PARIS -- British climate scientists predicted yesterday that a resurgent El Niño climate trend, combined with higher levels of greenhouse gases, could make 2007 the world's hottest year on record and touch off a fresh round of ecological disasters.
"Even a moderate (El Niño) warming event is enough to push the global temperatures over the top," said Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research unit at the University of East Anglia.
The warmest year on record is 1998, when the average global temperature was 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the long-term average of 57 degrees. Although such a change appears small, incremental differences can add to the ferocity of storms by evaporating more steam off the ocean.
There is a 60 percent chance that the average global temperature for 2007 will match or break the record, Britain's Meteorological Office said yesterday. The consequences of the high temperatures could be felt worldwide.
Meanwhile, a new poll reflects divergent levels of concern about climate change in Europe and the United States. While 54 percent of the French and roughly 40 percent of Germans, Britons, and Italians rank global warming among the top two challenges facing the planet that personally affect them, the poll found that only 30 percent of Americans agreed.
The survey included about 2,000 respondents across six countries with a quota-based selection from which the views of national populations can be extrapolated, according to the polling agency Novatris, a French subsidiary of HarrisInteractive.
"The debate in Europe is about what action needs to be taken, while many in the US still debate whether climate change is happening," said Nick Pidgeon, a professor of psychology at Cardiff University in Wales who specializes in attitudes about climate change. The national attitudes reflect the discourse of politicians and have a strong impact on policies, he said.
"The issue has been reframed in Europe over the last five years, with politicians and even some oil companies raising the issue," Pidgeon said. "At the same time, we still see a lot of the skepticism about climate change originating from the United States."
He added that the skepticism about climate change could be seen most strongly when environmental issues competed with other topics for importance. The poll placed climate change alongside nine other global challenges, including terrorism, religious fanaticism, viruses, war, and famine. Americans ranked terrorism as their greatest concern, with 49 percent naming it as one of the two challenges that personally affect them.
Global warming came second as a concern among Americans, with 30 percent selecting it as one of their top concerns, followed by religious fanaticism, at 29 percent.
El Niño, which is now under way in the Pacific Ocean and is expected to last until May, occurs irregularly. But when it does, winters in Southeast Asia tend to become milder, summers in Australia get drier, and Pacific storms can be more intense. The UN's food aid organization has warned that rising temperatures could wreak agricultural havoc.
In Australia, which is struggling through its worst drought on record, the impact on farmers could be devastating. The country has already registered its smallest wheat harvest in a decade, food prices are rising, and severe water restrictions have put thousands of farmers at risk of bankruptcy.
The British prediction comes just three months after the British Treasury issued a 700-page report by a senior economist, Nicolas Stern, warning that failure to act on climate change could result in droughts creating hundreds of millions of refugees and costing nations from 5 percent to 20 percent of their gross domestic product each year.
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.