Changing Attitudes on Climate Change

I have long taken a detached view of the climate change debate. As I have explained before, this is not because I don’t view it as a very serious issue, it is simply because I don’t see much hope of actually addressing it because of the global nature of the issue and the strong desire from all for cheap energy. (I explained my position in detail here). So I devote my energy to reducing and replacing our fossil fuel consumption. Locally, fossil fuel reduction/replacement can improve the sustainability of a community, but globally developing countries will continue to burn cheap fossil fuels. I can impact local sustainability, but can’t really see a way to impact global CO2 emissions. Thus, despite all of the attempts to rein in carbon emissions, the atmospheric concentration continues to rise unabated.

I have friends on both sides of the climate change issue, and I do follow the debate. I know that some of the skeptics are just as convinced of their position as are climate change proponents. So I knew that when the news of Climategate broke and suggested the whiff of a scandal regarding climate change data, it was going to get a lot of mileage. This issue was certain to embolden skeptics, and I felt it would make it much more difficult to pass climate change legislation in the U.S. So I placed the issue as one of my Top 10 Energy Related Stories of 2009.

Some readers disagreed. In fact, one even wrote “saying the contrived scandal over the “climategate” emails will have legs outside the right wing blogosphere completely undermines your credibility.” Another referred to it as a “denier freak-show” and suggested that it would all soon blow over. I was certain they were miscalculating how this was likely to play out. (As is generally the case when I discuss climate change, some took the opportunity to paint me as a “denier.” This is always humorous to me, because others have criticized me for accepting the science on climate change. I suppose this is like the conservatives who think I am too liberal and the liberals who think I am too conservative).

When I was in New Zealand earlier in the year, I spotted a story that confirmed my suspicions about the implications:

Public concern about global warming appears to have eased in the past year, following economic uncertainty and widespread media coverage of climate science slip-ups.

An online survey of 1066 people in February and March found the majority believed climate change was an immediate problem – but the proportion of believers had fallen from 76 per cent in 2008 to 65 per cent this year.

Almost all governments accept the findings of a UN report based on the work of hundreds of scientists which concluded in 2007 that warming of the climate was “unequivocal”.

But public confidence was dented when, shortly before world climate talks in Copenhagen, emails were released showing a few leading scientists tried to avoid releasing data to their doubters, in breach of British freedom of information laws.

I blogged on that story here. Now comes news that Climategate has caused a shift in attitudes in Britain and Germany:

Climate Fears Turn to Doubts Among Britons

A survey in February by the BBC found that only 26 percent of Britons believed that “climate change is happening and is now established as largely manmade,” down from 41 percent in November 2009. A poll conducted for the German magazine Der Spiegel found that 42 percent of Germans feared global warming, down from 62 percent four years earlier.

“Legitimacy has shifted to the side of the climate skeptics, and that is a big, big problem,” Ben Stewart, a spokesman for Greenpeace, said at the meeting of environmentalists here. “This is happening in the context of overwhelming scientific agreement that climate change is real and a threat. But the poll figures are going through the floor.”

Here in Britain, the change has been driven by the news media’s intensive coverage of a series of climate science controversies unearthed and highlighted by skeptics since November. These include the unauthorized release of e-mail messages from prominent British climate scientists at the University of East Anglia that skeptics cited as evidence that researchers were overstating the evidence for global warming and the discovery of errors in a United Nations climate report.

At this point, I think it is safe to say that my take on the issue was correct. I would imagine that even those who insisted that I was overstating the significance of the event would now concede that I was right. Otherwise, I suppose we could call them “deniers.”