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Margaret Wente

Why people are chilled by warming Add to ...

Tim Flannery, the well-known Australian environmentalist, was on CBC Radio the other day to issue more alarms about global warming. He was more pessimistic than ever. "It's now or never," he said. "We have about 20 years to address climate change or else our entire future is in jeopardy." He painted an apocalyptic picture of drought, flooding, famine and war.

But global warming - or rather, the massive action demanded to address it - has become a tougher sell. First came the financial crash. Now, there's another problem. Average global temperatures plateaued in 1998, and haven't gone up since. Climate scientists explain that this pause doesn't change long-term warming trends, and will probably end soon. Still, it's hard to instill a sense of urgency when warming's been on hold for a decade.

A poll of urban Canadians conducted by Ipsos Reid last month found global warming is far down the list of people's concerns, somewhere below crime, health care, taxes, municipal spending, transportation and the economy. Not only that, but 41 per cent of respondents said the threat of global warming has been "overblown and exaggerated." (This view is prevalent among middle-aged men, and in the energy-fuelled West.) In an Ipsos Reid survey last spring, 45 per cent of Canadians said "serious action on climate change should wait until the recession is behind us."

An international survey of 11 nations, co-sponsored by environmental groups, found that fewer than half of those surveyed (47 per cent) were prepared to make personal lifestyle changes to reduce carbon emissions, down from 58 per cent before the crash. Most people said their governments should be doing more, but only 27 per cent wanted them to participate in Kyoto-style international agreements. Only one in five said they were willing to spend extra money to fight global warming.

Why are people cooling on warming? One reason is surely the apocalyptic language of Mr. Flannery and others. When they say we are doomed unless we radically change our way of life by the end of next week, people figure the problem is exaggerated - or else far too big to fix. They're being "stunned into inaction," said Nigel Winser of Earthwatch. And when the World Bank announces that the developed countries must start transferring $100-billion a year to developing countries so they can cope with climate change, what are we supposed to think? Who believes that's about to happen?

Simple human psychology is another factor. Unlike oil-soaked ducks or tailings ponds, you can't see global warming. Its bad impacts are all far in the future, and there's not yet any tangible evidence that something bad is going to happen. People find it hard to react to invisible, distant threats. Even when they're confronted with a real near-term threat - such as floods, or forest fires - they continue to build houses in flood and forest-fire zones.

People are also confused and skeptical about solutions. They don't see how green taxes or carbon trading will reduce global warming. That skepticism helped to sink the hapless Stéphane Dion - and it's hurting other politicians, too. In Britain, there is a widespread revolt against green taxes. In Australia, an opposition coalition has blocked the labour government's much-touted emissions trading scheme because of worries that it will be too costly to both individuals and the economy. On top of that, a new book on global warming, Ian Plimer's Heaven and Earth , has become a popular Australian bestseller. It argues that man-made global warming is a dangerous fiction with no basis in scientific fact.

The CBC's interviewer didn't raise any of these practical issues with Mr. Flannery, who went on to blast the Canadian government for its "position of almost studied indifference." Instead, she expressed puzzlement about the "disconnect" between the sense of urgency among climate scientists and the lamentable lack of political will to tackle climate change. But it's no puzzle, really. The government has just been reading the polls.

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