For some time now I have been trying to understand why there is a substantial minority of people who refuse to believe that anthropogenic global warming is happening.
When I say ‘a substantial minority’, my study suggests as many as 20% of people in the UK, 30% or more in the USA and anything from 10-20% in a range of European countries. Not only enough people to substantially effect our response to the issues arising from the subject, but also, if these people include influential individuals and decision-makers, enough to cause confusion and uncertainty in another substantial proportion of the population (perhaps 30%) and influence the policy-making decisions of those with the power to act.
A popular claim is that the disinformation and obfuscation campaign run/financed by industrial interests has been more successful in its intended target than the campaign by scientists and governments (well, most governments) to ‘raise awareness’ of the issues. This probably has some weight to it, but if I can see through the arguments, why can others not? It also doesn’t explain why the ‘disbelieving people’ are willing to believe what they read, even when counter-arguments or refutations are placed before them.
Several explanations come to mind. Most of these are negative responses to the messengers, rather than to the message itself. Distrust of politics or government and its motives is a frequent feature. There appears to be a widely-held assumption that the policy responses (so far) to the warnings of climate change have ulterior motives. Most common is the belief that what is being presented as climate policy is, in fact, energy or tax policy in disguise. When the case of the UK’s response to climate change is considered, it is easy to see why such a belief might be widely held; so far, the ‘general public’ has been held to account, and held responsible, for the problem, and therefore charged for the solution (at least, on the surface of things).
Another feature of ‘disbelief’ is a mistrust or (probably more significantly) a lack of understanding of science. Though this is most often manifested as claims such as that climate models have no predictive skill, this and other claims have at base a more fundamental lack of belief; that science is a pursuit of truth, or that scientific method is either logical or reliable. Another variant on this is the claim that scientists are colluding to produce evidence which supports political agendas or ‘consensus’ views, either to ensure further funding of work/ security of tenure, or to sustain a level of publication which would have at its base the same aim.
Two other ‘messengers’ appear frequently as causes of cynicism; the media and the ‘green’ movement. Both of these have, for different reasons, more to answer for than science or, arguably, government. The constant messages of impending disaster or ‘catastrophe’ peddled by broadly environmentalist groups is tiresome, normally hyperbolic to the point of falsity, and depressing, especially to individuals whose sense of control (or impotence) in the face of such massive threats is painful: such scenarios are likely to produce an existential anxiety in readers which demands a response; it is not surprising if that response is one of denial.
Then the media contribute to the generic neurosis of society by emphasising the negative over the positive, producing ‘bad news’ in preference to ‘good news’, and ‘spinning’ science to produce the most dramatic headlines or stories. If we understand this to be a part of the media’s job, it is understandable, but its effect is often negative, too, in that readers are aware enough of the manipulative intent of media to be cynical, without necessarily being aware enough of the underlying structural elements to which they often respond.
There is a great deal more to be said on this matter, but this is a start of what I hope becomes a longer process of attempting to understand how people respond to AGW.