Meltdown of Public Opinon on Climate Change

RECENT events are now resulting in more people questioning the validity of the science behind climate change. Could this be the beginning of a meltdown in public opinion on global warming?

RECENT events are now resulting in more people questioning the validity of the science behind climate change. Could this be the beginning of a meltdown in public opinion on global warming?

The recent period of freezing temperatures and the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit to agree legally binding greenhouse gas targets provided the backdrop for two events that have threatened the creditability of climate change science.

The “Climategate” fiasco saw the contents of emails stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit leading to accusations that a number of researchers had manipulated data.

Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading body for the assessment of the scientific evidence of climate change, admitted it had got it wrong on predicting Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.

Taken all together, it is not surprising that the general public is beginning to question whether climate change is really happening. A recent BBC Poll suggests that scepticism about climate change is on the rise. Of the 1,001 adults polled, 25 per cent did not think global warming was happening.

This is a 10 per cent increase on a similar poll that was conducted last year. Those who said climate change was real had fallen from 83 to 75 per cent. Only 26 per cent believed that climate change was happening and was largely the result of human activities.

Climate change is unlike any other environmental issue. For some, it is seen as a new religion with those sceptical of the evidence labelled “deniers” as if they were questioning the existence of a divine being. Unless you live on a small island state such as Tuvalu, near Fiji, which is slowly sinking due to the rising sea level, it is easy to think climate change is a myth.

There is also public confusion over the difference between weather – atmospheric conditions over hours or days – and climate – changes in the atmosphere over years. This has led some people to think that the recent heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures are sufficient evidence that global warming is not real.

How climate change is communicated plays a powerful role in influencing public attitudes and determining whether people are willing to reduce their carbon footprint. The alarmist language used by the media to describe the potential impact of climate change has been referred to as “climate porn” – offering a thrilling spectacle but ultimately distancing the public from the problem. The use of apocalyptic media images of receding glaciers, scorched land, flooded metropolises and polar bears grappling for survival all foster public apathy.

It is no wonder the public feels disempowered. The issue is portrayed as being so big and multifaceted that it seems unreal and more like science fiction rather than science fact.

Climate sceptics are quick to claim that Climategate and the “Glaciergate” are evidence of “dodgy” climate science. While a few points in the IPCC report may be incorrect, this does not invalidate the last four assessments of the basic science of climate change. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that global warming is due to human activity.

The reality is that climate science is still developing as new evidence comes to light. We are still trying to understand the complexity of the global climate system and the effect and speed of different feedback mechanisms.

For example, a scientific survey of Siberian tundra coastlines has reported methane levels are roughly 100 times above normal. Methane is a greenhouse gas 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

More than 10 times the annual global greenhouse emissions are thought to be trapped in tundra across the world. As the tundra thaws will it become a “Methane Bomb”?

Health damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a “cooling” effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution are we lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming?

Many questions such as these require further scientific investigation.

It is too easy to dismiss the whole climate change issue as mass hysteria. Prevention is always much better than cure. It is right that we take action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to predicted climate change and move to a low carbon economy.

We need to become more efficient in our energy use and develop renewable energy sources. After all, whether climate change happens or not, we still have to face up to the fact of dwindling oil reserves and our over-consumption of natural resources.

Whatever doubt we may have about climate science, or whether climate change is really happening, a fundamental question remains – are we willing to gamble with our children’s future on this planet?

© Gary Haq 2010
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