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Public Opinion and Global Warming

(Clicking any of the underlined text in blue will take you to a reference on it.)

Thinkers as deep as Larry King have answered evidence of global warming with “Nobody cares what happens in 50 years.” The American public’s general refusal to listen to and process scientists’ warnings about human-caused climate change and  resulting shortages of food, water and other life necessities has supported King’s dictum, but we may be at the beginning of a sea change.

Wikipedia usefully summarizes scientific observations and projections in its “Global warming” entry, which begins as follows:

Global warming is the rise in the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans since the late 19th century, and its projected continuation. Since the early 20th century, Earth’s mean surface temperature has increased by about 0.8 °C (1.4 °F), with about two-thirds of the increase occurring since 1980. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and scientists are more than 90% certain that it is primarily caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases produced by human activities such as deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. These findings are recognized by the national science academies of all major industrialized nations. Climate model projections are summarized in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They indicate that during the 21st century the global surface temperature is likely to rise a further 1.1 to 2.9 °C (2 to 5.2 °F) for their lowest emissions scenario and 2.4 to 6.4 °C (4.3 to 11.5 °F) for their highest.

What supports my “sea change” hope? A March 2012 national “representative survey” conducted by the Yale and George Mason universities’ Climate Change Communication projects found that large majorities of Americans believe that global warming is happening, and that it has made recent extreme weather events worse. The percentages by event include the unusually warm winter of December 2011 and January 2012 (72%), record high summer temperatures in the U.S. in 2011 (70%), the drought in Texas and Oklahoma in 2011 (69%), record snowfall in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011 (61%), the Mississippi River floods in the spring of 2011 (63%), and Hurricane Irene (59%).

More general polling by the Gallup organization suggests that public concern about climate change may be increasing. Since 1989, Gallup has asked, “how much do you personally worry about global warming?” The percentage of people saying they were worried peaked at 66 percent just before the 2008 financial collapse, then fell to a low of 51 percent in 2011, as economics overwhelmed other public worries. Gallup’s March 2012 survey showed an uptick to 55 percent.

Public opinion changes in response to perceived threats, particularly threats to survival, such as lacking adequate food and water. News media around the country have broadcast that the first six months of 2012 was the hottest six-month period on record for the contiguous United States. We need water to produce food, and the Dallas Morning News’ July 17th headline was “Crops wither in worse dry spell since 1950s” – the story then noted that over half the country was in “moderate or extreme drought” at the end of June. There will be unusual shortages from what has already happened.

We all care about food and water, and a widespread drought and looming scarcities make philosopher King’s 50-year-rule dismissing environmental dangers lame. Mark Pittman‘s eloquent Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, “The Endless Summer,” is a passionate attack on climate change inaction and states unequivocally that “Only reducing carbon emissions can keep matters from getting worse.” Bill McKibben has another passionate article in Rolling Stone. Climate scientists and writers like McKibben and Pittman do what they can, but the unsolved problem is getting the public and its political leaders to listen, objectively and quickly, to what the Earth tells us about the effects of burning four cubic miles of hydrocarbons each year, and then to act before Earth’s warnings grow into disastrous realities.

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  1. klem Friday - 20 / 07 / 2012
    Naw, I agree with Larry King. Nobody cares what happens in 50 years. But if you want to ride a bicycle and eat tofu every day, knock yourself out. I'll continue to enjoy my bbq'd steak and drive my huge beautiful SUV thanks. cheers

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