Alarmist claims about the impact of global warming are contributing to a loss of trust in climate scientists, an inquiry has found.
Apocalyptic language has been used about greenhouse gas emissions as “a deliberate strategy by some to engage public interest”.
However, trying to make people reduce emissions by frightening them has “harmful consequences” because they often respond suspiciously or decide the issue is “too scary to think about”.
The inquiry, by a team of senior scientists from a range of disciplines, was commissioned by University College London to find better ways of informing the public about climate science.
Public interest in climate change has fallen sharply in the past few years, according to a survey last month which found the number of Google searches for the phrase “global warming” had fallen by 84 per cent since the peak in 2007.
Confidence in climate science was undermined in 2010 by the revelation that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN scientific body which advises governments, had falsely claimed that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035.
Scientists have also been accused of exaggerating the rate of loss of Arctic sea ice by claiming the North Pole could be ice-free in summer by 2020. Other scientists say this is unlikely before 2050.
Claims were made a decade ago, and later retracted, that the snows of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, could disappear by 2015.
The inquiry, led by Professor Chris Rapley, former director of the Science Museum, concludes: “Alarmist messages that fail to materialise contribute to the loss of trust in the science community.”
The report says climate scientists have difficulty “delivering messages that are alarming without slipping into alarmism”.
It says the media is partly to blame for seeking “a striking headline”.
However, the report says there was also a “preconception that communicating threatening information is a necessary and effective catalyst for individual behaviour change”.
It says the “climate science community” is quick to challenge those who downplay climate change but less willing to question “alarmist misrepresentations” of climate research.
Doom-laden reports may make people feel anxious but their concern does not last.
“Over time this worry changes to numbness, desensitisation and disengagement from the issue altogether.
“The failure of specific predictions of climate change to materialise creates the impression that the climate science community as a whole resorts to raising false alarms. When apparent failures are not adequately explained, future threats become less believable.”
The report says the 30,000 climate scientists worldwide are at the centre of an intense public debate about key questions, such as how we should obtain our energy, but are “ill-prepared” to engage in it.
It adds that this difficulty in communicating their work is “proving unhelpful to evidence-based policy formulation, and is damaging their public standing”.