Climate Science: Opinion, Policy and Reality
I recently applied for a job that would have enabled me to get paid for blogging about climate science. Although I was unsuccessful, it seems a shame to waste the effort I put into submitting an example blog-post on a topical subject (as required as part of the application process). Therefore, bearing in mind that this was drafted and submitted about three weeks ago, here it is…
Do 43% of Brits still think the Earth is flat?
A recent opinion poll, comparing the views of people in Canada, UK and USA, indicated that only 43% of British adults agreed with the following statement: “Global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities”.
It may be that this question was carefully phrased to deter positive responses (i.e. they might agree that warming is occurring and/or that humans are the primary cause; but might not agree that vehicles and factories are the primary source of emissions). Nevertheless, what percentage of the population would agree with this statement: “The sunrise is a fact and is mostly caused by the Earth not being flat and spinning once a day whilst orbiting the Sun”…?
Who or what is driving government policy?
The opinion poll results are fascinating for a number of reasons; not least because the results for the UK and USA are similar despite very different political realities: In the UK, we have a Coalition Government committed to pursuing policies to mitigate anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) based on legislation enacted by the previous Labour government.
In the USA, a Democratic President is in favour of action to mitigate ACD but has been unable to make progress due to Republican dominance on Capitol Hill. Furthermore, despite making climate change and election issue, it is still by no means certain that Obama will be re-elected later this year; despite the Republican Party being dominated by those that espouse the belief that ACD is not happening.
In Canada, possibly controlled by the most right-wing government of any developed country – selling all of its mineral resources (including Tar Sands) to the highest bidder and seeking to repeal a wide range of environmental legislation to advantage business interests – there is a clear majority of the population that accept the nature of reality.
There are at least two important questions that arise from this, which are as follows:
– If public opinion is not determined by government policy, how else might it be explained? and
– If government policy is not influenced by public opinion, how will we ever solve the ACD problem?
What determines public opinion?
With almost every day that now passes the news media reports yet more evidence that, just as climate models predicted, extreme weather events of all kinds (i.e. hot, cold, wet and dry) are increasing in both their frequency and severity.
Despite this, public opinion in the UK has barely recovered from the damage done by the illegal publication of data-mined and cherry picked emails from the University of East Anglia in November 2009. Indeed, despite being cleared of any scientific malpractice by numerous international investigations, the majority of the British population would still appear to be suspicious of climate scientists and thus the science itself.
However, is it not reasonable to ask, as did John Parnell on the Responding to Climate Change website recently, whether they are equally suspicious of the far more improbable and intangible pronouncements of particle physicists? This would appear to suggest that, when it comes to issues relating to subjects as complex as atmospheric physics, public opinion is primarily shaped by non-scientific commentators in the media; rather than by scientists or scientific commentators seeking to improve the public understanding of science.
What other explanation can there be for the fact that public opinion has clearly been affected by events such as Climategate?
Who cares about public opinion?
In short, politicians do. Even if they are not being influenced by lobbyists and/or vested interests, they rarely act entirely altruistically. Turkeys would not vote for Christmas; and so politicians rarely look beyond the next election. Unfortunately, ACD is a long-term problem that will only be solved by significant changes in behaviour and determined action on the part of both governments and individuals. Moreover, there are very few votes to be gained by politicians espousing the changes that are required.
Therefore, if effective change is going to be made within a representative democracy such as ours, this will only happen if representatives are given a clear mandate to act: The electorate must demand that changes to policies are made. But how is that ever going to happen if a majority of the public remain sceptical about the reality of the problem?
Is climate change scepticism history?
Huge sums of money have been spent denying the reality of environmental problems caused over several decades – by business leaders in the fields of tobacco, organic chemicals, coal-fired power, and now oil shale gas exploration.
Therefore, we must now hope that people everywhere will soon realise the truth of what George Santayana said – “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – and seek to change history.
1. It should be noted that, although the police in Norfolk have given up trying to trace the perpetrators, they have acknowledged that it was the “result of a sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack on the CRU’s data files, carried out remotely via the internet”.