The State of the Union address may be just a lot of talk. But considering that each word in these national speeches is painstakingly choreographed, a small phrase for a president can be a giant step for mankind.

That’s why, when Bush uttered the words “global climate change” before a TV audience of 45.5 million, I nearly jumped out of my seat. He said it! He said it for the first time in any of his seven State of the Union addresses.

This is huge. Especially in light of the results from a Pew Research Center poll on global warming that was released Wednesday. Even those few words, when spoken by Bush, may signal a tipping point for Americans who remain on the fence about the reality of climate change and what can be done about it.

Check out these numbers:

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Americans understand that global warming is real:

  • 77% of Americans believe there is “solid evidence that the earth is warming.”

But there is considerably less agreement over its cause:

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  • 47% believe it is due to human activity.

Majorities want something to be done:

  • 55% believe global warming requires immediate government action (a decline from 61% in August).

Political identity predicts attitudes:

  • Just 54% of conservative Republicans say there is solid evidence that average temperatures have been getting warmer over the past few decades; by contrast, more than three-quarters of both moderate and liberal Republicans and independents (78% each), and even higher percentages of Democrats (83-92%), believe the earth has been getting warmer.

And, get this, education has opposing effects depending on your political affiliation:

Among Republicans, higher education is linked to greater skepticism about global warming — fully 43% of Republicans with a college degree say that there is no evidence of global warming, compared with 24% of Republicans with less education.

But among Democrats, the pattern is the reverse. Fully 75% of Democrats with college degrees say that there is solid evidence of global warming and that it is caused by human activities. This is far higher than for Democrats with less education, among whom 52% say the same. Independents, regardless of education levels, fall in between the partisan extremes.

Clearly, the first big hurdle is getting everyone (or at least most everyone) to admit there’s a problem. Only then will we engage in a national dialogue about our country’s leadership role in pioneering solutions.

We are almost there. The Pew numbers tell me that as a nation we are poised to take climate change seriously and start that crucial conversation.

We took a big, huge, giant step forward on Tuesday night when President Bush — a Republican (with a graduate degree) — publicly acknowledged global climate change from his bully pulpit.

To many, this may seem like a baby step. But this kind of subtle nod from The Decider — a man who has consistently downplayed both the reality and the urgency of the issue — could be instrumental in winning over the most hardened skeptics, unifying public opinion, nudging journalists, and getting the country beyond a “stay the course” strategy for global warming.