The pace at which the world's glaciers are melting can't hold a candle to the rate at which public acceptance of climate change is losing ground. Two years ago, about 7 out of 10 Americans linked greenhouse gases to global warming, but today it's closer to a 50-50 split.
There are any number of reasons for this, ranging from the "inconvenience" of climate change policy during an economic recession to the growing partisan divide over the science of it. The fact that Republicans willingly nominated a presidential candidate in 2008 whose position on climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions was not much different from his Democratic opponent's seems largely forgotten today.
But as President Barack Obama heads to the climate change summit in Copenhagen next week, he'll have at least two goals to meet: Assert long-missing U.S. leadership on the world stage on this critical issue, while simultaneously shoring up support for action from the U.S. Senate and his fellow Americans.
The former seemed a hard enough task given the neglect of President George W. Bush, but the polls suggest the latter is no minor matter either. The skeptics got a boost with the recent release of hacked e-mails from Britain's Climate Research Unit that suggest researchers would love to silence climate-change deniers.
The frustration of mainstream scientists with the irresponsible arguments of deniers is understandable, but some of the techniques discussed in the e-mail (rigging peer-review standards, for instance) are troubling. Still, the incident is hardly a repudiation of global warming, as the evidence in support of man-made greenhouse gases affecting climate change is just too overwhelming - and the consequences too dire - to be ignored.
The episode does, however, demonstrate how easily the public conversation about climate change can be distorted and distracted. For the vast majority of researchers in the field, the matter is as settled as evolutionary theory (an apt comparison, as some of the more zealous deniers have gone so far as to call for a Scopes-like public trial).
Mr. Obama wants the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent of 2005 standards by 2020 and appears to have already made some progress with China, Brazil and India - although it's fair to wonder how much of a factor the president intends to be in talks in Denmark, given that it's merely a brief stopover on his way to picking up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo the next day.
But neither Mr. Obama's appearance at the summit nor his commitment to the issue will mean terribly much if he can't eventually persuade a majority of the U.S. Senate to go along. That will require rallying greater public support for the kind of bipartisan compromise outlined by Sens. John Kerry and Lindsey Graham in October.
The world is growing closer toward a truly historic agreement on curbing greenhouse gases and perhaps sparing the planet from some of the more devastating consequences of climate change. But support for any treaty is in danger of growing soft if the public isn't adequately informed.
Next week's events should provide an opportunity to help remedy that. Polls still show three-quarters of Americans regard global warming as a serious problem. Mr. Obama must not only demonstrate to the world that the U.S. is willing to change course in climate policy but also explain to his own constituents why such change is so badly needed.
The Kyoto Protocol called for just a 5 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but no signatory has met that goal. Why would anyone want to sign onto another treaty when 5 percent cannot be met?
President Obama wants to reduce emissions 83 percent by 2050. That would take us back to the turn of the century. Can any of you live your lives with the amount of energy your families used in the 1900s? Good luck.
We must also remember: Any agreement President Obama makes in Copenhagen must be voted on by the Senate. He does not have the constitutional power to unilaterally commit the U.S. to such a job-killing treaty.