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April 01, 2005

Carrying the Can

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change

In this week's Nature representatives of several environmental organizations ask (PDF registration required) for scientists to become more active in educating the public on climate change. They write,

"The science of climate change is under attack; an attack that is coordinated, well-funded and given constant play in the media. The stronger the scientific consensus on climate change becomes, the more the media suggest that the science is uncertain... The impression created in the public mind is that climate scientists are deeply divided, and action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would be premature. Yet the consensus among climatologists, glaciologists and atmospheric physicists; that anthropogenic climate change is a reality; is as robust as is likely to be found on any scientific issue. As environmental campaigners, we would like to ask climate scientists everywhere: why are we being left to carry the can?

We're not asking you to become campaigners or to compromise your independence. But we wish you would defend your profession as any other professionals would. This includes training people in media relations, sending eminent delegations to meet editors and senior journalists, writing letters to the papers to correct misleading articles and seeking every opportunity to put the record straight. Isn't it time you started fighting for your science?"

I'd like to question the assertion in the letter that "The impression created in the public mind is that climate scientists are deeply divided, and action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions would be premature." The letter provides no data to support this assertion and of the opinion data I am aware of, this assertion is simply wrong. Last May I wrote, referring to the United States:

"Granted that the public is not at all scientifically literate about climate change, and granted as well global warming is not among the environmental issues that the public is most concerned about. However, the battle over public opinion about the existence of global warming has been won. Efforts made trying to convince the public that global warming is "real" are pretty much wasted on the convinced. The public overwhelmingly believes global warming to be real and consequential. In fact, I'd even hypothesize that when compared to what the public actually believes about climate change and the future, the IPCC reports would seem pretty tame."

Consider these examples:

A 2002 Harris Poll in the United States, summarizes its findings as "Majorities Continue to Believe in Global Warming and Support Kyoto Treaty."

And a 2004 Gallup Poll in the U.S. reported (subscription required) the following:

"About half of Americans (51%) believe that the effects of global warming have already begun to occur, while another 5% believe they will start within a few years, and 12% expect these effects to happen at some point in their lifetimes. Only 18% believe the effects will be postponed to future generations, and just 11% are completely skeptical, saying that deleterious effects from global warming will never happen. Gallup has not observed any significant change in this assessment over the past seven years. Not only do Americans think global warming is real, but when asked about it last year, 61% also believe that increases in the Earth's temperature result more from the effects of pollution from human activities rather than natural changes, while only 33% believe the effects are the result of natural changes in the environment rather than human activities. This is the crux of much scientific and political debate surrounding global warming, and it appears that Americans are firmly on the side of the environmental movement."

And polls from outside the U.S. find similar or stronger public views that global warming is of concern and has been observed (e.g., see this report (PDF) from the UK).

Given all of this data it seems to me that the only justification I can see for political advocates (on both sides) in the climate debate to ask scientists to "fight for their science" is to seek political advantage by pretending that that the climate debate is about science, when it is really about politics.

So when the authors of the Nature letter ask, "As environmental campaigners, we would like to ask climate scientists everywhere: why are we being left to carry the can?" one response might be that the data suggest that scientists have already ably done their jobs. It is not too far-fetched to think that the so-called "skeptics" are enabled and empowered by those who seek to scientize the climate debate. Perhaps it is time to discuss climate change in terms of policy and politics and to stop asking science to carry the can.

Posted on April 1, 2005 09:04 AM


I agree with your points for the most part. It is policy discussion, not more debate on the no-longer-debatable facts. Unfortunately, statistics on what the average American believes are not entirely relevant. The average American doesn't want to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge either, but we will probably do it. The average American probably doesn't read the Wall Street Journal, but the average person-of-influence does. And this means that the attack on climate science -- often in the pages of the WSJ may well be having a significant influence on them (policitians, finaciers, etc.), even if it doesn't affect the lay person. So there is still a battle of "hearts and minds" to be fought.

Posted by: eric at April 2, 2005 02:34 PM

Eric- Thanks much for your comment. It is an interesting hypothesis that "average persons-of-influence" have a different (and less informed) perspective on climate science than the general public. Are you aware of any data on this?

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr. at April 2, 2005 03:37 PM

I think you are overlooking several important points. Yes, the public and also the "persons-of-influence" agree that there is a high probability that human activity is making some contribution to climate change. No doubt these "persons-of-influence" read the Wall Street Journal more often than most: also they are probably much better represented among readers of this blog than most. There are three things you do not consider (and they may):

1)There has been, and will continue to be, severe climate change driven by solar fluctuations (or whatever) over geological time: humans will have to adapt to this, and the relatively minor contribution from human activity is basically in the noise of this greater problem. Climate change even over the last few thousand years has been a huge influence on human civilizations.

2)There is no clear understanding that "warming" is necessarily the ultimate evil. Yes, it may be bad for Bangladesh, but how about Alaska, Canada, Siberia? How about a new ice age?

3) The prescriptions of the Kyoto protocol were designed to harm the US as an advanced economy that is expanding. European economies that are not expanding are less affected. Chinese and Indian economies that will be exploding in their energy use as they modernize are not even included.

The only certain way to reduce the human impact while maintaining what we would consider an acceptable modern lifestyle is to reduce the number of humans, which is a subject that is - of course - completely ignored in discussions of this problem.

Posted by: JRM at April 3, 2005 09:16 PM

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