Making the case for tackling climate change

There’s an excellent article in a recent New Scientist, which makes a powerful case for rethinking the way climate change is communicated. While the article, by Bob Ward, is controversial, and may jar with a lot of climate scientists and communicators, much of what we’ve seen here in the public opinion data bear him out, and his conclusions seem sound.

The article starts with the assertion that climate scientists’ reputation has been damaged by the challenges to the analyses of the IPCC and UEA’s research teams. This is plausible, though I’m reluctant to accept the direct comparison made with the damage suffered by the Roman Catholic Church and the UK Parliament over the last couple of years.

It’s true there’s been some decline in conviction in the UK that man-made climate change is happening, but I’m yet to see evidence that this was a direct consequence of the stories about the IPCC and UEA. The polls around the time of the coverage of the UEA email hack suggested little change in public opinion; it wasn’t until the freezing winter that the numbers really moved (though: post hoc ergo propter hoc – this doesn’t prove that the cold weather caused the shift). It may indeed be the case that scientists have become less trusted as communicators about climate change, but as far as I’m aware this hypothesis hasn’t yet been proved.

Nevertheless, Ward’s broader argument still stands. Even if lack of trust in climate scientists is not necessarily itself a major issue, there clearly is a problem. Public interest, belief, and commitment to tackling climate change appear to be fairly malleable, and are affected substantially by short-term factors like the weather – rather than by developments in the science. The activities of critics of climate research are also effectively keeping alive the question of whether or not man-made climate change is happening, to a greater extent than may be justified. On top of this, politicians appear to be the main group who are heard talking about talking climate change, yet they’re also the group who are least trusted to do so.

As Ward argues, climate science is making a mistake in “hunkering down and hoping for the best”. Instead, it should learn from how other organisations have recovered from similar challenges. Quoting from a PR strategist at Weber Shandwick, he suggests a course of action that’s quite different from the approaches that appear to have been taken recently:

1. Leaders in organisations like the IPCC and UEA’s Climate Research Unit should publicly take responsibility for failings.

2. Climate scientists should communicate tirelessly: “no comment” is understood by the public as being tantamount to a confession of guilt (for anyone doubting this, consider how the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” undermined John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 by attacking his Vietnam record – an attack that was left unchallenged by the Kerry campaign until after it had stuck in the public consciousness).

3. Don’t underestimate critics of climate research. This is meant both in terms of recognising that they are a genuine threat to public acceptance of climate science, and also in the sense that science only works when it is transparent and wins arguments through engagement with critics (though I’m sympathetic to the exhausted pleas of those who have been forced to cover the same ground time and again with critics who appear not to listen to reason).

This structure makes a lot of sense to me. Organisations that have reputational problems often think that they have a convincing argument, and that once they have made their case publicly a few times, people will have heard it and the organisation’s reputation will be restored quickly. But the organisations that are most successful at regaining trust are those that keep on making the right argument, in the right way, over a tiresomely long period.

Climate scientists and climate science may not be facing public distrust on the scale of that faced by some organisations, but there are challenges that need to be overcome. It is true that climate scientists have a very good argument, and good arguments should win the day. However, they generally lose out unless they’re communicated effectively.

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  1. Bob Ward says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful commentary on my article in ‘New Scientist’.

    You asked about the impact on public opinion of the recent controversies. A little evidence appeared last week. On Friday, a very interesting report was published by Cardiff University on ‘Public perceptions of climate change and energy futures in Britain’: http://www.understanding-risk.org/

    Among its key findings is that while an overwhelming majority (78%) of the public think that the climate is changing, this is markedly less than the 91% who agreed with this statement in 2005. Only 24% agree that climate change is mainly caused by human activity, and 20% disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that “most scientists agree that humans are causing climate change”.

    While this is informative research, I have one criticism – although it notes that 40% believe the seriousness of climate change is exaggerated, it does not explore to what extent scientists are trusted as a source of information, even though there has been a lot of negative media coverage over the past six months about the controversies involving the University of East Anglia and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    This is in contrast with a new poll published last week by Stanford University which includes an examination of whether trust has been affected by these controversies: http://woods.stanford.edu/docs/surveys/Global-Warming-Survey-Selected-Results-June2010.pdf

    Among its findings are that 32% of the US public remember hearing about the controversy over the UEA e-mails, and a small but detectable minority (9%) now believe as a result that scientists who study the world’s climate should not be trusted. Similarly, 24% of the US public remember hearing about the controversy over mistakes in the last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and 13% now believe as a result that the report should not be trusted.

    I have not seen a single poll of the UK public that has asked about trust in climate scientists, even though the UEA controversy is much closer to home and the volume of media coverage has been much greater here. Surely this is worth investigation by researchers? Or maybe there is a perception in the UK that public opinion hasn’t been affected? Or we think it doesn’t matter? Are we being complacent?

    • Leo says:

      Bob,

      Thanks very much for coming back on this. I completely agree that there’s a lack of published research on the impact of the CRU and IPCC stories, particularly on the UK public attitudes, and thanks for the Stanford link. A couple of thoughts on these:

      – There are a couple of other data points that are helpful for the subject. In the UK, the BBC poll that attracted the most attention in early February, with the suggestion that belief in climate change had fallen, did include a question about awareness of the stories about climate science. It showed that 57% had heard stories about flaws or weaknesses in the science of climate change – although only 11% of these then said that they were now less convinced of the risks of climate change. What we don’t know is how far these stories have stuck, four months later, or the impact they’re still having.
      http://populuslimited.com/uploads/download_pdf-040210-BBC-BBC-Poll-on-Climate-Change.pdf

      Secondly, another US poll (from Yale/George Mason) provides some evidence that scientists are no less trusted now than they were before these stories. Over 4 in 5 (81%) now say that they strongly/somewhat trust scientists as a source of information on global warming – compared with 82% in November ’08. So the stories don’t seem to have made any difference there http://www.climatechangecommunication.org/images/files/ClimateBeliefsJune2010(1).pdf

      – A second thought: the stat that you quote about 9% in the US now believing that climate scientists shouldn’t be trusted, and the stat I quote above about 11% of 57% in the UK now being less likely to trust scientists, are both fairly misleading. Polls that ask people to report changes in their own behaviour really shouldn’t be taken that seriously. Those who always doubted climate science will tend to say in such questions that they now believe it less than before – and those who always did believe it, will tend to say that they now believe it more than before (e.g. in the UK poll I quote, 16% of the 57% now say that they are more convinced of the risks of climate change, after the CRU and IPCC stories).

      Nonetheless, I still think that the stories are likely to have contributed to a broad sense that climate science is less certain than had previously been assumed, and have made it more legitimate for the media to print stories that carry this line. Whether or not public opinion has been moved in a long-term way, I don’t think we yet know, and there is indeed a gap in the research about this.

      • Bob Ward says:

        Leo,

        The Yale/George Mason poll that you cited showed that the percentage of the public who strongly or somewhat trusted scientists as a source of information about global warming was 74% in January, so it appears that US opinion has recovered. However, I still suspect that the impact on UK public opinion may have been larger. And it remains to be seen what the remaining inquiries into the UEA e-mails and the IPCC conclude, and how the findings will affect public opinion.

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