‘Belief’ in climate change is the wrong goal

Since Copenhagen, and since Climategate and all that followed, the climate change deniers are seen to be on the front foot. Not only in the media coverage, but in the blogs, campaign meetings and email groups, the conversation has become about how those trying to prevent climate change can recapture the initiative.

As we’ve seen, public opinion about climate change hasn’t moved very far since Climategate, and some of those changes may just be because it was so cold for so long. Yet, the recent public debate about climate change has still focused heavily on whether or not people believe that climate change is real.

This not only exaggerates public doubt, and distracts from other conversations about climate change, but other polling data also suggest that belief in climate change is a poor guide to people’s desire for action to tackle it.

The case that climate change is happening, is man-made, and if unchecked will cause serious harm, is a difficult one to win convincingly among non-scientists. Science is about uncertainties; a decent scientist would never say that they are absolutely certain of their case. But this doesn’t lend itself well to public debate. As science communicators and policy makers know, it is very difficult to win a public argument about a scientific issue when it has any vocal opposition. Uncertainties and risks can be taken out of context and exaggerated, creating greater doubt than is justified.

So something that is relatively likely to happen – like significant man-made climate change – gets bundled together with something that is relatively unlikely to happen, like a Swine Flu pandemic killing millions. This happens against a background of a debate between those who are very confident that climate change is real, and those who are convinced that it isn’t. For most people outside this vituperative debate, neither side appears attractive. The natural response is to assume that both sides are overstating their case, and that the true answer lies somewhere between them.

Thus, people seeking action on climate change aren’t going to win any time soon if winning is defined as having an overwhelming majority pledging absolute loyalty to the idea that climate change is man-made, and significant. The arguments about evolution are instructive: even 150 years after The Origin of Species, many still think, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that evolution isn’t a convincing theory.

Yet, trying to win and maintain this overwhelming majority may be the wrong goal. While it seems contradictory, people don’t necessarily need to be completely convinced of man-made climate change to agree that action needs to be taken on it. The polls are interesting when we look beyond ‘belief’ in climate change.

According to an Angus Reid poll conducted shortly after Copenhagen, 20% say that “Global warming is a theory that has not yet been proven”, much as we’ve seen elsewhere.

But in the same poll, only 8% say that “Global warming will have no impact in my life or the life of future generations”. So more than half of those who don’t agree that global warming has been proven, still expect it to have some impact in the future.

And even more striking are the results from the questions about how Copenhagen was perceived. On the question of satisfaction with the aim of reducing worldwide emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by 2020, fully 72% said they’re satisfied by this. Only 18% were dissatisfied – and some of these were no doubt people who wanted bigger cuts.

What’s more, there’s not all that much difference between those who say they already think that global warming is a fact, and those who think it hasn’t yet been proven:

So, over 3 in 5 of those who say they don’t think global warming has been proven are still pleased to see action taken to prevent it.

The debate about whether or not people believe in global warming takes attention away from actions that can be taken to prevent it. It also sets a goal that’s unrealistic, while at the same time missing the point about how people make up their mind about issues like this.

  1. Nescio says:

    Personally I think that any attempt at convincing people science works is futile ( see http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2010/04/delusional-disorder-part-iii.html ). Nevertheless, when discussing any incarnation of the denialist movement it does not help to portry scientific consensus as “belief.” In this case global warming is not merely an opinion, or belief, it is what scientist have found to be scientific fact.

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