In July 2007, the respected opinion pollsters Ipsos MORI published some of the results of a survey of public attitudes to climate change (here) in advance of the publication of their Tipping Point or Turning Point report. The findings were surprising, but the attitude of this company towards the subject they were researching was even more so.
During the last three years the media, politicians, environmental activists, scientists and companies that have an interest in selling goods and services related to global warming, have bombarded the public with information about climate change. These campaigns have been directed towards persuading people to adopt a particular viewpoint; that climate change is a real, man-made and a potentially catastrophic threat that can be averted by fairly minor adjustments to our lifestyles. Surely, in view of such an onslaught, there should be few people who continue to be sceptical about anthropogenic global warming and most will have a clear understanding of the issues. Section 1 of the Ipsos MORI poll shows otherwise.*
- Only 22% think that there are no longer any experts who question the scientific evidence of anthropogenic global warming. A clear majority of 56% disagree, and 28% are still uncertain. Therefor more than four out of five people have yet to be convinced that the debate is over.
- When respondents were asked if they thought that climate change is too complex and uncertain for scientist to make useful forecasts about future climate, 40% agreed, 22% had no opinion, didn’t know or were undecided, and 38% disagreed. So there is roughly equal support for and against this proposition, with a large proportion that have not been persuaded.
- While 69% of respondents considered that human activity has a significant affect on the climate that still leaves nearly one person in three who either disagrees or has yet to be convinced.
Taken together, these figures point to a high degree of confusion on the part of the public, and a marked reluctance to take the information that they are being given on trust. Although a large proportion is clearly concerned about climate change, many also have doubts about the predictions that are being used to persuade them, and also about claims that the science is unequivocal and unchallenged. This brings into question the rational basis for their concerns about the future of the climate. A majority (69%) appear to believe that there is a problem, but this is not a corresponding with the number of respondents who are suspicious about catastrophic predictions (40%) or who doubt if there is consensus on the scientific evidence (59%).
Section 3 of the report confirms this state of confusion.
- When asked whether the government should take the lead in combatting climate change, even if it means using the law to change people’s behaviour, an astonishing 70% agreed, while only 17% disagree and 15% have yet to be persuaded.
If, as we have seen above, 62% are either not convinced that useful forecasts of future climate can be made, and 56% believe that there is still a scientific debate about the science of global warming, then it would appear that a significant section of the UK population wish their government to use draconian measures to save the planet on the basis of evidence that it is in danger which they find less than convincing. This points to hysteria inspired by propaganda rather than rational assessment of the arguments.
Media coverage of this story, particularly by the BBC, was enthusiastic, concentrating on the recalcitrant behaviour of 56% of the public who appear not to believe unquestioningly what they are being told. Phil Downing, Ipsos MORI’s Head of Environmental Research, and a joint author of the report, was interviewed on the Radio 4 Today programme. (Listen Again here, about min. 14:50). Any suspicion that his research might have been contaminated by global warming scepticism were very quickly dispelled when the presenter asked Mr Downing to summarise his findings and explain why the public still seemed to be sceptical about climate change. It quickly became clear that he is not a sceptic.
‘The more disturbing trend is that there’s still undecided [sic] – or there’s still a large proportion that’s ambivalent about the issue.’
‘More frighteningly still, that they [sceptics] believe that the scientific debate is still raging and the jury is still out.’
A disinterested and objective researcher should not de disturbed or frightened by their findings, but merely interested.
It would seem that, far from being sceptical about climate change - or neutral - Mr Downing has a partisan outlook on the subject. He finds ambivalence on the subject ‘disturbing’, and the belief that there is still a debate about climate change ‘frightening’. These are sentiments that you might expect to hear from an activist who is more concerned with shaping public opinion, but not from someone who is merely trying to discover what people think.
I am not, in any way, suggesting that Mr Downing has massaged the figures or used unprofessional methods to obtain a particular result; Ipsos MORI has an excellent reputation in its field. On the other hand it is reasonable to question the validity of a type of research - where the findings can so easily be influenced by the methodology - if it is known that the researcher has a partisan interest in the subject. For this very reason political pollsters never reveal their own voting preferences. All opinion pollsters are acutely aware that even minor nuances in the way that questions are selected and worded can have a major effect on the outcome of this kind of research. Therefor it is fair to assume that the findings of this poll are most unlikely to underestimate the degree of scepticism and confusion about climate change that still exists among the general public in spite of concerted efforts to persuade us all to become true believers.
In the world of science, objectivity and the absence of bias used to be considered inseparable from good research techniques. The kind of statistical exercises that are used in compiling opinion polls fall well within the ambit of scientific research, and it is reasonable to expect the same standards to apply. Even more alarmingly, and as other posts on this blog show , the same problem exists in mainstream climate research: see here, here, here and here.
Later in the same edition of the Today program (listen again here: min. 13:30) Al Gore was asked by Jim Naughty what he thought about the opinion poll. Eschewing any attempt to deal seriously with the issues, he went straight for the tried and tested technique of the demagogue who knows that appealing to prejudice seldom fails. His response was delivered with the weary air of one who was imparting a great truth to the ignorant masses for the thousandth time.
There’s money in pollution Jim, and some of the carbon polluters that are not among the responsible companies have, the ones that don’t want any change to threaten their profits, have actually been spending a good bit of money to sow this confusion.
The idea that a few shadowy commercial interests have subverted a government sponsored campaign (see Warm Words here) to persuade the UK population of the imminent dangers of climate change is laughable, and evidence of any such conspiracy is very hard to find. The real obstacle that politicians like Al Gore face in selling their particular brand of environmentalism is people’s instinctive wariness of being manipulated. That is a very healthy frame of mind in a liberal democracy.
* Those with good mental arithmetic will quickly notice that some to the percentages given here add up to 101. This is because Ipsos MORI have rounded up their figures.
Note: In a day or two’s time, I will be posting about a couple of more recent opinion polls which suggest that attitudes may be changing, but not in the way that you might expect.