A March 2010 Gallup poll shows that 48% of Americans believe that global warming claims are exaggerated, and 35% of Americans think that global warming is not happening. Yet within the scientific community, a much higher portion of scientists believe that anthropogenic—i.e., human-caused—climate change is indeed occurring. For example, this informal study shows 98% of active climatologists (scientists who specialize in studying climate) believe in anthropogenic climate change.

Why is there such a gap?

My scientist friends will quickly claim that some of this is because non-scientists don’t appreciate some of the nuances of the science. For example, when I gave a talk earlier, an audience member said that carbon dioxide can’t possibly be causing climate change because it makes up less than 1% of the atmosphere. (The insinuation that 1% can’t impact a much larger system is obviously naïve. A single drop of the right kind of poison can kill you.)

But I think there’s a deeper problem. The real issue here is not that the general public is uneducated. Actually, I think it’s because they’re smarter than the pundits think and they’re detecting that sometimes ulterior motives get mixed in with climate change science. And so they reject it all.

Here are some recent examples:

1) The Seattle Times made a major science faux pas in a prominent front-page story on March 5th. The paper reported anecdotal evidence from coffee farmers and claimed it to be scientific evidence. Hat tip to Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center for catching the error and following up with the Seattle Times.

Although the Times’ sloppy reporting obviously does not disprove climate change, it contributes to the public’s general skepticism about climate change. Readers see this and lose trust in the Times to accurately report about climate change issues.

2) The leaked emails from Climate Research Unit of East Anglia (“ClimateGate”) poisoned public opinion about climate change. FactCheck.org has a nice summary of the controversy and concludes that the emails show the scientists acting as “jerks”, but they do not compromise the science behind their claims. The BBC reports that a review of the scandal found no malpractice, and the scientific community itself is not swayed by the event.

Although the emails did not change the scientific community’s view of climate change, they are easy for the general public to interpret as a conspiracy among scientists. The lack of professional conduct in the scientific community undermines credibility and trust.

3) Sometimes climate-related issues have been exaggerated for political motives. For example, Gov. Gregoire claimed in a recent Seattle Times op-ed that “there were nearly 100,000 ‘green jobs’ in Washington in 2009.” However, the Washington Policy Center observed that “the state was just re-labeling traditional jobs to make them appear green.” This sort of number manipulation undermines credibility about the economic feasibility of green jobs.

4) This is not the first time the public has heard doomsday stories. Before global warming was ever a buzzword, there was global cooling (in the 1970s). And the “Population Bomb” (published in 1968) was going to kill us all, if nuclear holocaust didn’t first.

Again, none of these examples prove or disprove climate change. But they do look foolish. The general public detects this silliness and climate-change credibility suffers via guilt by association.


photo credit: flickr