by David Shearman
Evidence is accumulating that the public is increasingly disinterested in climate change. What is this evidence, what are the reasons for its occurrence and how does it affect our mission to get government to act?
In the US a Gallup Poll in March indicated “the highest level of public scepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade” of polling. Most Americans thought that global warming was “either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated” but two-in-five said the media are exaggerating. In the 2006 Gallup Poll, 66 percent thought that the issue was reported correctly or underestimated in news reports, and 30 percent thought it was exaggerated. In 2009 these figures were 57 percent and 41 percent. It was also found that climate change was the only issue for which public concern dropped significantly over the year. This fall in concern did not occur with other environmental problems.
Similar trends in interest have been recorded in other Western countries. This presents a big problem in democratic countries for most governments respond only to public opinion and electoral need. Even though they may have the evidence of experts empowered by them to present the case for action, it is deferred for what are seen as expedient reasons. In an excellent article in The Scientific American, Todd Neff writes “Scientists have the knowledge, but politicians and social institutions hold the power. Channels between them are rudimentary at best, many analysts say. Without a fundamental shift in emphasis, they caution, the scientific infrastructure so painstakingly erected to identify the problem will find itself impotent to ensure that global warming will be mitigated and civilization will adapt to its inevitable impacts”. (Click here for link to this article). These words will be understood by any DEA members who have discussed the issue with their Members of Parliament. Noff summarises the problem “Those who have spent decades diagnosing the problem have no power to write the prescription”.
What are the reasons for the fall in interest?
The reasons are probably diverse, some suggestions are
• There can only be so much concern registered in the human mind and other things have taken over, in particular the financial crisis. The relegation of the issue may have been fostered by governments thrashing around to alleviate a financial crisis. With climate change there is a dichotomy between what the public is told on a daily basis and what governments are doing. In terms of action the financial crisis must be a ‘real one’. Furthermore action on climate change has been cleverly linked with the potential loss of jobs. Whilst there is evidence that action may well create jobs, the seed of insecurity is sown.
• The issue of climate change has been bedded down in people’s minds for some time and they are saturated with bad news from climate extremes, sea-level rise, droughts and dire predictions. The impacts of repeated disaster, for example repeated pictures of starving children in Africa is a turn off, a defence mechanism to enable people to avoid despair and depression. This topic has been well researched.
• In general the press has failed to deal with climate change in an optimal way. A research paper on the US press by Eric Pooley from the Shorenstein Center concluded that the press misrepresented the economic debate over carbon cap and trade, failed to perform the basic service of making climate policy and its economic impact understandable to the reader, and allowed opponents of climate action to set the terms of the cost debate. He also concluded that editors had failed to devote sufficient resources to the climate story, shoving it into the “environment” pigeonhole (Click here for PDF file). In Australia we are familiar with these problems where prominence is given to the same rantings of some columnists over a decade.
• The continued activities of powerful deniers continue to sap away the public’s confidence in the data. International conferences attended by hundreds of ‘scientists’, issue statements of denial heavily reported by the press. The public thinks how this can be for no-one denies there is a financial crisis.
What are the solutions to the public dilemma?
• As Paul Ehrlich, Professor of Population Studies at Stanford has said “We’ve got to figure out how to change people’s attitudes more rapidly, or, to use a technical term, we’re screwed.”
• We may have to accept that there is a limit to the volume of scientific data that can be digested by the public. In particular the role of the environmental movement is not necessarily productive with some sections of the community who then equate ‘environmentalism’ with ‘anti-development’, whatever these words mean in their minds
• An article “Climate Change Blues: How scientists cope” from AFP describes the frustrations of scientists – it is the feeling that — despite an overwhelming consensus on the science — they are not able to convey to a wider public just how close Earth is to climate catastrophe. It’s as if scientists know a bomb will go off, but can’t find the right words to warn the people who might be able to defuse it. (Click here for link to story). This disconnect must be addressed.
• We must recognise that the science of climate change is difficult to understand and there are few scientists in government. Non-scientists who spend time on the data (like Stern and Garnaut) recognise the problem as compelling. Scientists and doctors must spend time with their elected representatives.
• Alternative methods of communicating the science and consequential policy must be developed urgently. The communication must be with the public and with elected representatives. How is this to be distinguished from the avalanche of dross that appears every day? Surely by the expertise and standing of those who issue it.
The reader will draw their own conclusions but it can be seen that DEA is drawing together some of these threads into its activities and it has one big advantage. As doctors taking on this issue, we have a clear-cut professional case, it is a health issue and we have no conflicts of interest.
At the end of the day, some of us conclude that the failures in governance, leadership and public policy must be addressed and this is the theme of the author’s research, the latest book being A New Way of Thinking About Our Climate Crisis by Joseph Wayne Smith, Sandro Positano, Nigel Stocks, David Shearman click here