Climate Change Denial

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July 24, 2009


George Marshall @ 2:00 pm

george-marshall-012At a recent dinner at Oxford University a senior researcher in atmospheric physics was telling me about his coming holiday in Thailand. I asked him whether he was concerned that this would make a contribution to climate change (we had, after all, just sat through a two hour presentation on the topic). “Of course,” he said blithely, “and I’m sure the government will make long haul flights illegal at some point”.

To be honest the conversation had not just idly strayed into the topic of holidays: I had deliberately steered it in this direction as part of an informal research project- one you are welcome to join. Previous experimental subjects include a senior adviser to Nicholas Stern who flies regularly to South Africa (“my offsets help set a price in the carbon market”), a member of the British Antarctic Survey who takes several long haul skiing trips a year (“my job is stressful”), a national media environment correspondent who took his family to Sri Lanka (“I can’t see much hope”) and a Greenpeace climate campaigner back from scuba diving in the Pacific (“it was a GREAT trip!”).

Intriguing as their dissonance may be, what is especially revealing is that every one of these people has a career that is predicated on the assumption that information is sufficient to generate change- an assumption that a moment’s introspection would show them was deeply flawed.

It is now 44 years since President Lyndon Johnson’s scientific advisory council warned that our greenhouse gas emissions could generate ‘marked changes in climate’. That’s 44 years of  research (now costing, by one estimate (1), three billion dollars per year ), symposia, conferences, articles, documentaries, and now 80 million references on the internet. Despite all this information, polls over the past five years have shown that 40% of people in Britain  resolutely refuse to accept that our emissions are changing the climate. In the US it is over 50% .

I do not accept that this continuing rejection of the science is a reflection of media distortion or scientific illiteracy. Rather I see this as proof of our failure to construct a shared socially held belief in climate change.

I find that climate scientists strongly dislike the word ‘belief”. Writing in The Guardian Vicky Pope, head of the UK Hadley Centre wrote testily “we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence”  (4).

I could not disagree more. People’s attitudes towards climate change, even Dr Pope’s, are belief systems constructed through social interactions within peer groups. People then select the storylines that accord best with their personal worldview.

In Dr Pope’s case (and my own) this is a worldview that respects scientists and the evidence. But just listen to what other people say. Most of them regard climate change as an unsettled technical issue that is still being hotly debated by eggheads. Many reject personal responsibility by shifting blame elsewhere – to the rich, the poor, the Americans or the Chinese- or suspect that it is a Trojan Horse built by hair shirt environmentalists who want to steal their luxuries.

And the climate specialists in my private experiment, immersed as they are in the scientific evidence, have nonetheless developed ingenious storylines to justify their long haul holidays. ‘I work hard on this issue’, they argue, ‘so I need a ‘proper’ break to help me keep going’. Thus their climate change work is not a personal challenge, it is a proof of their virtue and a form of moral offset:

So, with time running out, please humour me and imagine that we focus our efforts on generating a socially held belief. What would change in the way we present climate science?

Well, for one thing we would become far more concerned about the communicators and their perceived trustworthiness. Trustworthiness is an elusive and complex bundle of qualities: authority and expertise are among them. But so too are less tangible qualities: honesty, confidence, charm, humour, outspokenness. The tiny network of maverick self-promoting skeptics play this game well– which is one of the reasons why they exercise such disproportionate influence over public opinion.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has done a particularly poor job of promoting itself as an authoritative and trustworthy institution. It should be telling the story of how it achieves consensus on an unprecedented scale, and enabling its most presentable participants to speak directly to the world.. At present, under sustained skeptic attack, it can’t even provide a list of the people involved in the process. It has no human face at all – the only images on its website are the covers of reports or the beach resort where it will hold its next meeting.

The single greatest quality of the people we trust and believe is that they appear to be like us and understand our needs and values. We badly need to widen the range of voices speaking on climate change and, inevitably, this means that climate experts relinquish some of their dominance and become more concerned with enabling others to speak.

Finally- to really push my luck- a belief driven approach would recognise the crucial need for imagination to make this issue real and current.- in polls scarcely 10% of people regard it as a major problem facing Britain today . These risks will never feel imminent, nor the alternatives feel possible, unless we can project ourselves into the future. And that requires a major effort of personal and collective imagination,

Again I am sure this is uncomfortable for many scientists, like Professor Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre who regularly warns against apocalyptic language that “actively ignores the careful hedging which surrounds science’s predictions”(6) . He is quite right that the language of fear can be counterproductive- it must be balanced with a positive vision.

However it is also clear that the moderated cautious language of professional science is inadequate to motivate, empower and inspire concerted change, even in the lives of the climate professionals themselves. Scientists must recognise the need for a far wider range of voices and approaches and that will means a greater respect and productive partnership with the creative arts. And maybe we are now at the stage when scientists can throw down the challenge:” we’ve done the work, we believe the results, now when the hell will you wake up?”

This is a slightly longer version and unedited of an opinion piece written for the 23rd July issue of New Scientist. Link..
For the proof of  the pudding read the bizarre and overwhelmingly sceptic comments that follow it on the New Scientist website.


1.  The growth of climate change science: A scientometric study. G STANHILL Climatic change 48:2-32-3, 515-524, Springer, 2001
2. Environmental Choices study 2008 Haddock Research and Branding, Inc. 2008
3. Survey of 1,000 Likely Voters January 15-16, 2009, Rasmussen Polls link…
4.  Scientists must rein in misleading climate change claims, Comment is Free,, Wednesday 11 February 2009
5. The Environment- How important is it really to the public? Ipsos MoriNov 2008 link..
6. Mike Hulme, Chaotic world of climate truth, BBC News viewpoint link..

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