Embracing climate gate

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Thoughts on poll results regarding perceptions of the scientific consensus on climate change across countries. 

As with good jokes, timing is key to good scandals. The recent one engulfing a group of climate scientists within and around the University of East Anglia, who have been accused of tweaking data and distorting scientific debate, is no exception. Surfacing a few days ahead of Copenhagen, it allowed for intense and sustained media coverage and delivered a heavy political blow. At any rate, my intention here is not to discuss whether or not the timing of “climate gate” was accidental or whether there is any real substance to the accusations. Rather, this blog post looks at the impact of climate gate, asking whether it might indeed have some positive consequences and improve our chances of getting our act together.

Our recent multi-country poll questioned respondents on their belief in the scientific consensus on climate change. All participants were asked whether they thought that a) “most scientists think climate change is an urgent problem and enough is known to take action”; or b) “most think the problem is not urgent, and not enough is known to take action”; or c) “views are pretty evenly divided”.  At first glance the results might seem positive (see chart). 

But a deeper look is revealing. In only 8 out of 14 countries do a majority of people believe there is a scientific consensus that climate change is an urgent problem and enough is known to take action.  In the other countries, the majority is formed by those believing that ‘views are pretty evenly divided’ and those thinking that ‘there is a consensus that climate change is not urgent or not enough is known to take action’.

Interestingly, low-income countries like Vietnam (69 percent), Senegal (62 percent) and Kenya (61 percent), had the highest proportion of respondents who believed in consensus. In rich countries such as the U.S. (38 percent) and Japan (43 percent), as well as in middle-income countries such as Indonesia (33 percent) and Russia (23 percent) these are a clear minority. Equally worrisome, there appear to be large numbers (nearly 20 percent and upward)  almost everywhere, except in Kenya, Senegal, Vietnam and India, who believe that the consensus is against urgency and the need for action. Even in a country like France where the government is taking a strong stance on the subject, 37 percent think that there is no scientific basis for climate policies.

The poll was run during October and November 2009. It’d be interesting to establish whether these numbers I’ve just described changed after climate gate, but we simply don’t know. However, here’s what we do know.  First, these percentages show the existence—across countries—of oppositional ‘core issue groups’, which are chunks of public opinion likely to resist any policy focused on the issue at hand (climate change). Second, especially in democratic systems, the size of these groups is big enough to block, slow down, or seriously affect climate legislation. Third, to overcome resistance, climate policy needs to marry climate and non-climate objectives – these will require actions grounded in no-regrets and delivering co-benefits (i.e., we had to improve energy efficiency anyway; it comes at a negative cost and reduces energy dependency).

Last, scientific communication needs to get a lot better, if it has to be conducive to policy – and political – change.  It’s here, on this last point, that climate gate might be said to have served a purpose of sorts. If the scientific consensus has ever suffered from complacency, climate gate has shaken it out of it. Dismissing skeptics and contrarians as outright flat-earthers was not politically savvy before (it only entrenched them in their positions); it is even less so now. The time is ripe for increasing transparency in how science evolves, better communicating the results to public opinions, and doing a better job of engaging those who disagree.


Andrea Liverani

Lead Specialist in the Europe and Central Asia Region's Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice

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