Friday, 26 February 2010

Climate Change Skeptics Gain Ground

Today's Australian featured an article titled "Belief in Climate Change Dives". At first I was supicious, given that this is a Murdoch paper which devotes more column inches to the views of climate change skeptics than to the crimes of drunken footballers. However, their source for the article is that most impeccable of left-wing papers, the UK Guardian, whose report actually identifies the source of the data!

This is essentially a poll of 1000 people between the ages of 16 and 64, and reveals that compared to a similar poll conducted a year ago, the proportion of people who believe that climate change is "definitely" a reality has fallen from 44% to 31%, while the proportion believing the problem is exaggerated increased from 15% to 30%. It also references a recent BBC poll with similar results. There are two candidates mentioned as the reason for this change although neither is conclusive

  • Climate science has had some bad PR lately, with leaking of snarky e-mails from the University of East Anglia's leading climate change researchers and the discovery of inaccuracies on Himalayan glacial melt in the IPCC report
  • Europe and the US have had an unusually cold winter this year.

Niether of these reasons holds water logically. The first simply proves (as if we didn't know already) that scientists are human, but hardly changes the overwhelming thrust of the evidence. The second is wholly consistent with climate change - temperatures continue to fluctuate from year to year and season to season and there are more extreme weather events, but the overall trend is up. So perhaps this poll just shows that people don't think very carefully when they form their opinions. Or maybe it shows that the relentless publicisation of the views of a tiny band of skeptics is working.

It does, however, add another nail to the coffin of the Copenhagen debacle. In the wake of the failure of the UN climate change conference, the consensus on climate change action is fracturing. In Australia we have seen almost all the nation's business organsiations switch from supporting the proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to opposing it over the past few months, in the wake of the Opposition fracturing over the issue and re-uniting behind a leader who firmly opposes the scheme. Other countries are facing the same issues and the likelihood of an effective global response to climate change is receding rapidly.

It leaves me stunned. How can we be so irresponsible? At the same time, the (very strong) cynical side of me says this it's no more than we can expect. It's what the promotion of climate change skepticism is all about. There will always be a few scientists who disagree with the majority, and occasionally they will be right. However, large media corporations with a vested interest in keeping all the fetters off free commerce give these views space and respectability way beyond their scientific merits. They aim to sow doubt, to blunt the popular passion for action, leaving the way clear for their own lobbying and for inertia to do its ugly work. Meanwhile the poor but very musical people of low-lying Tuvalu can literally "plough me an acre of land/between the salt water and the sea strand" while over 20 million Bangladeshis have their livelihoods threatened by increased flooding. We think this might be a problem, but we're not sure...

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