Public Opinion On Climate Change Not Altered By Scandals
May 21, 2014

Public Opinion On Climate Change Not Altered By Scandals

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

In 2009, hacked emails from the University on East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit allegedly showed misconduct by climate researchers – a development dubbed ‘climategate.’

Several months later, news reports surfaced that an error had been made in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report regarding the rate of ice melt in the Himalayas.

While those skeptical about the existence of climate change seized on these reports as evidence of biased climate science, opinions about the subject largely went unchanged in the aftermath of the so-called scandals, according to a new report published in Environmental Research Letters.

The study determined how often people around the world searched the Internet for information on climate change and found overall public interest in the topic has steadily fallen since 2007. The study team looked explicitly for searches on "climategate" between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, 2009. They discovered that the search pattern had a six-day "half-life," which means that search rate fell by 50 percent every six days. After 22 days, the amount of searches for climategate was just 10 percent of its peak. Information around climategate was mostly searched for in the United States, Canada and Australia.

The study scientists also followed the popularity of the term "global warming hoax" to determine the overall damaging effect of climategate and the IPCC mistake on how the public feels about climate change. They discovered that searches for the phrase were actually greater the year before the events than during the year afterward.

"The search volume quickly returns to the same level as before the incident," said study author Gregory Goldsmith, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University. "This suggests no long-term change in the level of climate-change skepticism.”

“We found that intense media coverage of an event such as 'climategate' was followed by bursts of public interest, but these bursts were short-lived,” he added.

The study team concluded that momentary scandals surrounding climate change science seem to have little effect of public opinion – a conclusion backed by independent polling data.

"There's a lot of handwringing among scientists, and a belief that these events permanently damaged public trust. What these results suggest is that that's just not true," said study co-author William Anderegg, a postdoctoral research associate in the Princeton Environmental Institute.

The study author conceded that climate change is not as high in the public consciousness as say, the salacious activities of celebrities like Tiger Woods – who experienced his own scandal around the same time. To overcome this apparent lack of interest, the researchers suggested communicating issues in terms familiar to the public rather than to scientists.

"If public interest in climate change is falling, it may be more difficult to muster public concern to address climate change," Anderegg said. "This long-term trend of declining interest is worrying and something I hope we can address soon."

"This is an important study because it puts scientists' concerns about climate skepticism in perspective," said Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton who was not directly involved in the research. "While scientists should maintain the aspirational goal of their work being error-free, they should be less distracted by concerns that a few missteps will seriously influence attitudes in the general public, which by-and-large has never heard of these episodes."