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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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