We assume scientists don’t agree on the causes of climate change, despite 97% of them attributing it to human activity. This assumption has important consequences for action being taken to tackle climate change and highlights challenges for public engagement on the issue.
The European Perceptions of Climate Change survey run by Ipsos MORI on behalf of an international research consortium co-ordinated by Cardiff University, shows many think there is a ‘man-made’ versus ‘natural’ debate among the scientific community; only 24% - 33% in the UK, France, Germany and Norway believe the vast majority of scientists agree that climate change is happening and that humans are largely causing it. A further 25% - 31% believe half or fewer of scientists agree on this.
Figure 1: Public perception of the scientific consensus around climate change
This is unlikely to be a trust issue. Eight in ten (80%) trust scientists to tell the truth most of the time in Ipsos MORI’s Veracity Index; making scientists among the top 5 most trusted professions. Only one in ten (9%) disagree that the information they hear about science is true in the Public Attitudes to Science survey. Scientists – other than those working for private companies - are the most trusted to tell people about the impacts of climate change specifically, much more so than the media according to Ipsos MORI’s research for Defra.
So if there is a scientific consensus, and people trust scientists to tell them the truth in general, and about climate change in particular, why is the scientific consensus so dramatically underestimated?
Overestimation of climate scepticism may lie in media coverage and the requirement for ‘balanced reporting’ – it has been argued (and also self-reported) that dissenting scientists gain more media attention than their prevalence would merit. This shows the Perils of Perception – the public often inaccurately estimate the prevalence of views or phenomena. Ipsos MORI’s research demonstrates this can particularly apply to those issues which are challenging to estimate through personal experience and are often in the media spotlight – for example most publics overestimate their countries’ Muslim population.
So does this misperception matter?
At least eight in ten agree that the world’s climate is changing, so why worry about belief in a scientific consensus about the causes?
Europeans now see climate change as a ‘here and now’ issue that needs to be tackled. However, the extent to which man-made activity is considered a cause - and by extension, something that needs to be tackled? - is far more mixed. Only 34% - 55% think that climate change is mainly or completely caused by human activity.
Figure 2: Perceived causes of climate change
We think this matters; it impacts how likely people are to both take and support mitigation and adaptation action – support for various policies on energy transformation and action on climate change are strongly correlated with belief in its causes according to this new research.
The Recommendations for Public Engagement report, published by Climate Outreach, highlights that there may be merit, however, to an increased focus by communicators on the social consensus around climate change. This refers to generating the public’s own mandate for action by raising awareness of the shared belief in climate change, and widespread support for some mitigation strategies, such as use of renewables.
Whatever the best way forward, it is expected that this finding is also likely to be the cause of some reflection within the scientific community around how it communicates and engages with the public.