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Summer in Antarctica: Most scientists believe melting sea ice is a sign of climate change. (Tui De Roy / Minden Pictures)

What Ever Happened to Global Warming?

As a political issue in the U.S., climate change seems to have all but evaporated

In 2008, both the Democratic and Republican candidates for president, Barack Obama and John McCain, warned about man-made global warming and supported legislation to curb carbon emissions. After he was elected, President Obama promised “a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change.”

But three years later, as most other nations accept climate change as a pressing problem, America has turned quiet on the issue.

Though most scientists believe the evidence of climate change has solidified during that time, the topic seems to have fallen off the American political agenda. President Obama now talks about “green jobs” mostly as a strategy for improving the economy, not saving the planet. At the same time, the administration is fighting to exempt U.S. airlines from Europe’s plan to charge for carbon emissions when planes land on the Continent. It has also given a tentative green light to expand oil drilling in the Arctic—something Republicans have long supported.

FOUR-LETTER WORD?

And in this year’s presidential contest, the Republican candidates seem to agree with Texas Governor (and former candidate) Rick Perry that “the science is not settled” on man-made global warming.

“In Washington, ‘climate change’ has become a lightning rod, it’s a four-letter word,” says Andrew Hoffman, director of the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Sustainable Development.

Across the nation, too, belief in manmade global warming—and interest in stopping it—is much less than it was five years ago, when everyone was talking about An Inconvenient Truth, the Oscar-winning documentary about former Vice President Al Gore’s climate change crusade. The number of Americans who believe the Earth is warming dropped to 59 percent in 2010 from 79 percent in 2006, according to the Pew Research Group. When a British polling firm asked Americans last summer to list their three most pressing environmental worries, only 27 percent said “global warming/ climate change.”

A number of countries have taken steps to control emissions in the last few years. In November, Australia passed

a carbon tax (a tax on fuels like oil, gas, and coal that emit carbon when burned). Europe’s six-year-old carbon cap-and-trade* system continues its yearly expansion, adding stricter emissions requirements in more areas.

Americans—who produce twice the emissions per capita that Europeans do—are in many ways wired to be holdouts: We prefer bigger cars and bigger homes. We value personal freedom and tend to distrust the kind of sweeping government intervention required to confront rising greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change presents numerous ideological challenges to our culture and our beliefs,” says Hoffman. “People say, ‘Wait a second, this is really going to affect how we live!’ ”

THE ECONOMY FIRST

There are, of course, other factors that have hardened resistance. The financial crisis in 2008 and the severe recession that followed have made taxes on energy harder to talk about and job creation a more pressing issue than the environment. And with gas prices nearing $5 a gallon, people are loath to do anything that might push that price even higher.

Europe has also endured a deep recession, yet the European Union is largely on target to meet its goal of reducing emissions by at least 20 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.

In the United States, conservative Republicans have been especially skeptical about the idea that humans are responsible for any rise in Earth’s temperature. In findings from a Pew poll last spring, 75 percent of staunch conservatives, 63 percent of libertarians, and 55 percent of middle-of-the-road Republicans said there was no solid evidence of global warming.

“This has become a partisan political issue here in a way it has not elsewhere,” says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. “We are seeing doubts in the U.S. largely because the issue has become a partisan one, with Democrats”—75 percent of whom say they believe there is strong evidence of climate change—“seeing one thing and Republicans another.”

Meanwhile, in the developing world, emerging economies like India’s and China’s are now pursuing aggressive climate policies. In 2010, India instituted a carbon tax on coal. Even China, which produces more carbon emissions than any other nation, is experimenting with a pilot cap-and-trade system.

“Two years ago the assumption was that the developed world would have to lead, but now China, India, and Brazil have jumped in with enthusiasm and are moving ahead,” says Nick Robins of HSBC Global Research.

Developing countries are feeling vulnerable after two years of treacherous weather that they are less able to handle than richer nations—from floods in India to droughts in China. Scientists agree that extreme weather events will be more severe and more frequent on a warming planet, and insurance companies have already documented an increase.

PAYING MORE FOR ENERGY?

So perhaps it is no surprise that the number of people viewing climate change as “a very serious problem” is rising in many developing nations. A 2010 Pew survey showed that more than 70 percent of people in China, India, and South Korea were willing to pay more for energy in order to address climate change. The figure in the U.S. was 38 percent.

In private, scientific advisers to President Obama say he and his administration remain committed to tackling climate change.

But Robert O’Connor of the National Science Foundation in Washington, says a bolder leader would emphasize real risks that, apparently, now feel distant to many Americans. “If it’s such an important issue, why isn’t he talking about it?”

This article originally appeared in the April 2, 2012 issue of The New York Times Upfront. For more from Upfront, click here.

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