How can we keep climate change an important issue?


4:12 pm - May 24th 2010

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contribution by Climate Sock

However we measure it, climate change has become a less prominent issue in the UK lately. With a new government that looks unexpectedly stable, climate campaigners can no longer count on another election coming along soon to shake things up.

Instead, they need to find ways of working with the current media and political set-up.

There are significant risks in not addressing the way climate change is currently talked about and acted on.

While the coalition document suggests the new government has made a fairly good start to climate policy, this may not be sustainable if people don’t start talking and acting differently about climate change.

While climate change has never been the most prominent issue in the UK, lately it’s fallen further from the media’s attention and from most people’s consciousness. Google Trends confirms that both in terms of searches and news coverage, climate change has now dropped to well below the peaks we’ve seen since 2006.

This is confirmed by the latest Mori results from their monthly question about the most important issue facing the UK at the moment. Not surprisingly, the economy is now easily top, but pollution/environment has now fallen to 5% for 2 consecutive months: the worst performance since 2004. Tellingly, of the 18 polls that YouGov has run in the last 14 days, not a single one has been about the environment (1).

It can be tempting to see this not to be great problem. Most senior politicians at the moment talk like they think climate change is important, and seem to be dealing with it without its needing to be in the headlines.

As George Monbiot argued, there is a good case that the major parties have made excellent progress on their approach to tackling climate change.

But even if it turned out that politicians continued tackling climate change without being pushed by pressure from the media and campaigning organisations, there would still be a problem.

We have seen that the government is already perceived to be taking a lot of actions to tackle climate change, but we’ve also seen that politicians are distrusted when they do so. The suspicion and dislike most people have for politicians in general means that anything the government does on climate change is often assumed to be driven by other motives. Without having public support for any tough measures the government may take, anything they do could be vulnerable to being reversed in the future.

So if climate change is holding public interest less than it has before (though it never has held a great amount of interest) and the government may face more resistance to acting in the future, what happens next?

If nothing changes, public interest in climate change will be subject to things that create a news hook, like the weather. If we have a deadly summer heatwave or floods in the autumn, expect climate change to become prominent again.

Even if this happened, it doesn’t sound like a good foundation for basing government policy. It would be perverse for climate campaigners to be hoping for extreme weather, to say the least.

So the challenge ahead looks to be twofold:

  1. Bringing climate change back into the mainstream as an issue that is seen as requiring action;
  2. Framing government climate change policy in a way that ends any question of whether the government is using it as an excuse to raise taxes or take other unpopular measures that have no connection to climate change.

Neither of these are simple goals. But UK climate policy will struggle to function in an effective and sustainable way if either is not accomplished.

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Reader comments


“But UK climate policy will struggle to function in an effective and sustainable way if either is not accomplished.”

Well, yes and no. We only need to have a high visibility for climate change, high support for climate change actions, if there are large numbers of difficult and expensive things we still need to do about climate change.

And it’s most certainly not certain that we do need to do lots more difficult and expensive things. Take, for example, the views of Richard Tol (he’s been involved in all 4 IPCC reports, in a variety of positions, including lead author on one of them). He’s a serious and respected economist in this area.

His point is that we’ve got the EU ETS in place and it’ll move to auctioning all credits soon enough. That plus the high carbon taxes we’ve got on activities which aren’t part of the ETS (car fuel duty, landfill, Air Passenger Duty) have pretty much done what we needed to do in terms of the tax/incentive structure. All we’ve got to do now is wait at technology and the technological cycle react to those incentives.

It’s entirely possible to make the case that here in the UK we’ve solved climate change…..in the snese that we’ve already done what is necessary. That others haven’t as yet, well, not a great deal we can do about that really.

Given the extensive lying in the press and on the more swivel-eyed websites about “climate fraud” and the absurd “balanced” editorial position of the BBC its hardly surprising climate change is not so prominent. However groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are hardly lily-white when it comes to campaigning honestly and therefore lack the necessary credibility.

What we need is a body that is seen by the public as sober, transparent and fair-minded as well as independant of government and business. The Royal Society comes to mind, but they would need to get better at their PR.

Of course, by sacking any scientist who was honest, open and transparent about scientific issues in political debate New Labour have again screwed things up.

3. Charlieman

Have you thought about presenting your arguments in a different way?

Rising sea levels (man made or otherwise) are going to take away land on which people currently live. You don’t need to argue about the relative impact of a CO2 reduction to explain why those populations deserve assistance.

Consuming oil and coal to create power and fertiliser has an environmental impact beyond CO2 emissions. So the public debate should be about efficiency (doing what we do now better) until viable alternatives emerge.

a couple of suggestions…

1/ try making the analysis scientific and evidence-based

well, ok, that’s the only one. We all know how patchy (think of the Southern hemisphere and the undeveloped world, not notably measured until the 1970s?), unreliable and compromised the temperature record is. I have never seen a similar record of CO2 levels. Does anyone have a record of CO2 levels precisely correlated against the temperature records?

Demonstrate the hypothesis a little more convincingly…..sorry, that was English understatement, demonstrate that there is any correlation whatsoever between rising temperature and rising CO2, excluding all other influencing factors, and I might be prepared to consider the hypothesis.

charlieman…there are other factors – eg tectonic movements- that make land levels rise and fall. How do you isolate the contributory factors?

6. Charlieman

@5 Diogenes: “…there are other factors – eg tectonic movements- that make land levels rise and fall.”

Indeed we do not know absolutely whether a country floods because of falling land or rising seas. Thus policy should be about people, not hypothesis.

However groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are hardly lily-white when it comes to campaigning honestly and therefore lack the necessary credibility.

Their job is not to be balanced but argue for a particular position. I don’t contribute money to them to be balanced

demonstrate that there is any correlation whatsoever between rising temperature and rising CO2,

Oh jeebus. Why do tin-foil hat wearers even bother contributing here when they’re just going to be ridiculed? Why not learn some basic facts before lecturing others on climate science?

The article isn’t about whether the link exists. It’s about what needs to happen next. If you don’t believe in AGW, this discussion or this site is not for you.

“Why not learn some basic facts before lecturing others on climate science?”

Which are here: http://www.greenfacts.org/en/climate-change-ar4/index.htm

His point is that we’ve got the EU ETS in place and it’ll move to auctioning all credits soon enough. That plus the high carbon taxes we’ve got on activities which aren’t part of the ETS (car fuel duty, landfill, Air Passenger Duty) have pretty much done what we needed to do in terms of the tax/incentive structure. All we’ve got to do now is wait at technology and the technological cycle react to those incentives.

It’s entirely possible to make the case that here in the UK we’ve solved climate change…..in the snese that we’ve already done what is necessary. That others haven’t as yet, well, not a great deal we can do about that really.

Well I agree that the last UK government had a reasonable record on this issue, certainly better than many countries, but to say that we’ve done everything neccessary is complacency on a huge scale. We don’t even have a good idea yet of how we will meet our energy requirements in the next century.
As for the ETS, well I think in principle such schemes are a valid way of reducing CO2 emissions but you are making some quite large assumptions, ie that the scheme is sufficiently rigorous and well structured to produce the neccessary incentives, and that even if the right incentives are created the neccessary technology will be available. There seem to be a large assumption for example that we can carry on building coal-fired power stations and mitigate the effects in the future using CCS, but is is highly questionable whether CCS will actually be technically or economically feasible.

charlieman…there are other factors – eg tectonic movements- that make land levels rise and fall. How do you isolate the contributory factors?

Rising global temperatures would be expected to produce rising sea levels for two reasons – thermal expansion as the oceans become warmer and the melting of the continental ice sheets. Both increasing ocean temperatures and the melting of the ice sheets have been observed and sea levels are rising and so we can reasonably assume that increasing global temperatures are causing sea levels to rise.

11. Yurrzem!

@7 Sunny

The problem I now have with Greenpeace and FoE is that they resist the very technologies we are going to need to deal with climate change. They are now part of the problem.

They have been dishonest at times in the past. The Brent Spar radioactivity claim comes to mind.

“Their job is not to be balanced but argue for a particular position. I don’t contribute money to them to be balanced”

We don’t expect them to be balanced, just to be honest.

“If nothing changes, public interest in climate change will be subject to things that create a news hook, like the weather. If we have a deadly summer heatwave or floods in the autumn, expect climate change to become prominent again.”

Although since everyone over the winter was repeatedly told that weather is not climate (basically correctly), don’t expect that to work in favour of arguing for man-made climate change.

The problem is quite simple. You need to refute the sceptical (not tin-foil hat wearing) points of view, and address the issues arising. This needs to be done not with arrogant assertions of ‘consensus’ (the figure of two thousand climate scientists was an invention of a pressure group for example) but by convincing sceptics like me that the evidence holds up. For a start I need convincing the temperature record is reliable; I then need to be shown the there is both correlation and causation between rise in temperature and growth in carbon dioxide output. And finally, you need to demonstrate this is a problem – not in the way the IPCC did (cherry picking results and citing only some points of view) but by proper research which is not funded to achieve one end.

So the use of groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace (whose activists used to spout nonsense to me about the dangers of radiation, which I could disprove with GCSE physics!) who are clearly not balanced is ridiculous. They are political, and you are not going to win this debate with politics – the more you rely on them or on a small cadre of scientists whose motives and methods have been publically challenged, the more people will see this as vested interests and ignore it. Note also that the sillier and wilder predictions (higher temperatures, huge artic ice melt) have not come to pass, so people lose faith in the entire idea.

I am probably due to be dismissed as a tin-foil hat wearer for not subscribing to an orthodoxy I cannot yet accept. But I do think this issue is important and should be in the public eye. But to do this, you have to stop thinking you are right and start thinking what do we need to do to convince people, even if that means going right back and sorting out the problems with the science (I bet that for the cost of the money that western governments spend on programmes to ‘educate’ about climate change, we could fund a proper programme of sorting out the potential problems in the temperature record for example). There is a striking similiarity here to Labour’s current situation – losing public support, but not yet seen as irrelevant, but there is a pressing need to understand why before the idea is lost.

And now I’ll go back to moaning at commentators who thinks science on something as dynamic as a climate can ever be settled…

Rather than the ‘idea is lost’, could you please read ‘ideal is lost’…

charlieman…there are other factors – eg tectonic movements- that make land levels rise and fall. How do you isolate the contributory factors?

Indeed we do not know absolutely whether a country floods because of falling land or rising seas.

Ha ha ha! You do know that we can measure that stuff directly from space? So, yes, we do know, absolutely, down to a resolution of millimetres, whether land is falling or seas are rising (or both simultaneously).

And now I’ll go back to moaning at commentators who thinks science on something as dynamic as a climate can ever be settled…

So what you’re saying is that you will never accept the science unless it gives the answers you want? Climate is not as dynamic as you think – that’s weather. It’s analogous to difference between Brownian motion of individual gas molecules (like weather: complex, chaotic, unpredictable) and temperature and pressure in a volume of gas (like climate: all those nasty complexities averaged out over time and space). One is predictable, the other is not.

Although why I’m bothering to explain such basic concepts yet again to someone who has repeatedly shown that they’re completely uninterested in the actual facts of the matter is beyond me.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…

Watchman,

I certainly wouldn’t cite Greenpeace or FoE (worthy organisations though they are) if I was trying to persuade people of the reality of AGW, I would point them at the vast amount of scientific literature which supports it. But people still refuse to accept it. All of the information you need is out there and readily available.

And you do worse than read the IPCC report – it is notcherry-picked, it is a perfectly fair representation of the current state of the science, including the various doubts and uncertainties.

17. Watchman

andrew,

I’ve looked through IPCC AR4, which cites Greenpeace on a couple of occasions. I tend to find that if you leave the writing of a document to a small group of people, they will reflect their own interpretation of the facts, which is what happened here. Whilst the science in IPCC AR4 is not wrong, is it not the only interpretation either, and this is the key point. As with many commentators on here, the IPCC seemed determined to present the evidence as only allowing one conclusion. But this is not possible – the evidence is too confusing, too dynamic and too complex to be that certain.

More to the point, the original post is concerned about lack of concern about climate change (that is happening – the climate is always changing), and the lack of comments afterwards suggest there is a reason to be concerned. The unthinking repeaters of received ‘wisdom’ would have been all over this thread nine months ago; now it is mainly those with a clear interest generally some clear knowledge of the subject (Sunny, despite use of stupid insults, definetely included). There is the risk that climate change, like economics, is one of those areas only debated by the interested and well-read and the trolls and fanatics (feel free to categorise me as you wish). Not sure that helps anyone, as this is an important debate.

Getting complex scientific information across to the public is pretty difficult. According to a poll from 4 years ago, less than 50% of Britons accept the theory of evolution. We have to admit that there is less uncertainty about the science of evolution than there is about AGW, and evolution has been in the public eye for a lot longer than AGW. Arguably, the science and evidence supporting AGW is more complex and harder to grasp than for evolution, and of course AGW and evolution are both subject to campaigns of science denialism. I therefore don’t think there is a realistic possibility of persuading the public of the need for action by explaining the science.

Unusual weather events do a lot to raise and lower public concern, and the unusually cold winter we experienced in the UK probably had a lot of impact on public opinion (even though, according to satellite data, 2010 has so far been exceptionally warm globally). Strangely, unprecedented weather events – such as the Cumbria floods of last year – don’t seem to stay in the public consciousness for long, maybe because they only affect a small proportion of the population or maybe people have difficulty linking exception levels of precipitation with a warming world.

In the short-term the issue has to be linked to other issues like energy security, depletion of resources, quality of life issues, and the environment more generally. In the longer term climate change will be ever more apparent and maybe then we won’t have to worry about persuading people of the reality. I just hope that when that point arrives it won’t be too late to take action.

15 “Ha ha ha! You do know that we can measure that stuff directly from space? So, yes, we do know, absolutely, down to a resolution of millimetres, whether land is falling or seas are rising (or both simultaneously).”

And do these observations tell you why these events are happening?


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