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Climate deniers losing the battle for public opinion

As the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepares to publish its latest scientific assessment tomorrow aimed at informing policy makers, the deniers are readying themselves for a new assault on the truth.

Since the previous 2007 fourth assessment report confirmed the reality of anthropogenic climate change – that is change resulting from human activity – companies like Exxon Mobil, other fossil fuel corporations and free market champions like the filthy rich Koch brothers have spent huge sums of money trying to undermine it.

They have funded fake science and personal attacks on scientists. "Big hitters", like former chancellor Nigel Lawson have been recruited to the campaign. They have repeatedly rehashed denialist nostrums for publication in the right-wing press, including the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph.

But the result of all their efforts is that only 11% of British people believe that the climate isn’t changing as a result of human activity, according to a recent poll, and in the US, the figure is the same.

Yale University continuously tracks US public opinion and finds that Americans’ belief in the reality of global warming increased by 13% over two and a half years, from 57% in January 2010 to 70% in September 2012.

And the number of Americans who say global warming is not happening fell by almost half, from 20% to just 12%.

The reaction in Australia to the decision of new right-wing prime minister Tony Abbott (who famously called climate change "crap") to shut down the government-funded independent Climate Commission just two days after taking office, confirms that the deniers are on the wrong side of public opinion.

The commission was headed by Tim Flannery, one of the world's top climate scientists. It produced groundbreaking studies on the potential for solar power and the background to the extreme weather currently experienced in Australia.

In a matter of days Flannery and his colleagues were back in business as a publicly-funded, independent foundation. Individuals, companies and organisations from all over Australia sent in money to restart the work.   

As Flannery points out, 123 heat records were broken across Australia last summer and the bushfire season has begun already, at least a month early. Australians know crap when they see it.

The IPCC has dealt as best it can with the fact that the rate of warming has slowed over the past 15 years. Scientists are still not entirely agreed on the reasons for the hiatus, though the absorption of heat by the deep oceans is a major suspect.

To accommodate this uncertainty, the report widens the predicted range of lowest and highest temperature increase scenarios from between 1.5°C to 4°C to between 0.9°C and 5°C.

And in the final analysis, the science shows that humanity is on course over the next few decades to raise global temperatures by more than 2°C compared with pre-industrial levels.

However, the fact that the public is increasingly immune to climate deniers' self-serving message, does not mean politicians will be galvanised by this report to act on climate change. Quite the opposite.

Here’s just one example. David Cameron's adviser preparing for next year's global climate summit in Paris is one Tara Singh, a former lobbyist for the energy corporation Centrica. I don't think she will be proposing a binding deal on emissions reductions or cuts in fossil fuel subsidies.

Just as the Australian people themselves are now having to sustain climate science so we will all, as a global population, have to find ways to act on it through a renewal of democracy, legal protection for our natural home and a co-operative, sustainable energy economy based on insulation and renewables.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
26 September 2013

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