Labcoat Fridays: Climate Change and Public Perception

"Do you believe in global warming?"

This misguided, but thought-provoking question was the basis of two articles in a recent issue of Physics Today, a publication of the American Institute of Physics. One of the issues with this question is that when it comes to climate change, it's not about belief. That global warming is happening, and that humans are its primary cause, is a conclusion rooted in facts and evidence. The majority of scientists that work in the areas of climate and climate change have come to this conclusion. And when I say majority, I mean more than 95% - the topic is not up for dispute in the scientific community. Yes, there are some outliers who have different views, but that is the case in any scientific field. Regardless, indisputable data unequivocally demonstrates that global warming is real, it's happening now, and we are mostly responsible for it.

The other issue with the question, of course, is that it is precisely the kind of conversation that the general public is having regarding climate change. The general public perception on this matter varies from country to country, but in the United States, less than half of the population believes that global warming, if it is happening at all, has anything to do with human activity. The other part of public debate is the questioning of scientific consensus on the matter: only 40% of people think that most scientists agree that global warming is happening, and another 40% believe there is a LOT of disagreement in the scientific community on this issue. Clearly, this has nothing to do with reality, so why is there such a huge discrepancy between what is actually happening in the scientific community, and what the public perceives is going on?

The split in the public belief and concern about global warming. Data from 2011. Found here.

The reasons for the widespread public confusion are many. With hard economic times in the country today, people seem to be more likely to reject scientific climate change conclusions, possibly for the fear that the policies necessary to address the global warming issue may further worsen the economy. Another major reason is the ridiculous and on-going disinformation campaign waged by the media against the science of climate change. Those well skilled in the ways of the media and public relations find it easy to come up with clear and simple slogans that they repeat over and over. When you hear something so many times for so long, you start to believe it, no matter how false it actually is. The media doesn't help when it portrays climate change as a controversy, presenting opposing sides as equally valid, when in reality the two "sides" are 95% of the scientific community, braced with facts and evidence, versus the very few outliers.

But another culprit in public confusion lies with the scientists themselves. Or, to be more precise, how the scientist communicate, or fail to communicate, with the public. The general public isn't interested in all the basic scientific research, or all the models that were scrupulously developed to predict climate behavior, or how collected evidence then supported those models. No, people are more interested in how this climate change will affect them directly, and what their options are.

It doesn't help the case that historically, public agreement on a new scientific conclusion generally lags the scientific consensus by at least a century. This was the case with accepting the idea that the Earth is round and that it revolves around the Sun, instead of the other way around (also known as heliocentrism). The same thing happened with Einstein's theory of general relativity. And now, it's happening with climate change. Except this time, the consequences of waiting an entire century to do something about it could be dire.

Timelines for heliocentrism, relativity, and global warming due to greenhouse gases: scientific consensus and public agreement. Found here. By the way, "anthropogenic" means "human-caused".

So what can scientists do to help alleviate the public misconceptions about global warming? Well, for starters, they need to realize that some of the terms so widely used in science have completely different meanings for the general public. For example to a non-scientist, "theory" might mean a hunch or a speculation, rather than a solid scientific understanding of an issue. Similarly, "manipulation" comes off as illicit tampering, and not what it actually means - scientific data processing. A "scheme" is perceived as a devious plot rather than a systematic plan. The public hears the word "uncertainty" as ignorance, rather than a range of numbers. And an "error" is interpreted as a mistake, and not as a difference from the exact true number. So, can you imagine if I said that I was "manipulating the data to account for the error in the results, so that I could explain how my scheme relates to the theory being tested"? Don't I sound like a complete fraud and a malicious human being? But really all I said was that I was processing the data collected from experiments in order to understand why my numbers were deviating from the expected or true numbers. Words matter, and they matter a lot. It's no wonder that a scandal erupted back in 2009 over some stolen emails written by climate scientists. The researchers were accused of tampering with data, among other things, and the media went to town with this. Many investigations later, the scientists were found not guilty of any fraud or scientific misconduct, but the media was strangely silent on this outcome.

If you are wondering about the evidence that points to the fact that global warming is indeed happening, and that humans are the primary cause of it, here are some of the facts. Many observations have been made that show that the climate is definitely warming up. Temperatures are measured on the earth's surface, in the air, and in the ocean. All of these measurements show that warming is going on, and most of it is happening in the ocean. The sea level is rising all over the globe. The glaciers, Arctic ice, and the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass. To figure out whether humans are causing these changes, or if they are due to natural variations in climate, an entire branch of climate science has been developed. The conclusions of the extensive research done to answer this question show that most of the observed changes in the climate are due to an increase in the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Moreover, these changes are not a result of any natural occurrences, such as volcanic activity or changes in the Sun. The continuing increase in the greenhouse gases ever since the Industrial Revolution is clearly due to human activity. We are the major cause of global warming, and we are not off the hook.

The good news is, we can also make a change for the better. We can choose to reduce our greenhouse emissions in order to avoid a crisis that would affect our most basic needs, such as food, water, and safety. But we cannot wait forever to get started - such a crisis could very well arrive by the end of this century, leaving our children and grandchildren to deal with the consequences of our actions. And by the way, inaction is also a choice, one with serious side effects. Let's hope that the scientists learn to communicate their findings to the government more effectively, so that proper public policy could be established to deal with the very real phenomenon of global warming.


  1. LOVE this post. The question of "belief" when it comes to science drives me insane! It's not about how you feel no matter how much you want it to be - it's about evidence.

    I especially love your description of the words of science. I never thought about it much because those words are part of my vocabulary, but now that you point it out, "manipulating data" and other common phrases we use would sound very different to a non-science person.

    Thanks for writing this!

  2. Thank you! I did not used to think too much about the importance of words used in communicating science to non-science people, for the same reason as you - these words are part of my every day vocabulary. But I have been reading about science writing recently, which made me aware of how scientific jargon can take on a whole new meaning for someone without the science background. It's quite fascinating!

  3. I am so late, I had been wanting to read this post ever since you posted it, and only now was I able too. Thank you. And you are so right, everyone has to be informed.
    Everything is connected and the changes are already there, for example, there were reported cases of malaria as north as Finland. The consequences of climate change could be of huge impact because even with "small" average global temperature changes of 0.5 or 1 Celsius , insect populations can shift their habitats northwards, and whenever you have the vector + the susceptible ppulation + a germ, "new" epidemics can be expected in places where they would never have been expected before. And like this, there are many examples and not only in Biology.
    So a discussion on whether or not to believe in it seems.... irrelevant. We need to DO something. What gives me hope is that in the figure above showing the lag in scientific consensus , in the case of relativity the lag does not seem to be 100 years, but more like 30 ? Is that correct? Hopefully with the connectedness of the world, with the new media, the changes in public consensus can happen a lot faster than say in the 1600-s. At least we have the communication tools nowadays.

  4. You know, I hadn't even thought about the specific biological effects like that... I wonder if that would convince people better than just saying the ocean is getting warmer.
    I think the articles I linked to discuss why the theory of relativity lag was shorter - I don't remember the details, but I think it was because some indisputable evidence was discovered shortly after the theory came out?


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Bentwood Chair Makeover

DIY Wine and Beer Bottle Vases

Baby Gear