Some like it hot? People know climate change, but politicians chill

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This should be the summer of our discontent, with heat waves, drought and other troublesome weather affecting large parts of the nation. Instead, Americans are hot but apparently not bothered about what it all might mean.

According to a new Washington Post-Stanford University poll, just 18 percent of Americans interviewed named climate change as the world's top environmental problem. In 2007, when Al Gore's warning documentary and a United Nations report were making headlines, 33 percent called climate change the top issue.

Like so much on this topic, the findings of the poll are contradictory. It's not as if people don't care about the environment; the top concern, as expressed by 27 percent of those surveyed, was polluted water and air -- certainly real challenges.

And those polled don't dismiss climate change or even mankind's hand in it; in fact, nearly three-quarters believe that the Earth is warming and approximately the same number think temperatures will continue to rise if nothing is done. Many want government and businesses to do more.

The poll and follow-up interviews suggest that people are looking to Washington, D.C., for leadership and action, although, after seeing little or none, they are not consumed by a sense of urgency.

For its part, the Republican Party is filled with climate change skeptics who claim that global warming is an environmentalist plot to justify higher taxes and limit freedom. Hardly a week goes by in Congress without a new conservative attack on the Environmental Protection Agency's duty to curb greenhouse gases. This, in turn, has stymied the Obama administration and congressional Democrats, who have attempted, so far unsuccessfully, to pass "cap and trade" legislation to limit pollution.

The oddity is that, while reactionary politics rule in the nation's capital, ordinary Americans have embraced green initiatives, from using recycled bags at the grocery story to buying fuel-efficient cars. Green buildings are increasingly the norm, a trend in which Pittsburgh, formerly the smoky city, has been in the vanguard.

People get it, but the politicians and talking heads lag behind. Indeed, Americans have to be wilfully stubborn or obtuse not to get it -- increasingly it's about whom you are going to believe, Rush Limbaugh or the evidence of your own eyes (not to mention the vast body of scientific opinion).

One doesn't have to look far. Pittsburgh, which has been in the grip of furnace-like heat, has recorded the warmest first half of the year since records began in 1948. From January to June, the average temperature has been 51.3 degrees, 4.7 degrees above average. Slightly less than 56 percent of the country is in a drought.

Nobody can say with certainty that this or that day is the result of global warming (the inexact term for climate change, which includes other types of severe weather, tornadoes, hurricanes, even snowstorms). But the trends will tell the tale, and it seems the predictions for climate change are being fulfilled.

Public complacency on this issue comes at just the wrong time. This is a presidential election year and it should be a referendum on a number of key issues, including health care reform. Add to the list the health of the planet, which shows every sign of being wracked by fever.

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