent About Climate Change

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Less than two months before a key international conference on curbing climate change, a major U.S. poll has found a sharp drop in public concern about global warming.

According to the survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press, 65 percent of the public believes that warming constitutes either a "very serious" (35 percent) or "somewhat serious" (30 percent) problem, down from 79 percent in July 2006 and from 73 percent just 18 months ago.

The survey also recorded a sharp drop in the percentage of the public that believes that "there is solid evidence the Earth is warming" - down from 71 percent in April, 2008, to 57 percent - and in the percentage that believes global warming is caused primarily by human activity - from 47 percent to 36 percent over the same period.

The survey of 1,500 adult respondents comes was released just six weeks before the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen where the representatives of 192 nations will gather to hash out the basic principles of a treaty to curb global emissions of greenhouse gases that virtually all climate and atmospheric scientists agree constitute the major cause of global warming.

The treaty would replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that requires developed countries to reduce their greenhouse emissions by an average of about seven percent below their 1990 emission levels by 2012.

The administration of President Barack Obama has been pushing for Congress to approve new legislation that would commit the U.S., which signed but never ratified the Protocol, to reduce emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 before the Copenhagen Conference, in major part to persuade developing countries, such as China and India, to agree to curb their own emissions under the successor treaty.

While the House of Representatives has passed such legislation and the Senate is currently considering its own version of the bill, top officials concede that any final legislation is not likely to be approved until early next year, if then.

Still, the survey found that a majority of 56 percent of respondents said the U.S. should join other countries in addressing climate change, while only 32 percent said the U.S. should set its own standards.

The new poll, which was conducted between Sep. 30 and Oct. 4, will likely strengthen those in Congress who oppose strong, swift action favoured by the administration to deal with warming.

The sharp decline in the percentage of the public that believes that global warming is taking place and that human-generated emissions are responsible for it might best be explained by the degree to which economic and health-care issues have dominated the domestic political debate over the past year, according to Michael Dimock, Pew's associate director of research.

"People are just not thinking about global warming; they're focused more on economic concerns and the health-care debate," he told IPS. "They don't have as fixed an opinion about global warming, because they're not thinking about it much."

Other recent polls, he noted, had shifts in opinion about abortion and immigration "and for a whole host of issues that were really vivid to people two years ago but that have been pushed aside."

Still, the survey's findings are particularly striking in light of the growing scientific consensus that climate change is actually taking place more quickly than was predicted as recently as 2007, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - a group that includes hundreds of the world's leading climate and atmospheric scientists - issued its last report.

Last month, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released its 68-page "Climate Change Science Compendium 2009" based on some 400 major peer-reviewed studies published since late 2006.

It found that Earth may rapidly be approaching certain thresholds or "tipping points" that can permanently disrupt entire ecosystems that currently support the lives of millions of people.

The latest studies, it noted, predict that Earth's average temperatures could rise as much as 4.3 degree Celsius - the outer limit of the IPCC 2007 estimates - by the end of the century, even if industrialised nations comply with their most ambitious emission-reduction targets, including the 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050 on which leaders of the Group of 20 nations agreed at their July Summit in L'Aquila, Italy.

"Just a few years ago, we though sea level rise might become an issue in a century or two," said UNEP's executive director, Achim Steiner. "The latest research (on sea level rise) is something that is really quite breathtaking," he said. "It is not inconceivable that sea level rise may reach two metres... in the lifetime of a child born today."

But, if the scientific consensus about the dangers posed by global warming is becoming ever stronger, public opinion in the U.S., as reflected in the latest poll, appears increasingly complacent.

It appears that awareness that global warming was indeed taking place peaked between 2006 and 2007 when "An Inconvenient Truth", the documentary film produced by former Vice President Al Gore, gained considerable media attention, and 2007, the year it won two Academy Awards, or "Oscars".

In polls conducted by Pew in August 2006 and January 2007, 77 percent of respondents said they believed there was "solid evidence the Earth is warming" and 47 percent attributed it to "human activity."

The same polls found that nearly 80 percent of the public considered warming to either a "very" (43 percent and 45 percent, respectively) or "somewhat" (36 percent and 32 percent) serious problem.

But those who agreed that that there was "solid evidence" of warming fell to 71 percent by April 2008 and 57 percent earlier this month, according to the poll. Similarly, those who believed that the warming posed a "very" or "somewhat" serious problem fell to 73 percent in the 2008 poll and to 65 percent in early October.

In terms of party affiliation, the declines were particularly sharp among self-described independents and Republicans. Sixty-two percent of Republicans, fore example, said they believed there was "solid evidence" of warming in 2007, almost twice the current level of 35 percent. Only 18 percent of Republicans attributed warming to human activity.

A 47 percent plurality of Republicans, however, said they believed the U.S. should join other countries in setting standards to address climate change, compared to 39 percent who said the U.S. should its own standard, and nine percent said it should do neither.

By comparison, two thirds of Democrats and 53 percent of independents said Washington should join other countries in taking action to deal with warming.

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