Are Scientists to Blame for Climate Change Skepticism?

Yesterday a British panel exonerated climate scientists at the center of last year's Climategate scandal. The scientists had been charged with manipulating scientific evidence to support their beliefs in global warming, but Wednesday's panel cleared them of wrongdoing.

Dr. Apostolos Voulgarakis, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, told Big Think today that scientists could do more to stem the recent tide of doubt regarding global warming. And yesterday's findings, he said "will not be enough to convince skeptics."

Climate change skepticism is at an all-time high, regardless of yesterday's news. A Gallup poll in March showed that Americans are growing less concerned with global warming, with 48% of those surveyed believing the threat to be "generally exaggerated." This number is up from 30% in 2006. Even in the U.K., support for climate change is on the wane. A recent poll showed 78% percent of people surveyed believed the world's climate to be changing, compared with 91% five years ago. The poll also showed that 40% of Brits viewed the dangers of climate change as "exaggerated." But according to a recent study, this doubt is not shared by the scientific community: 97% of active climate researchers believe that climate change is a real and man-made threat. 

So what will it take to convince climate skeptics? According to Dr. Voulgarakis, it will require serious changes in "the way scientists present things and in the way we advertise our work." Some scientists argue that findings should be presented in ways that make them more easily comprehensible; others argue exactly the opposite. But the most important thing, said Voulgarakis, is that "data must be more open to the public."

"There will always be some flaws in methodology," Voulgarakis said. "That doesn't mean that the science is not credible." If scientists are more transparent about their methods and if the public better understands the arduous processes involved in order to reach a conclusion, the public will be less likely swayed by news like last year's Climategate scandal. "The more we let them know about what we're doing, the better," he said. 

Dr. Voulgarakis added that the media is partly to blame as well. When the Climategate news first broke, it made headlines; now that the uproar has been discredited, the findings are relegated to page 9 of today's Times. "Spicy" stories, he said, would always be more attractive to newspapers. Still, Voulgarakis did not want to shift too much blame onto the media. "The media do their job; I'm not one to judge their mentality," he said. And he reiterated that the onus was on scientists to better present their findings, rather than to rely on the newspapers to do so.

In a recent interview with Big Think, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Norway's Special Envoy on Climate Change to the UN, also discussed climate skepticism, and she placed the blame not on scientists but on special interest groups, drawing parallels between the climate change and tobacco debates:

"A lot of effort has gone in to try to undermine reality," said Brundtland. "A lot of resources, a lot of thinking and a lot of money has gone into trying to influence the world in a negative way. And this is, well we have the same issue with the tobacco companies if we go back -- well it's not over, but at least it became clear to many that the tobacco companies in fact were misbehaving, lying to the U.S. Congress and putting a lot of effort into undermining public health efforts. So, I think we have an aspect of this also with regard to climate change."

For more on the climate change debate and other environmental issues, check out our recent series "Balancing People, Planet and Profit: The Future of Business Sustainability."

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