Perhaps the “pathetic” response of world leaders to the challenge of Copenhagen was what sowed seeds of doubt in people’s minds about the urgency of the climate threat we face. Scientists, politicians, the media, celebrities all got people keyed up about the importance of Copenhagen, so the damp squib meeting that went nowhere was a bit of an anticlimax to say the least.
Or maybe it’s the inclusion (not in the IPCC’s scientific findings and climate data material, but in a report on impacts of warming) of an erroneous claim that the Himalayan glaciers could entirely melt by 2035, that make people question the broader climate change predictions. Or the humiliating and ongoing public relations disaster for climate scientists at UEA, whose hacked emails reveal a less than professional handling of the (admittedly stressful) position of being besieged by irritating, time-wasting climate deniers while trying to process enormous amounts of important data to a deadline?
Perhaps, being waist deep in the thick soup of a recession makes people less inclined to listen to more doomsday scenarios. Or maybe it’s down to the freakily cold weather in the northern hemisphere that makes people forget that the past decade has been bizarrely warm.
Whatever the reason, there’s a growing presence of climate change scepticism/denial led by a few PR-savvy individuals who’ve seen their opportunity to sway public opinion and grabbed it.
I’m in Sydney at the moment, where Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was elected, in part, for his promise (after a decade-long drought in Australia) to act on carbon emissions, is now finding his emissions trading scheme policies unpopular with the electorate. These are policies, mind you, that “strain credulity” in terms of meeting their ambitious targets, requiring “Herculean” efforts, according to Roger Pielke’s assessment.
Still, most people I speak to in Sydney seem to be of the impression that climate change is a giant unproven conspiracy to steal away their money and stop them having fun. It doesn’t help that some of the steps people have taken towards reducing emissions are now in the news for the wrong reasons. A government-backed programme to insulate homes using a foil lining in the roof has caused several electrocutions and fire-related deaths when the foil has been in contact with live wires. The programme has been stopped while homes are checked. And then, for the more wealthy ‘greenies’, there’s the Toyota Prius dodgy accelerator issue.
It’s not just down here that sceptics are gaining ground. A recent BBC poll of 1000 British people found one-quarter of them don’t believe in global warming – a 10% rise since a November poll.
And climate deniers are making subtle inroads elsewhere. This week’s UK Sunday Times – let’s remember that this was the paper that for years insisted that HIV did not cause Aids – carries a headline “World may not be warming, say scientists“. The article is points out that some of the world’s weather stations have seen changes to their local environment, such as construction of buildings nearby, that artificially boost their temperature measurements. This has been accepted and known about for some time. The Sunday times is not revealing anything new here. Our knowledge about the extent of global warming comes from a variety of other sources including satellite data and physical changes such as sea ice melt.
Newspapers need to make money with exciting headlines. But why on earth is the UK’s Energy Institute tomorrow giving sole platform – not even a debate – to a climate sceptic? I thought we’d got past that level of engagement with the issue 5 years ago.
Climate change is a political issue. While developed nations are currently leaning towards climate scepticism, poorer nations are doing the exact opposite, and not necessarily being scientific about it. And that’s my biggest gripe. I have no problem with people having different opinions over what to do about the issue, but the science of global warming – how our carbon emissions bounce heat back to the earth’s surface, and why producing fewer of these molecules will reduce the warming – is not a matter of opinion, it is provable through simple high-school chemistry.
Perhaps this is why, although I have always found IPCC chair (and romantic novelist) Rajendra Pachauri charming during my encounters with him, his political views on climate change do not sit comfortably with his Nobel Prize-winning role as chair of the scientific body whose reports governments are supposed to endorse. His opinion that the nation with soon the world’s largest population should not cap their emissions – for whatever laudable socio-economic reason – do not square with the IPCC’s assessment that humans are causing the planet to warm by polluting the atmosphere with carbon dioxide. Just as there’s no such thing as ‘good Aids’ and ‘bad Aids’, there is no ‘good carbon’ or ‘bad carbon’ – it’s just an element that we need to emit less of.
If there is a reason to smile at all in this depressing return to the dark ages of climate change denial, perhaps it’s in the tickle that even Bin Laden has felt the need to weigh in on the stupidity of Western leaders’ failure to act on the issue.