Thursday, 21 January 2010

January 2010: Do you believe in climate change?

First published at

Do you believe in climate change?

It is an increasingly familiar formula – a climate poll is released, the results are interpreted and analysed, and both sides claim victory. The initial analyses are inevitably the ones that scream ‘controversy’, while more considered accounts emerge at a later date. But while the polls may tell us something about public opinion, what do they tell us about climate change?

The celebrated philosopher of language Paul Grice formulated a now famous set of rules, or ‘maxims’ to explain how people make inferences. According to Grice, sentences and conversations obey a simple set of rules that allow us to make sense of what people are saying (e.g. be informative, be relevant, say as much – but only as much – as you need). For example, if you were to receive a reference letter supporting an application for an administrative post that stated ‘Chris is polite and punctual’ but omitted to mention his administrative skills, what would you infer? Nothing negative was said about Chris, but from what wasn’t said, you infer that Chris might not be the best man for the job. Grice’s maxims dictate that if there was something else positive to say about Chris, you would say it – as it would be relevant and informative. The writer of the letter knows this, and so does the reader. Grice’s legacy is that there is an enormous amount of work going on behind the scenes when we read, speak or write a sentence. We are experts at reading between the lines.

What, then, is the implication of repeatedly asking the public, in opinion poll after opinion poll, whether they believe in climate change? Our internal inference-making machine tells us that this must be a relevant question to ask – as otherwise people would not be asking it. Almost by definition, opinion polls concern ‘controversial’ topics. Questions where there is consensus about the answer simply don’t get posed over and over again – which is why no-one solicits our opinions on whether smoking causes lung cancer. But despite an unequivocal statement of consensus from the scientific community that human activity is exacerbating and accelerating climate change, we are regularly pestered for our endorsement of this fact. The very act of asking the public whether they believe in climate change presupposes that this is a question that does not have a settled answer.

Of course, there are many questions about climate change that do not have a settled answer. What is a ‘safe’ level at which to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? How many climate change refugees will there be in 2050? Scientists, politicians and demographers can make attempts to quantify answers to these questions, but there is not an absolute consensus. Therefore, while most of us have no particular expertise with which to answer them, they seem reasonable questions to ask. Our answers might be implausible, inaccurate or mis-informed – but at least they are questions which have not already been comprehensively answered.

For sure, there is a steady and respectable stream of academic research that seeks to understand what the public know about climate change, and how attitudes towards it are changing. Typically, this sort of research is aimed at documenting the gap between public and scientific opinion on climate change. It seeks to understand why people are sceptical about climate change, and proposes strategies for increasing people’s environmental awareness and behaviour. This kind of research is an essential tool for increasing public engagement with climate change, although too often its findings are fed into the denial industry’s fact-mangling machines. Research expressing concern about an increase in scepticism is trumpeted as ‘more evidence’ that climate change is a scam – or the researchers involved are accused of “blurring the lines between research and activism”.

It is precisely this sleight of hand that makes the reporting of climate change opinion polls so problematic. First, the public are badgered for their opinion about the climate change ‘controversy’. Their responses are then used as evidence of this controversy – but what gets lost is that these are two very different controversies. The first is false and entirely manufactured – there is no scientific controversy about whether human activity causes climate change. The second is genuine but no less manufactured – there is substantial controversy about whether people believe in climate change (although, as this article makes clear there is still a clear majority of people who understand that climate change is occurring). But is it any surprise that there is controversy when the Daily Telegraph publishes wilfully misleading articles asking “Are you a climate sceptic? Does the current cold snap have any bearing on the climate change debate?” The Telegraph team understand perfectly well the distinction between weather and climate, but they choose to blur the lines to stoke the fires of climate change denial. Just posing the question presupposes that the answer is in dispute. Manufactured evidence of public uncertainty is splattered like mud over climate change research, so that even the clearest statements of scientific fact become obscured by the dubious wisdom of message board lynch mobs.

There is much to be said about the motivations for conducting non-academic research into public opinion on climate change. Some of it is undoubtedly well-meaning, but polls commissioned by newspapers are only looking for one thing: controversy. That isn’t to say that news outlets wouldn’t be happy with the ‘controversial’ finding that 100% of people accept climate change is real. But most of the time, the controversy is found by contrasting public opinion with the claims of the IPCC, or government policy. Of course, the extent to which people support a particular policy on climate change is a completely legitimate and necessary question to ask. Politics is a popularity contest – but science is not. This is the second major distinction that is routinely blurred in discussions of attitudes towards climate change: scepticism about climate change (the process), and dispute over its implications.

What climate change will mean for our lives – for society – is completely up for grabs. Here, disputes divide down long-running ideological lines. Some distrust the very concept of a global political agreement – and perhaps with good reason. Political agreements have a habit of being ineffective and inequitable. But the fact that there is rampant distrust of politics and politicians cannot be a reason to be sceptical about climate change. How much of the reported public scepticism towards climate change is in fact simply a good old fashioned rejection of political/corporate sincerity, coupled with an unwillingness to accept lifestyle changes?

Academic research is well placed to answer these sorts of questions, and is starting to do exactly that. But the headline screaming ‘scepticism on the increase’ tells us very little – other than that whether or not climate change is ‘real’ is a question that doesn’t have a settled answer. There is no controversy about whether human activity causes climate change. So why are we still asking the question?


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  2. This article is not directly related to your post, but as a person who cares about climate change I think you might find it very interesting:

  3. This article is not directly related to your post, but as a person who cares about climate change I think you might find it very interesting: