Saturday, January 9, 2010

What would it take to change minds about climate change?

In the light of polls such as that of The Times, I've asked why parties of the Right might tend to be more sceptical about climate change. And I've asked why parties of the Left might tend to believe in climate change.

What about those people who don't care much about politics? Those who might say, if asked about who they might vote for, "They're all as bad as each other", "If voting changed anything, they'd abolish it", or "Nah, not really bothered, mate"?

I think the psychology is actually fairly trivial here, for once.

My sense is that there's natural scepticism among such people about any new grand claim, especially one where there seems to be loud debate. The effects can also appear a long way in the future, and small in size at first glance. However, the costs of dealing with it are real, now and unwelcome.

So what would change minds here?

It'd be wonderful if it were calm rational assessment of the evidence. That's not going to happen. At least not among the people I'm talking about here who are untrained in scientific method.

Alternatively, it'd be great if what would change minds is listening careful to the arguments for and against, put by experts. However, many sceptics dispute the basic facts, let along the complex models and proxies; and both sides have an arsenal of rhetorical tricks to throw at their opponents, an arsenal that militates against listeners getting closer to the truth.

So in the absence of an inclination to investigate the science more deeply, what would change minds?

Here are some suggestions...

1. If those on one side of the argument started to appear like crackpots. The sceptics had this problem in the early days, now neutralised by the groundswell of right-wing columnists showing scepticism. The climate change believers, though, in desperation at the failure of COP15, are deploying wilder rhetoric, and thus may appear more crackpot-like. Influential columnists and newspapers changing their view (either way), would increase the chances of the other side being seen as crackpots.

2. If one side started to appear self-interested hypocrites. See, for example, the emails of the Climate Research Unit at UEA; Gordon Brown being seen as wanting an excuse to raise taxes; or David Cameron cycling while a car carries his shoes. The astroturfing of the oil companies, airlines and other threatened industries hasn't seemed to have impinged on public perception.

3. If something really bad happened that popular consciousness blamed on climate change or challenged climate change. Hurricane Katrina did this for many Americans. But scientists have been so careful to emphasise that one-off weather events really can't be used as evidence for long-term climate changes that perhaps an equivalent event wouldn't have the same effect in Britain. Nevertheless, there has been a huge number of people (Andrew Neil included) smugly trotting out idiocies such as "If the globe is warming up then where did all this snow come from, eh?" So perhaps a couple of long, parched summers or flooding in London might have the opposite effect.

4. Erm... there must be more... No?