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UK public ignorant of climate science consensus – poll

Gap between reality and public perception of climate science is reminiscent of MMR controversy, says NGO

Humans cause climate change, 97% of climate scientists agree

Humans cause climate change: 97% of climate scientists agree, but the general public is less sure

By Megan Darby

Only one in nine UK citizens is aware of the strength of scientific consensus on climate change, a poll has shown.

Studies show that more than 90% of climate scientists agree climate change is happening and it is mainly caused by human activity.

Yet just 11% of the UK public correctly identify that “almost all” scientists hold that view, according to a poll carried out by ComRes.

Some 35% think scientists are evenly split on the subject, while 11% believe most scientists reject the idea humans are responsible for climate change.

Katharine Peacock, managing director of ComRes, said: “The perceived lack of consensus among climate scientists is striking – particularly as scientists are one of the most trusted groups in society.

“As outliers of opinion are often memorable and debate among some groups remains, it is for the scientific community to communicate a strong evidence-based message to the media and through them the public.”

“Crucial decisions”

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, which commissioned the poll, highlighted the importance of public understanding of the facts.

Richard Black, director of the ECIU, said: “This survey shows that there’s a huge gap between reality and perception on some key climate and energy issues. These are important findings given that the UK has crucial decisions to make on our response to climate change and our energy system in the next few years.”

The ECIU is a new non-profit initiative, funded by charitable donors including the European Climate Foundation and the Tellus Mater Foundation, that aims to “support an informed debate” on energy and climate issues in the UK.

Its advisory board boasts influential figures from the worlds of climate science, religion and defence as well as several politicians, from former Conservative leader (Lord) Michael Howard to Labour MP Rushanara Ali.

Energy promises to be a major issue in the general election next year, with political leaders vying to offer solutions to rising energy prices.

Labour put the cost of living on the agenda last autumn with a surprise pledge to freeze energy bills. The coalition government responded by cutting “green levies” to save each household £50.

The ComRes poll found more than half of people thought green energy policies had increased their energy bills, either a great deal (14%) or somewhat (37%).

Government analysis found environmental and social policies accounted for 9% of the typical household bill in 2013.

But some of these policies helped people cut their energy use, leading to an average net saving of 5%, the Department of Energy and Climate Change claimed.

The latest survey also found people underestimated support for renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power.

A recent government poll showed 80% of the public support renewables. But 63% of respondents estimated the figure at less than 50%.

“As a nation we can only make sensible choices if we’re properly informed, so it’s vital that people are aware of what the evidence is and that it’s communicated clearly,” said Black.

Global politics

As well as developing domestic policy, the UK government has a significant role to play in climate politics at European and international level.

In October, European national leaders are set to agree EU climate targets out to 2030.

These, along with national contributions, will feed into a global treaty scheduled for sign-off December 2015, in Paris.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year said it was “95% certain” human activity is causing climate change.

In a series of reports summarising the best available evidence, the IPCC has becoming increasingly confident in that verdict.

Studies of the scientific literature in 2010 and 2013 have concluded 97% of climate researchers concur.

A 2009 survey of more than 10,000 Earth scientists found a more modest 82% agreed. This rose to 97% of the 79 respondents with recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change.

All the studies show a substantially stronger consensus among climate scientists than the general public.

MMR

The situation has “uncomfortable echoes” of the MMR controversy 15 years ago, the ECIU said.

In 1998, a research paper by Andrew Wakefield raised fears the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella could cause autism.

It was subsequently discredited and Wakefield struck off the medical register for serious misconduct.

MMR vaccination rates dropped after a study falsely suggested it caused autism (Source: Health and Social Care Information Centre)

MMR vaccination rates dropped after a study falsely suggested it caused autism
(Source: Health and Social Care Information Centre)

The damage was done, however, as thousands of alarmed parents refused to have their children vaccinated. This exposed them to the risk of measles and weakened the “herd immunity” of the general population.

The media was accused of giving Wakefield’s study more credibility than it deserved and misleading the public.

A Cardiff University study in 2003 showed most people thought the scientific community was split on the subject, as “both sides of the debate” got equal media coverage.

Vaccination levels have now recovered from the controversy, but the effects are still being seen. Measles infection cases soared to more than 2,000 in 2012, the highest in two decades.

Black said: “The breakdown between the views of scientists and the public on climate change is a particular concern. This feels reminiscent of the situation around MMR, where most Britons thought the medical profession was split on the safety of the vaccine whereas doctors were virtually unanimous that it was safe.”

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  • bBrian R Smith

    I hadn’t realized the “consensus gap” was as wide in the UK as here in the US. This is further confirmation not only of the depth of public ignorance of climate risks, but also of the obvious need to repair the gap… quickly and decisively!

    No offense intended to you personally Megan, but I have to say that it’s no longer enough, IMO, for journalists to define the problem of public misunderstanding of climate science consensus without approaching what the solutions to the problem might be. The source you quote saying “it is for the scientific community to communicate a strong evidence-based message to the media and through them, the public” is exactly on target. Scientists are the missing voice. But we know this already. The unanswered, begging question is what to do about that and in a very short time frame.

    I suggest investigating the potential for scientists to collaborate strategically with their allies in civil society , business and government to inform the public on the facts and personal/social consequences of climate change. When does the moment come when the public determines political will for progress with climate policy? What is the path to get there? What kind of organizing is required? Are we going to have a strategically organized climate movement or are we going to leave it all to chance and a determined and better organized opposition?

    Tough, practical questions that need to be framed & pursued. I hope climate journalists will take them seriously. We can’t keep ignoring the need for strategy and collaboration. We already know how serious the situation is.

    it
    is for the scientific community to communicate a strong evidence-based
    message to the media and through them the public.” – See more at:
    http://www.rtcc.org/2014/08/27/uk-public-ignorant-of-climate-science-consensus-poll/#sthash.PcWgBJfI.dpuf
    it
    is for the scientific community to communicate a strong evidence-based
    message to the media and through them the public. – See more at:
    http://www.rtcc.org/2014/08/27/uk-public-ignorant-of-climate-science-consensus-poll/#sthash.PcWgBJfI.dpuf
    it
    is for the scientific community to communicate a strong evidence-based
    message to the media and through them the public. – See more at:
    http://www.rtcc.org/2014/08/27/uk-public-ignorant-of-climate-science-consensus-poll/#sthash.PcWgBJfI.dpuf

  • Guenier

    Why should it matter that the UK public is ignorant of the (supposed – see below) climate science consensus? After all, science is not done by consensus – i.e. by counting heads. In any case, As Richard Tol has said, “there are plenty of examples in history where everyone agreed and everyone was wrong”. For examples see this: https://ipccreport.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/the-consensus-was-wrong/#comments

    Moreover, as I argue here**, we don’t even know what the relevant scientists (see 1.3 of my paper cited below) think about the key issues. That could only be determined by carrying out a properly conducted and correctly implemented worldwide opinion survey – in particular, it would have to be anonymous and address a balanced, representative sample of the relatively small number of scientists whose specialty was detection and (especially) attribution. It would not be easy.

    ** http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/WrittenEvidence.svc/EvidenceHtml/4191

  • David Rice

    Very close to 100% consensus among the world’s scientists in fact.

    Last year Cook et al. released a paper in which they analysed the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.

    http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024/article

    What they did in that study was examine 11,944 abstracts from 1991 to 2011 that included the words “global climate change” or “global warming” in their abstract. What they found after analysing these abstracts is that among those that expressed a position on global warming, 97% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. They also contacted 8,547 authors to ask if they could rate their own papers and received 1,200 responses. The results for this again found that 97% of the selected papers stated that humans are causing global warming.

    For anyone aware about similar research this was not a surprising result as in 2004 Oreskes did a similar literature search – although it included ‘only’ 928 abstracts – which already found this scientific consensus.

    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/306/5702/1686.full

    A 2009 survey of Earth scientists found that among climate scientists actively publishing climate research, 97% agreed that humans were significantly raising global temperature.

    http://tigger.uic.edu/~pdoran/012009_Doran_final.pdf

    A 2011 analysis of scientists’ public statements about climate change found that among those who had published peer-reviewed climate research, 97% accepted anthropogenic global warming.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/04/1003187107.abstract

    When you [sic] take a look at how this consensus evolved from 1996 to 2009 you see a steady increase in the agreement among scientists (Bray 2010).

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901110000420

    “Who counted them? Who measured? Where did that figure come from?”

    The answer:

    A 2009 survey of Earth scientists found that among climate scientists actively publishing climate research, 97% agreed that humans were significantly raising global temperature.

    http://tigger.uic.edu/~pdoran/012009_Doran_final.pdf

    A 2011 analysis of scientists’ public statements about climate change found that among those who had published peer-reviewed climate research, 97% accepted human-induced warming.

    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/06/04/1003187107.abstract

    The most recent one was a 2013 analysis that examined 11,944 abstracts and again found this 97% consensus.

    http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/2/024024

    The sum total is that over 660 science organizations in 85 countries that agree that humans have caused and are causing dangerous climate change, without even one rejecting that conclusion.

  • Daniel33333333

    Studies say….yet they don’t list the studies….I know the 97% is bunk the Climate alarmists know its bunk, yet they keep using it because the sheeple can’t think for themselves

    • http://www.rtcc.org/ RTCC

      Actually, Daniel33333333, there are three studies listed, with links. Click on the blue writing.

    • Jaget santos

      Difficulties with links denier? Or are you also a link denier?

  • Ben Vorlich

    Christina Ora from Solomon Islands has already addressed climate negotiators in 2009.

    She told them: “I was born in 1992. You have been negotiating all my life (on climate change). Stop negotiating away our future.”

    For over 17 years of this women’s life there has been no global, the climate has been stable and quiet, fewer hurricanes, fewer tornadoes, more Antarctic sea ice, the Arctic hasn’t been ice free, Britain still has a Northern latitudes maritime climate, the sub-Sahara is greening. Bangladesh is still there, as are the Maldives, The Solomons and Tuvalu.

    Why do you think people aren’t coninced?