American Conscience Waking Up to Climate Change

Al Gore at a 'Live Earth' press conference in Turkey. i i

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during a Live Earth press conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Gore brought the issue of global warming to light with his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Sezayi Erken/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sezayi Erken/AFP/Getty Images
Al Gore at a 'Live Earth' press conference in Turkey.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore speaks during a Live Earth press conference in Istanbul, Turkey. Gore brought the issue of global warming to light with his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

Sezayi Erken/AFP/Getty Images
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Was it Al Gore? Or maybe that blockbuster movie The Day After Tomorrow? Or perhaps it was Hurricane Katrina? In the past few years, global warming has catapulted from a fringe issue to a mainstream one. The reason is not clear, but a few pivotal moments emerge.

One such moment was the summer of 1988. Ronald Regan was president and the L.A. Dodgers were on their way to an unexpected World Series victory. A prophetic song rose to the top of the charts: "I didn't feel the danger. But now I feel the heat," swooned George Michael in his hit song, "One More Try."

And it was hot. Record high temperatures were recorded in many parts of the country, while a severe drought struck the Midwest. No one could remember anything quite like it.

The Turning Point

On one particularly hot June day, with temperatures soaring past 100 degrees in Washington, D.C., Sen. Tim Wirth, a Democrat from Colorado, convened a Congressional hearing on climate change, summoning several expert witnesses.

Normally, these dry scientific hearings don't get much media attention, but on this day, the room was packed with reporters.

"I don't think I've quite seen another hearing like it," says Michael Oppenheimer, who testified that day. He is now with Princeton University. "There was a dramatic sense in the hearing room that something new was afoot."

The headline that day: the testimony of NASA climatologist James Hansen. He said the evidence represented "a strong case that the greenhouse effect had been detected, and it is changing the climate now."

Never before had a respected scientist stated so definitively — and so publicly — that global warming posed a direct threat to the planet.

"Suddenly, because all of these things came together, it became a political issue, and really for the first time," says Chris Mooney, author of Storm World, a book about global warming and hurricanes.

Global warming was now on the public's radar, but it wasn't a very large blip. Polls in the mid-1990s found that few Americans considered global warming a major environmental problem.

But that has begun to change dramatically in the past few years. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that one-third of Americans believes that global warming is the biggest environmental problem facing the world. That's more than double the percentage from just a year ago.

"Absolutely, the tipping point did happen in the least year," says Jon Krosnick, a professor at Stanford University who conducts polling on environmental issues. "The country did move from wondering whether global warming is happening to, 'OK, it's happening, what are we going to do about it?'"

Why Worry?

Why the sudden surge in public concern? For one thing, says Krosnick, the media is now covering the story more extensively and aggressively. Those few scientists voicing skepticism about global warming don't receive the same air time they once did, when evidence of climate change was much weaker.

Some psychologists attribute the burst of interest to a phenomenon called "the social amplification of risk." It's a theory that explains why we fear some things more than others. It explains why, for instance, countless swimmers stayed out of the ocean after seeing the 1975 movie Jaws, even though, statistically you are 80 times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a shark.

The social amplification of risk also explains why the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow raised concerns about global warming, even though the movie was scientifically (not to mention artistically) flawed. That rankled some scientists, but others welcomed the attention on what they consider a crucial environmental issue.

The Al Gore Factor

Then, of course, there is the Al Gore factor. Millions of people watched the former vice president's documentary An Inconvenient Truth. It's not clear, though, whether he changed people's minds about global warming or merely reinforced concerns in those who were already worried about the issue.

What's behind the surge in interest in global warming, some experts say, was not films or documentaries but real-world weather events.

In Europe, it was a heat wave in 2003 that focused attention on the issue. Polls consistently show that Europeans are far more concerned about global warming than Americans. For instance, a recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes project found that only 47 percent of Americans consider global warming a serious problem, compared with 68 percent of the French and 70 percent of Spaniards.

But weather events in the U.S. are also beginning to shape public opinion — most notably, Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While scientists have not established a definitive link between global warming and hurricane intensity, the possibility of such a connection has made people take notice. Global warming now seems a lot less abstract.

"Carbon dioxide is invisible," Mooney says. "It's not something that can be easily dramatized. But a hurricane is one of the most dramatic, sublime images you can possibly imagine. It's overwhelmingly terrifying."

What Lies Ahead

So where does U.S. public opinion go from here? Is concern about global warming here to stay? Some experts believe the answer is yes.

Global warming is so embedded in the public consciousness that every major weather event — from hurricanes to droughts — will raise question about climate change. Others, though, aren't so sure. The issue of global warming doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's constantly competing for attention with other problems. A major terrorist attack or a war could easily cause global warming to slip back into relative obscurity.

Then again, as Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, points out, "The real world has a way of inserting itself into our policy dilemmas."

Or, he says, quoting a favorite saying of environmentalists, "Nature bats last."

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