Climate Change and Scientific Debate – The Messenger Matters

What a week it’s been for the climate debate in Australia. The furore surrounding Christopher Monckton’s visit, the letter signed by 50 academics calling for a cancellation of his speaking engagements, the ensuing backlash against those petitioners by readers of The West Australian and of course Tony Abbott’s very public swipe at the calibre of our leading economists.

After all that, you could be forgiven for thinking the very basis of scientific debate on climate change is in question.

But are the ‘anti-climate change’ arguments posited this past week a fair reflection of changing public opinion regarding climate change?

In March 2011, CSIRO reviewed 21 recent studies examining Australians’ views of climate change, their beliefs about human-induced climate change, their support for various policy responses to climate change and to what extent public views had changed since the previous Garnaut review in 2008. (CSIRO, 2011)

While it is difficult to reconcile the results from all 21 studies (as question framing often differs by study), on balance the review indicates climate change “believers” are still the majority, but are on the decline. For example between 2008 and 2010, the proportion of people who believe climate change is at least partly human induced seems to have dropped about 10 percentage points on average. Accordingly, those who believed climate change was a result of natural causes rose from 21% in 2008 to 31% in 2010. (CSIRO, 2011)

Perhaps, we can blame part of this decline to the politicisation of the issue originating with the announcement of the CPRS (the Rudd-government’s emission trading scheme). As soon as a publically funded mitigation policy was announced, the gloves came off and the issue ceased to be viewed primarily through the lens of scientific enquiry.  

Once politicised, climate change brings to the fore ideologies and rhetoric, enough to dismay any scientist. But all is not lost I believe, once we accept that climate change is, publically, a political issue as much as a scientific issue. We then begin to realise that this challenge to science-based policy is not unique to climate change and we can chart our way forward out of the quagmire of partisan politics.

Overly optimistic?

Let’s see.

In a study of US print media portrayal of the climate debate, Antilla (2005) observed that the attack on climate science replicates previous assaults on science, such as by the pesticide industry (with respect to DDT), coal-burning utilities (when acid rain was identified as a serious environmental problem), and the chemical industry (effect of CFCs on stratospheric ozone).

Nissani (2007, p. 37) notes “there have always been experts willing to back up a ‘profitably mistaken viewpoint’; there have always been efforts ‘to cover the issue in a thick fog of sophistry and uncertainty’ and to ‘unearth yet one more reason why the status quo is best for us’.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Australian research citing similar precedents, but I assume they are there.

So if we accept that the politicisation of climate change is not unique, perhaps we can get over the frustrations that somehow we are missing the ‘magic pudding’ of finely crafted evidence-based scientific discourse.

But why should we doubt the ability for rational argument to win the day – after all, 97% of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing and these changes are largely driven by human activity?

We should perhaps doubt that rational argument alone is sufficient because this is not a game of knowledge or of facts; but a battle for perception.

In their 2010 study “The Persistence of Political Misconceptions”, Nyhan and Reifer posit the correction of incorrect information in polarised political issues does not necessarily lead to a rejection of misconceptions. In fact, through three experiments in the US, they found that the correction of factually incorrect information could backfire, leading to more polarisation. Quoting from their conclusions: “As a result, the corrections fail to reduce misperceptions among the most committed participants. Even worse, they actually strengthen misperceptions among ideological subgroups in several cases” (p. 315).

If last week’s reaction to climate change issues by some segments of the WA public are any indication, the hypotheses put forward by Nyhan and Reifer’s have unfortunately been validated.

So if the correction of factual misconceptions does not always make things better, this implies the energy expended on the correction of misconceptions may be wasted, and the messages that enter into the public dialogue may be largely defined by the political opposition. Hence the dilemma: Do we fight on, or step back from the argument and, perhaps, seek to do no harm? Or is there a ‘third way’?

Returning to the CSIRO research review; while on the decline, ‘climate change’ believers still represent the majority. This suggests the science-based study of climate change, and its consequences have been communicated and largely accepted. On top of this, there is quite likely a group of “undecided’s” (my term, not a group defined by the CSIRO review, but one that forms in relation to any policy issue).

Rather than reacting to the message of the most “rusted on” anti climate change brigade, a more profitable communications strategy might be to identify and target the “undecided’s” (The US the Yale Climate Change Project has named this group “the cautious” representing 21% of the adult population – Yale, 2011). Of course, to effectively communicate with distinct attitudinal groups we need to know their concerns, hopes, dreams and fears; which are unlikely to be restricted to scientific queries.

Therein lies another dilemma. On the one hand, as discussed, the correction of untrue information and errors may just fuel the flames of opposition; on the other hand, aren’t we required to make these corrections?

Yes, but this doesn’t mean we must disengage from the discourse. It is still important to assure that there is regularly refreshed knowledge-based information. It is important that there is education, both formal and informal. It is important that we constantly improve the ability to communicate the essence and the substance of complex problems. In a nutshell, the dilemma is the recognition that incorrect information must be corrected, accompanied by the realisation that such corrections do not necessarily lead to knowledge-based reconciliation of disagreements.

So how to chart a path forward?

I propose that “climate change mitigation” advocates do not hang on in quiet desperation: Instead, there should be a substantial amount of positive information arising from their actions and intellectual energy focused on developing and implementing solutions.

The knowledge from these activities serves not only to promote creativity solutions, but also to diversify the base of people who are advancing climate change as an important issue. Enabling these groups and individuals to air their views, they can take climate change out of the narrowly defined realm and culture of scientists, broadening the message, and revealing more opportunity that comes from addressing climate change as a societal value.

The messenger is critically important here: The most obvious way past the problem of the politicised messenger is to expand and diversify the messenger base. Perhaps the easiest diversification of the messenger base is to engage a far broader cross section of voices from the community of scientists. There are experts outside of the community of authors of classic papers (e.g., the Garnaut Review, CSIRO, etc.). These voices can bring new strength and perspectives to the body of knowledge. Often the most passionate of these voices are young, and if we have confidence in our efforts, then we should have confidence in those who have learned from us.

But in reality, the widest diversification of the messengers of climate change comes from the active inclusion of people who are positioning themselves to adapt to climate change. These responses can be found in energy utilities, local government, the insurance industry,  community actions groups, academics, and government researchers, and they not only bring forward voices who are responding to the body of climate-change knowledge, but they also untangle conflict-of-interest perceptions and provide concrete examples of the translation of climate science to action.

Now to a contentious point; one I’ve been leading up to in this post.  I believe there is an imbalance in the discourse. I believe there are too many people on the solution side, or on the scientific climate-research side and too few on the community side. I think we need to recognise the resources, perceptions, attitudes and behavioural responses inherent in the community and develop the capability for the community to both advance the argument and to contribute to development of the knowledge base.

I advocate, here, a re-framing of the climate and climate-change problem. Rather than this being, primarily, a scientific problem with scientists or an institutional service pushing information to under-informed audiences, we must develop community-based resources that allow for the participation of an informed community in the evolution of climate solutions.

I agree this is simple to say – more difficult to accomplish.


Antilla, L, (2005) Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change, Global Environmental Change 15, 338–352.

Essential Media (2010). Position on climate change, available at:, accessed 20th February, 2011.

Pollack, H., 2008. Uncertain Science in an Uncertain World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Nissani, M., 2007. Media coverage of the greenhouse effect. Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 21 , 27–43.

Nyhan, B & Reifer, J (2010) “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions”, Political Behavior, 32, 303–330.

Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, (2007) 1987-2007.