Are Climate Change Sceptics Winning the Battle for Public Opinion?

Geoffrey Lean is Britain’s longest-serving environmental correspondent, having pioneered reporting on the subject almost 40 years ago and wrote this column for The Telegraph

Geoffrey-Lean_140You’ve got to hand it to the climate sceptics. Over the last years they seem to have been winning the battle for public opinion. A new survey shows that the proportion of Britons who believe the world’s climate is not changing has increased almost fourfold since 2005 from four to 19 per cent, and almost doubled in the last year. Meanwhile – the survey, just published by the UK Energy Research Centre, shows – those that accept that the overwhelming scientific conclusion that it is doing so have dropped from 91 per cent eight years ago to 72 per cent today. And yet, despite all their efforts, these figures show that three quarters of the people of the country still reject their arguments.

It is little surprise that they have made inroads. Over the last years they have run rings round both the green pressure groups and the scientific community. They have not done so, I contend, through the validity of their arguments: though they have raised some important issues, such as the slowdown in the increase of air surface temperatures, I – like almost all scientists in the field – believe most of what they say to be both wrong and misleading. But – though far outnumbered by their opponents – they have mobilised and made their case far more effectively.

Next week the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will launch the first of a series of massive reports on the state of the science, in a very different atmosphere than on the last occasion, six years ago. Then its conclusions were almost universally accepted, and largely uncritically publicised. But a few errors among the reports’ thousands of pages, uncovered a couple of years later, were brilliantly exploited by the sceptics and massively mishandled by the scientists, causing an erosion in the IPCC’s authority among the public and the press alike,

Ever since the scientific community has come off worse in the public debate, often undermined by its tendency to focus on uncertainties, while the sceptics betrayed no doubt. In a sense they were trapped by their ways of working: researchers are most interested in what is unknown – or uncertain – rather than what is accepted and so, not unnaturally, focus on it in discussion. They also argue that the did not sign up for public debate when they chose to become scientists, a point that would carry more weight had they not delighted in soaking up the plaudits when the wind was behind them, only to dive for cover when the going got rough.

There is less excuse for the environmental groups, whose very purpose is to make a case to the public, press and policymakers, and thus bring about change. But they too largely quit the field when the controversy began. Friends of the Earth, for example, declined to enter the lists on behalf of the scientists at the University of East Anglia whose emails were leaked in November 2009 – and in some cases skilfully misrepresented by the sceptics – because they had not yet held a meeting to discuss it. They finally held their meeting, and issued a statement, months after the event. The inconvenient truth is that all too often the pressure groups, dependent on popular support for funds, are shamefully reluctant to battle a head wind.

All that being so, it seems pretty remarkable that three quarters of the British public still accept the scientists’ and environmentalists’ case that the climate is changing, with a similar proportion agreeing that humanity is at least partially responsible. There are not many such controversial subjects that record so large a majority on one side, let alone on the side that has made the lesser effort to state its case. Sixty per cent of Britons remain “concerned” about climate change, nearly twice as many as say they are not, and more than two thirds agree that: “it is my responsibility to do something about climate change”.

It is a similar story when it comes to windpower, the renewable source most – sometimes justifiably – criticized by sceptics, which receives an overwhelmingly bad press in Britain. Support has, not surprisingly, fallen sharply – from over 80 per cent three years ago – to 64 per cent today. But it still retains the backing of nearly two thirds of Britons, almost twice the proportion of those that favour nuclear power, and more than those who embrace gas, currently much hyped by sceptics, the Government and most commentators.

All, of which perhaps goes to show that the public are less swayed by media and political fashion than those of us working in those fields like to believe. To be honest, I find that reassuring. But I guess I would, wouldn’t I?

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