Why is there so much doubt surrounding climate change?

By Max Leighton

The Paradox

There is a befuddling paradox surrounding what we believe about climate change. There is a huge body of scientific analysis that has been amassing over the past few decades, which overwhelmingly points the finger at us. This stream of evidence is continuously increasing.

Five international reports have been written collating and reviewing the data by a team of leading international scientists that make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC now state with 95% confidence that we are the cause of the observed increase in global temperature. John Tyndall proved that water vapour and other greenhouse gases cause atmospheric warming back in 1861.

However, and unsurprisingly for a few factors later discussed in this blog, there is still huge doubt and confusion about whether climate change is happening and whether we are the cause.

No ‘Smoking-Gun’

One major issue for communicating the science is there is no real stand-out piece of evidence, no ‘smoking-gun.’ The evidence is accumulative. Imagine each piece of evidence is a child in Trafalgar lunch hall – they do not make much noise on their own, but together their voices and their cutlery and their tumblers make quite a racket.

The going rate for a published and peer-reviewed paper that does not accept we are the cause is around 1 to 1000. There is incredibly strong consensus across scientific institutions and scientific academies and one notable survey found that 97% of climate papers that state a view, agree that we are the cause, illustrated below. Papers published by scientists that actually study the climate. In real-terms, the only people debating whether or not climate change is real, aren’t the ones researching it.


Climate Science is Imprecise

This debate has been fuelled with a widely known and reported characteristic of climate science. One that climate scientists are the first to voice; its imprecision. The weather man has historically been notoriously inaccurate and imprecise, although with developments in supercomputers the five-day regional forecast has improved greatly.

Predicting the changes that will occur between now and 2030, 2050, 2100, and grappling with the entire global system Climate, is a truly momentous task. The grandeur of this is demonstrated by the scales involved. The number of influencing factors are seemingly infinite, and in addition the interactions between these must be calculated. Climate science is imprecise, but the body of evidence accurately points towards us as the agents of this observed change.

Accuracy is not an Issue, however..

We can tell to a high degree of accuracy that we are warming our planet, however we can only approximately figure out by how much and what this will do. This is one of the key challenges of communicating the science behind climate change. This imprecision has made it fairly easy to pick holes and form an argument against, typically with cherry-picked data.

Even BP Agree

We are pretty certain we as a species are walking towards a cliff; in the scientific arena this is a given; even BP unreservedly agree that we will surpass the 2°C threshold, a politically agreed threshold generally deemed to represent the level of dangerous climate change. This is the balance struck between playing Russian Roulette with our climate and not driving the global economy into the ground. The real debate however is about how far away is the cliff, and how high it is.

Statistics or Story?

We have been bombarded with statistics and complex science. At the ‘Big Day of Action’ associated with the new play ‘2071,’ about the work of climate scientist, Chris Rapley, a topic of discussion was raised by a friend who works for Climate Outreach Information Network; ‘communicating through statistics is far less engaging than learning through narratives or analogy.’ Not that a stand-out statistic is not effective, but we have been somewhat overloaded with numbers. An approach to keep in mind when communicating the issue in Richmond borough.


The Carbon Credit Card

As said above it doesn’t really matter how much we are going to warm our planet; what matters is that we are, and we have enough easily obtainable, proven fossil fuel reserves to surpass this all important 2°C threshold many times over. We are spoiling the stable conditions we have been gifted in the current Holocene epoch (11,700 yrs – present). But we are using our carbon credit card to play at geopolitics, not really knowing about the interest rates we will have to pay back.

Smart Communities

Our energy team at SLWEN are offering free energy audits. Simple changes like installing a chimney balloon, or reflective sheet behind a radiator can add up to create a vast improvement in insulation. An energy monitor is provided so that you can see how much energy the dishwasher uses, the living room light burns or the tumble drier actually uses. Please contact us if you are interested in a free energy efficiency audit at hello@swlen.org.uk.

97% Climate scientists statistic – Doran et al. 2009 & Anderegg et al. 2010

Max Leighton

Communications Officer with SWLEN 2014 (Volunteer)