This year is on track to be the warmest worldwide since records began in the 19th century, yet voters seem to be cooling to strong action to combat climate change.
Their doubts may be quietly sapping the will of governments and companies to cut greenhouse gas emissions after the Copenhagen summit in December failed to agree on a treaty meant to slow more droughts, floods and rising seas, analysts say.
“There has been a resurgence of skepticism” that humans are to blame for global warming, said Max Boykoff, an assistant professor and expert in environmental policy at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Yet so far in 2010 there has been record warmth especially in many tropical regions, Australia and parts of the Arctic — despite a chill start to the year in Western Europe and some eastern parts of North America.
“It’s more likely than not — greater than a 50 percent chance — that it will be the warmest year on record,” said Vicky Pope, head of climate change advice at the British Met Office Hadley Centre, referring to global temperatures.
That would eclipse 1998 and 2005 as the warmest years since records began and undermine an argument used by some skeptics that warming has peaked. The decade just finished was the warmest on record, ahead of the 1990s.
“It’s a very consistent ongoing warming trend,” said Tom Karl, director of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Climatic Data Center.
“Right now it would be extremely unlikely to see this year falling below the top three warmest years on record,” he said, saying it was too early to say exactly where 2010 would rank because of an early 2010 El Nino warming of the eastern Pacific.
In the first four months, land and ocean temperatures were 56 degrees Fahrenheit (13.3 C) and 1.24 F (0.69 C) above the 20th century average, the warmest on record in NOAA data.
But public perceptions do not track global temperatures.
Economic slowdown, skepticism about climate science after the U.N. panel of climate experts exaggerated the melt of Himalayan glaciers and a scandal over leaked e-mails from a British university have all dimmed public enthusiasm.
Scientists say many people wrongly judge global warming by temperatures at home. Karl said he would be rich “if I had a nickel for every time someone asked me: ‘global warming? We had record snows and cold temperatures’.”
Among examples of widening public doubts, a YouGov opinion poll published this week in Britain showed that the number of people interested in the problem of global warming had fallen to 62 percent from 78 percent in 2007.
In December, a global poll by the Nielsen Institute showed a global average of 37 percent of people were “very concerned” by climate change, down from 41 percent in 2007.
“The economic slowdown has a real big influence on thinking in the United States,” Boykoff said, with fears of job losses and the impact of possible carbon capping legislation probably figuring far larger than worries about the science.
Less public interest in climate change means an opportunity for some “politicians to move it down the list of priorities”, especially with mid-term U.S. elections in November, he said.
Legislation in the U.S. Senate to curb emissions is stalled. The United States is the number two emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly from burning fossil fuels, after China.
Christopher Monckton, a British skeptic associated with the U.S. Science and Public Policy Institute, said that many more people this year were finding reasons to doubt findings by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
An independent panel is looking into the IPCC, partly after it exaggerated the melt of the Himalayas in a 2007 report.
IPCC leaders reject suggestions of any bias, such as a charge by Monckton that they also over-estimated the warming effect of carbon dioxide.
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