A recent controversy involving stolen emails may be responsible for dwindling belief among Americans in human-created climate change. At Real Clear Politics, Tom Bevan summarizes the results of a CNN/Opinion Research poll that probed whether respondants believe global warming is real and weather humans are the cause of it.
Only 45% of those surveyed agreed with the statement that “Global warming is a proven fact and is mostly caused by emissions from cars and industrial facilities such as power plants and factories.” That number is down from 54% who agreed with the statement in June of last year and in May of 2007.
Meanwhile, the number of people who agreed with the statement that “Global warming is a theory that has not yet been proven” jumped to 31% in the current survey, up eight points from June 2008.
As a scientist, I find the evidence for man-made climate change overwhelming. The “revelations” in a few stolen emails have little impact on the larger scientific picture.
Balanced against the poll’s finding is an editorial that appears today in newspapers across the world.
Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, and with it our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts have started to speak: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble and half-hearted.
Now for some random thoughts:
Climate change is both a scientific issue and a policy issue. The science is somewhat complicated when one drills down to the details, but the basic idea is straightforward. The planet’s climate is rapidly changing, largely because of human industrial activity and the greenhouse effect. But “rapidly” doesn’t mean disaster movie rapidly (think Day After Tomorrow). It means over the course of a few decades or centuries, which is fast compared to the eons of the planet’s history. A misunderstanding here affects the policy issue.
And the policy issue is muddy anyway. The best course of action isn’t clear when one thinks about the political and economic problems. It took aggressive industrialization over many decades to unwittingly alter the planet’s climate, and it will take an effort of similar scale, cost, and complexity to reverse or at least modulate the changes.
Public support is up and down at best. People don’t like to be told to change their lifestyle (although climate change will leave them few options). So we begin with a somewhat hostile audience. Then we add an unfortunate controversy generated by a few stolen emails, whose impact on the scientific issues has been greatly exaggerated. Next add predictions of planet-wide catastophe that often read like the synopsis of a disaster movie. When people read “Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, . . .” many read this to mean it’ll happen by Tuesday. When it doesn’t, they lose confidence in what scientists are saying because they misinterpret the message. The full impact of climate change may not be felt for decades or centuries. Thus climate change is an excellent and very unfornate example of how difficult it is for scientists to communicate complex ideas to the general public.