Skip to content

New Paper: Why Are People Sceptical About Climate Change?

|
Paul Matthews, The IPCC Report

Surveys show that a significant minority of the population are sceptical about climate change and that there has been a modest increase in scepticism over the last few years.

A little over a year ago I noticed a call from the journal Environmental Communication for a special issue of articles on “Climate change communication and the internet”.  For some time I had been thinking vaguely about writing something about the interesting Reader Background thread at Jeff Condon’s Air Vent blog, so I wrote a paper on this and sent it to the journal.

The paper was handled very well by the journal.  It was reviewed ‘double-blind’, i.e. both the author and reviewers were anonymous. This isn’t usually done in my field but apparently it’s quite common in social science.  The reviewers were clearly experts in the field; they read the paper very carefully and made a lot of comments, criticisms and constructive suggestions for improvement. I revised the paper and then there was another round of quite detailed comments, but after that the paper was accepted.

The published paper is here, paywalled because I did not pay Taylor & Francis the Open Access fee.  However, apparently I can give 50 people access to the paper – let me know if you’d like this (in the olden days, you used to get a bundle of 50 paper reprints to mail out).  Alternatively there is a draft preprint version of the paper, before the review comments, with a few very minor changes. It contains a bit more discussion and opinion, fewer up-to-date references, and more mistakes, than the final version.

Below is a brief summary of the main points of the paper.

Why are people sceptical about climate change?

Surveys show that a significant minority of the population are sceptical about climate change and that there has been a modest increase in scepticism over the last few years. Some research has considered why this may be, but surveys do not usually ask people exactly what it is that makes them sceptical. There is some useful information on this question in comments on climate sceptic blogs, but this has not been studied in the literature. However, it should be kept in mind that these views expressed in blog comments are probably not representative of the general public.

In April 2010, Jeff Condon launched a “Reader Background” post, proposing “a discussion of our various backgrounds and how we came to be interested in climate science”. I count that there are 154 people on that thread who express some degree of scepticism about climate change. 17 of these explicitly call themselves lukewarmers, and at least 8 others express lukewarm opinions, so about 1/6 can be regarded as lukewarmers – though this is probably an underestimate. At the other end of the spectrum, about 1 in 10 are what might be called “hardcore sceptics”, using language like “scam” in relation to climate change.  Over 1/4 of the responders say they have a PhD, and a further 1/3 have some form of degree.  More than 1/4 say they switched from being concerned about climate change to being sceptical.

Reasons given for scepticism include

  • * Hype and alarmism, either in the media or from climate scientists. 32 people give this as a reason.
  • * Memories of previous scares, such as the 1970s ice age scare, mentioned by 15.
  • * Politics – some say  the climate story seems politically motivated, others say  it does not fit with their own views, which often lean more towards libertarianism than conservatism.
  • * Climategate is mentioned by 30 people, but only seems to have been a major influencing factor for 13. The survey was only 5 months after climategate, so most had probably already formed their view.
  • * Poor science is mentioned by about 60, with the hockeystick most common issue.
  • * Blogs – Climate Audit is most cited (57 times), followed by RealClimate (42 times) with many negative comments about their attitude and apparent failure to answer questions satisfactorily.
  • * Other minor factors include books, newspapers and films.

Full post