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Opinion Polls and Climate Change

Image: Reuters

According to a report in The Independent newspaper (UK), published on 28th February 2013, only 49% of respondents in a survey of 22,812 people in 22 countries conducted by GlobeScan Radar now think that global warming (and air and water pollution, animal species loss, and water shortages for that matter) is a serious issue any more. This is a twenty year low apparently – since these concerns and issues have been surveyed on a comparative basis – and a significant drop since the international financial crisis hit in 2009.

Now my immediate reaction on reading that was to explain this away for the very same reasons given by two environmentalists later on in the article – firstly, recessions and unemployment, etc, understandably tend to re-focus and concentrate the mind on just surviving, economically, and – secondly – the lack of world leadership on addressing environmental issues (especially after the disastrous Global Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in 2009) is equally to blame for this apparent decline in public interest (or is it apathy/disillusionment that the researchers were actually measuring?). To which a third factor might be added, viz. the international conspiracy by powerful vested interests in fuelling a sometimes vicious and utterly misleading campaign of vilification against climate scientists and their data is having a modicum of success, probably.

But why even bother trying to explain it at all, was my second thought. What does public opinion actually matter in this regard? Despite the nay-sayers, the science on global warming – according to the world’s scientific community – is irrefutable, as is the anthropogenic push behind it. Peoples’ minds will re-focus, in a trice, when extreme and exceptional weather conditions become the actual norm in places like Australia and the USA, and Beijing – for example – grinds to a halt due to a huge spike in mortality brought on by the combined effects of localised atmospheric pollution, encroaching desertification and global climate change. Then heightened, not to say highly-agitated public concern, when it comes, might even be too late?

The farmer looked down at the scorched, the barely visible by now, remains of his ruined crop. He squatted down to scoop up a handful of the dusty, friable red earth – letting the barren, lifeless soil drizzle down between his fingers. It was a stupid time of day to come out; the sun was beating down on him relentlessly. Shielding his eyes as he looked across the vast treeless, grassless, plant-less almost Martian-looking landscape – utterly devoid of any sign of life – he saw something shapeless and white flicker in the midday shimmer. Groaning with the effort, he stood up and walked over the few intervening metres to what turned out to be the crumpled page of a national newspaper – an old one, dated February 2013. A headline caught his eye… ‘World cools on global warming as green fatigue sets in.’ He fell to his face in the dirt, inconsolable anguish and an overwhelming sense of anger and loss shaking his prone body – his fingers scratching at the earth.

In the last few years that little vignette could have been set either in the mid-west of the USA, Australia, in Russia even, Africa (several countries) and in parts of Asia. Equally, of course, given the nature of global warming, in other parts of the world it could have been a thoroughly water-logged crop that he was looking at. Before too long, then, and despite the hesitancies so far, action will simply have to be taken - co-operatively and on a global scale - to address these problems, with or without the support of public opinion!

So the sad and uncomfortable truth is that democracy might become an irrelevance, a distraction even, and a luxury possibly as the reality of global warming really begins to bite – though I take no satisfaction in saying that. Rather, that knowledge – only sensed at by some at the moment – should galvanize those of us who live in democracies to see that we keep these issues constantly on the agenda and never let up, despite the vicissitudes of economic life and the vagaries of public opinion. For, if we don’t, we run the risk of a starker and more draconian future coming about than anyone would actually vote for.

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