Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cue the elevator music

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The discussion about global warming has become something like elevator music. It's there in the background playing the same tune over and over, but few people are actually paying enough attention to name the melody.

That all changes, however, following a freak storm or some other extreme weather event. Then the need for urgent action -- both mitigation and adaptation -- takes on greater form.

Environment Minister Peter Kent admitted as much a few weeks ago when he told reporters that hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast and threatened Canada, elevated the issue as a government priority.

"Climate change is a very real and present danger and we need to address it," he said, adding the evidence could be found in the increasing number of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events around the globe.

"It has focused the mind absolutely," Mr. Kent, who is in Doha, Qatar, for the latest round of climate talks, said.

The question, of course, is whether the world's collective brain has been focused enough. Although many leaders and environmental advocates have been sounding the alarm bell for at least 20 years -- the science of human-induced climate change actually dates back to the 19th century -- the ordinary taxpayer seems less panicked.

The central problem for those who want radical measures to reduce the carbon footprint, then, is public attitudes.

Most polls show people are aware of global warming and they recognize it is a potential problem, but it's not a high priority for action when contrasted with other issues, such as the economy, jobs, safety, roads, health care and a range of other issues, depending on where the sampling is taken.

There has even been a slackening in the public's view that climate change is real. According to polling data in the United States, between 1998 and 2006, about 65 per cent of people were sure global warming was occurring, but the trend has since moved down, with fewer citizens convinced it is real.

In Doha this week, Christiana Figueres, the head of the UN's climate change secretariat, said she also didn't see "much public interest, support, for governments to take on more ambitious and more courageous decisions."

For those who believe Armageddon is near, the tepid response of the ordinary citizen is a major obstacle to implementing tough environmental policies, particularly if it will slow the economy or pick taxpayers' pockets.

Cue the elevator music, at least until the next flood.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 1, 2012 A14

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