Dr Klaus Bosselman is right when he suggests in a New Zealand Herald article today that opinion polls carried out by the media are fickle things and that Government policies in relation to climate change should be based on sound science not public opinion.

But there’s no denying the fact that the public is becoming increasingly sceptical about the scientific claims made in support of anthropogenic global warming and that this has serious implications for us all unless the scientific community moves to counter it. As I was quoted as saying in the same Herald article today:

“If the overwhelming majority of the public isn’t satisfied that the science indicates a need to act … the political will dissipates too.”

Virtually all of the world’s governments are on the same page on climate change – they agree in principle that the science suggests a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So in effect, they are basing their policies on science rather than fickle public opinion – but the reality is obviously a lot more complicated than that. Turning up at Copenhagen alongside other world leaders costs nothing, nor does adding your signature to a list of undertakings that are not legally binding. Getting the support to pass an Emissions Trading Scheme is much more difficult, as our Government found out last year.

Actually pushing through the policy and legislation that will lead to change requires broad, genuine support and it is here that the measures of public opinion come into play in a big way. There is nothing new in this, politics has always been about the weight of numbers and in many respects, timing.

Take for instance, the polarising debate about gay marriage going on in the US at the moment. As this interesting New Yorker piece points out, a major Supreme Court case underway in San Francisco could help decide whether same-sex marriage becomes legal across the US rather than in the five states where it is currently legally recognised.

You would expect gay people and those who support same-sex marriage to be supportive of the Supreme Court bid to make gay marriage legal. But that isn’t the case – a lot of activists in this area are worried the legal fight is too soon, that a defeat could sway public opinion against gay marriage when it is gradually creeping further in favour of it. While 29 states in the US have passed legislation prohibiting gay marriage since 1993, polls suggest that around forty per cent of Americans support marriage for gay couples, and more than fifty per cent support civil unions. Political scientists quoted in the New Yorker piece suggest that “in five years a majority of Americans will favor same-sex marriage–the result of generational replacement and …’attitude adjustment’.’

As the New Yorker sums up: “Why push the Court far ahead of public opinion if public opinion is moving in that direction anyway?”

Now, gay marriage is unlike climate change in that arguments for or against it aren’t based on science as is the case with climate change. But it is an issue that goes to the centre of people’s belief systems and our judgements on how we should live our lives. In that respect, it shares many of the characteristics of the issue of climate change, which is equally as polarising in the US as the gay marriage issue is. The difference is the time factor. Whether same sex marriage becomes legal in the US next year or in five years, is immaterial as far as the world is concerned. Whether governments are given the mandate to act on climate change now or in five years will determine our effectiveness in combating global warming, scientists tell us. If the trend in public opinion is accurate, it may also be much more difficult for governments to secure a mandate from their citizens to act. As such, a slide in public opinion going the other way – towards scepticism rather than acceptance of the scientific consensus on the issue, is disturbing.

Science needs a new approach

It is only a matter of time before opinion polls translate into inaction on climate change, policies shelved, plans deferred – Copenhagen hinted at the inertia. Politicians will use any excuse to put off spending money or undertaking great efforts that detract from short-term goals that improve the public’s perception of them. So the scientific community really has very little time to repair the dents in the credibility of climate science – and get the public back on board.

It would be too late to wait until the next IPCC report is published. What those in the world of climate science need to undertake is a comprehensive and credible recap of what is known about climate change and more transparent examination and commentary on the areas that are causing most dispute. This needs to be communicated in a way the public can understand. That is easier said than done. It is also exasperating for scientists who resent having to spend increasing amounts of time explaining the science, rather than working on the science itself. That’s too bad. Increasing scrutiny is being placed not only on the research results of climate science but the funding of climate science programmes and organisations.

A more informed discussion on climate change with more input from scientists also needs to happen in the mainstream media – not the blogosphere. A good example of what we need to see more of is this Q&A piece published on the Herald website today, where NIWA climate scientist Dr Jim Renwick is asked to answer questions submitted by Herald readers. In some short answers he is quickly able to cut through some of the misconceptions about climate change. We need more of this type of thing.

I ask nearly everyone I meet what they think about climate change and the majority of them are sceptical of the human component of it. But when you probe a bit further and ask them to explain why, the usual sceptic arguments that have played out extensively in the media are usually referenced. Meanwhile, global warming predictions often appear hysterical in contrast to what the sceptics have to say. As Dr Renwick explains:

We’ve already discovered that the deficit model of science communication is ineffective. As this essay points out
In modern societies – particularly given the power and pervasiveness of today’s communications technologies – trust and respect need to be generated; they cannot be taken for granted or imposed from above, whether in science or any other type of social activity.

That implies the need for an openness to dialogue, and a willingness to come out from behind closed walls, whether these belong to the ivory towers in which scientific knowledge has traditionally been produced, or the boardrooms and corridors of power in which key decisions about the production and application of this knowledge are taken.

This is something that those involved in climate science still need to get their heads around. If it wasn’t important before it is now fundamental to everything people in the field do. As Zim Sherman writing in the letters page of today’s Otago Daily Times (see below) sums up:
All the knowledge in the world is meaningless unless you let it out of the box
From the Otago Daily Times, Jan 25, 2010

From the Otago Daily Times, Jan 25, 2010