Despite Big Honor for Gore, Climate Not Top Issue in U.S.

Polls show that Al Gore's efforts have helped Americans become more aware and concerned about global warming, but, in the public's mind, climate change lags far behind such issues as the war in Iraq and health care in urgency.
Polls show that Al Gore's efforts have helped Americans become more aware and concerned about global warming, but, in the public's mind, climate change lags far behind such issues as the war in Iraq and health care in urgency. (By Noah Berger -- Bloomberg News)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 13, 2007

Former vice president Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize meant the same thing yesterday to both his supporters and detractors: He ranks as the world's most effective advocate for curbing global warming.

While an array of activists, politicians and business leaders have all called in recent years for more stringent limits on greenhouse gases linked to climate change, no one more than Gore has reshaped public perception of what was once a wonkish scientific debate. But for all that, the issue remains far down the priority list for Americans.

Through his tireless travel and slide-show presentations, captured on screen in the 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth," Gore has inserted himself into the policy debate at home and in other countries across the globe.

"It's difficult for Americans to comprehend how Gore is one of the most influential global leaders of our time," said Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who met Gore more than two decades ago. "He is influential not only for his views, but for how he is mobilizing action and awareness in all countries, on all continents."

Polls show that Gore's efforts have helped raise the profile of global warming among Americans -- an April Washington Post-ABC News survey found that the percentage of respondents identifying climate change as their top environmental concern had doubled from a year earlier, to 33 percent -- but in the public's mind, it still lags far behind such issues as the war in Iraq and health care in importance.

In a September Washington Post-ABC News poll, less than 1 percent identified global warming as their top issue for the 2008 presidential campaign, and a January poll by the Pew Research Center ranked it fourth-lowest out of 23 policy priorities that Americans want the president and Congress to address.

Susan Solomon, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who co-chaired the international scientific study this year that called the evidence of global warming "unequivocal," said she was not surprised that the U.S. public does not rank global warming as a higher priority.

"The world has many problems, and just like every person, we tend to put on the back burner the ones we don't think will erupt tomorrow morning," Solomon said in an interview. "The key thing is that people understand the problem, and I have a lot of faith in humanity's ability to solve the problem it understands."

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), who had dinner with Gore and a few friends in Seattle two weeks ago, said he jokingly chided Gore for not being "sufficiently alarmist" about the possible consequences of climate change in his movie and public appearances.

"I said, 'You really dropped the ball. You really undersold this global warming thing,' " Inslee said, adding that new scientific results consistently show that the climate is changing more rapidly than researchers had anticipated. "He said, 'I agree. Virtually everything you see is going faster, and in a more negative direction, than I described.' "

Regardless of its immediate policy impact, the Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to honor Gore -- along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- speaks to the emerging political and scientific consensus on the need to make more dramatic cuts in the carbon dioxide emissions generated by human activity.

John P. Holdren, a Harvard University scientist who chairs the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said the award establishes that "climate change is the most challenging of all environmental problems that threaten peace and prosperity. It's a recognition that he has done more as an individual, and the IPCC has done more than any organization, to bring the reality and the urgency of that danger to the rest of the world."

Hollywood producer and environmentalist Laurie David recalled that, when she first proposed making the documentary in 2004, Gore was skeptical that people would watch it.

"That was the hardest part, to convince him to make the movie," David said. She added that though she initially had to beg friends in Los Angeles and New York to attend Gore's climate lecture, she remained confident that his message would resonate with the public.

Some skeptics, such as Myron Ebell, who directs energy and global warming policy at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, said they now fear that Gore's heightened fame would lead to a carbon cap that they and many Bush administration officials oppose. "Clearly, the momentum in this country is for mandatory energy rationing policies," Ebell said.

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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