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Andrew Montford: Climate – Public Understanding And Policy Implications

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Andrew Montford

Written evidence to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee

Terms of reference

The committee’s terms of reference state that:

‘Foresight cautions that ‘should scepticism continue to increase, democratic governments are likely to find it harder to convince voters to support costly environmental policies aimed at mitigation of, or adaptation to, climate change.’

The chain of logic from climate science to ‘costly environmental policies’ is long and fraught with difficulty and the task of persuading the public that each link in the chain is sound is therefore equally problematic.

In 2005, government PR consultants Futerra proposed that the way to deal with this problem was to take a short-cut:

‘…interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The “facts” need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.’

This approach was adopted in practice but has been an abject failure.

[…] What is the current state of public understanding of what is meant by climate change? How has this changed in recent years?

Many come to scepticism because they realise that the climate is a vast complex system and therefore one in which the idea of ‘settled science’ has no place. They see themselves as being misled.

Others realise that the media is only telling them the environmentalist side of the story, which again makes them suspicious. It is notable that the BBC has never allowed a sceptic programme on climate change to be aired. Mainstream media coverage of climate change is almost always by ‘environment correspondents’, who accept majority views uncritically and who rarely have expertise in science or economics.

The Climategate affair made the public much more suspicious of the climate change message, providing compelling evidence that some scientists were misleading the public and that the academic literature had been ‘gamed’. The failure of the inquiries into the affair to investigate the substantive issues have only increased these concerns.

Professor Hulme of the Tyndall Centre has recently wondered whether the IPCC should issue a dissenting report, something he believes would help that organisation’s credibility. Such a report would certainly deal with some of the concerns raised in the last three paragraphs, but would leave politicians, activists and the scientific establishment with the problem of having to explain what
happened to the scientific ‘consensus’ that they have been trumpeting for the last ten years. […]

How could public understanding of what is meant by climate change be  improved? What are the main barriers to this? Does the media have a positive role to play?

The Earth’s climate is an immensely complex non-linear system, as is widely realised. Efforts to speak of scientific consensus, settled science and so on are therefore futile since they send out a clear signal that what is being delivered is propaganda rather than information. Public understanding will be enhanced by explanations of the controversies rather than a foolish pretence that there are none.

The media could, if it wished play a part in this. However, this is unlikely to happen in practice. Media outlets that stray outside the bounds of the IPCC consensus are subjected to campaigns of vilification by (often public-funded) green activists. The Press Complaints Commission has been used to discourage the appearance of dissenting views.

Full evidence