The Real Problem With Public Perception of Climate Change

In 1992 world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit, the conference that launched climate change as a worldwide movement. Ever since, the public have been deluged with information, statistics, documentaries, warnings, threats, and taxes from scientists, politicians, community organisations, environmental groups, and even churches.

Yet more than two decades later, no one seems to have quite got the message. In fact, we seem to have reached “peak belief” well before “peak oil”, with polls in most western countries showing that only about half of the public believe in the science of climate change and in many countries that figure is actually falling.

Climate change isn’t even most people’s top environmental concern anymore, never mind overall top concern. Water pollution, soil contamination and air pollution concerns regularly top climate change in polls in Canada and the United States.

It wasn’t always this way. The global warming campaign started so promisingly in the early years with hockey sticks and drowning polar bears, followed by Al Gore’s 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s film catapulted the issue on to the world stage, into the public’s conscience and lead to unprecedented levels of awareness and support.

But Al Gore’s contribution is also a good example of how the climate change awareness marketing campaign has gone so terribly wrong. Despite the attention that An Inconvenient Truth brought to the issue, it wasn’t a scientific work. Rather, it was a neat mixture of entertainment and carefully crafted political propaganda. To make matters worse, what science there was in the movie was wrong or exaggerated — the movie was eventually banned from classrooms in the UK, unless balance was provided, after courts found 9 “errors” in the two-hour documentary.

As a politician, Gore is used to these kinds of tactics. In the short run an emotive quote, a pretty graph, some carefully selected statistics or a snappy retort in a debate can win an election. But a global environmental issue isn’t a short-term election to be won, it’s an issues-based campaign that’s fought over many years and decades, and political spin doesn’t hold up to scrutiny over that kind of time scale. An overhyped ’emergency’ tends to lose its sting in the public consciousness after twenty years without the sky actually falling.

The media like to think that this is because many Canadians aren’t smart enough to understand the science for themselves or don’t trust scientists enough to take their word for it. But that’s not true — Reader’s Digest Trust Polls consistently ranked scientific occupations near the top of the ladder of most trusted professions, while politicians are, predictably, always near the bottom.

The real problem is that the public doesn’t actually get climate science information from scientists. We get it from government departments and international governmental panels. We get it from a sensationalist media and from politicians.

While the IPCC tells us there will be 17 inches of sea rise by 2100, Al Gore scares voters by claiming it will be 20 feet.

While the media regularly attribute storms and other abnormal weather patterns to climate change, scientists repeatedly remind us that weather is not climate and as the IPCC says: “there is no evidence that extreme weather events, or climate variability, has increased, in a global sense”.

In the U.K., two government funded adverts were banned from TV by regulators for exaggerating facts and misleading the public.

In 2009, Greenpeace made a ridiculous claim that the Arctic (including Greenland) would be completely ice free by 2030, a claim which their Executive Director defended by saying that it was important to “emotionalise” issues to get the public to pay attention — facts be damned.

It hasn’t helped that self-described ‘activist-scientists’ have joined in the game too, as revealed in the now infamous ‘Climategate’ email releases.

We should be clear that the emails show that these scientists weren’t necessarily doing any of their scientific research incorrectly. But they did get caught red handed playing the political game by keeping their original data secret and playing down their own levels of uncertainty because they were concerned that the public wouldn’t believe them if they just told the truth.

Science is meant to be an open, transparent, contestable, competitive, independent, inquisitive and noble endeavour. If scientists really want to find the truth and win the public over, they need to tell the politicians to stop exaggerating their results for political gain, and let them get on with their jobs. We would all benefit from a debate about climate change based on science, rather than politics.

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