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Adrift on denial

There is a danger of a permanent gap opening up between climate scientists and the general public.

By Mark Lynas

Those who believe in climate change are losing the battle for public opinion. According to an Ipsos poll carried out in February on behalf of the advertising agency Euro RSCG, just 31 per cent of people believe that climate change is “definitely a reality”, down from 44 per cent a year ago. Corrosive cynicism is increasing: 50 per cent of adults in the UK believe that “politicians make a fuss about climate change in order to distract us from other issues”, while 47 per cent think that climate change is another “excuse to raise taxes”.

Though it is unlikely that public confidence in climate science will slip much further, these latest figures testify to the damage done by the “Climategate” saga, with its associated (and, in my view, baseless) suggestions of fraud and impropriety. Mud sticks, and climate scientists are no longer seen as impartial.

The danger here is that a permanent gap may open up between the general public and the scientific community, distorting policy and damaging people’s understanding of the world around them at a basic level. An analogy might be the debate around creationism in the US, where (according to a Pew Centre poll conducted in June 2009) just 32 per cent of adults believe in Darwinian evolution, compared to 87 per cent of scientists.

This may be a politically incorrect thing to say, but it is true nonetheless: climate-change denial, like belief in creationism, is largely (though not entirely) attributable to ignorance. Surveys show that the more a person knows about the subject of climate change, the more likely they are to agree that “human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures”.

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One study, published in January 2009 in the American Geophysical Union’s journal Eos, noted that while less than half the general public agreed with the above point, an overwhelming majority of scientists did. Specifically, 82 per cent of climatologists agreed that climate change was real, while 97 per cent of actively publishing climatologists (those involved in generating the latest data) supported this conclusion.

I accept that a sceptic might cite this as evidence of group-think. But surely the chance of statistically trained experts (whose work involves constantly examining real-world climatological data, and each other’s work) getting their entire discipline wrong is vanishingly unlikely.

Instead, I think that the conclusion of Peter Doran and Maggie Kendall Zimmerman, summing up their Eos study, is far more relevant. “It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely non-existent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes,” they write. “The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policymakers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists.”

This is indeed a challenge, particularly in the face of a vociferous, politically motivated lobby dedicated to denying the realities of climate science. Hope, if there is hope, apparently resides with David Attenborough. According to a press release issued with the same Ipsos poll, Attenborough is “the most trusted voice in the debate on climate change among the UK population”.

Sir David, please speak.

This article appears in this week’s New Statesman.

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