Why are warnings about climate change not being heeded?

“Whither the climate change debate?” published on PR Week, September 2014 (cover story)

Global warming is a potential catastrophe for mankind and the planet. So why are warnings about climate change not being heeded? Claudia Delpero investigates.

The overwhelming consensus among scientists is global warming exists and temperatures will rise by at least two degrees over the next 80 years. The consequences could include rising sea levels, widespread flooding, displacement of millions of people, disease, drought, crop failure and species extinction.

It is a depressing vision that threatens the wellbeing, affluence and perhaps even existence of mankind. So you might think we would be heeding messages about the dangers of global warming.

Yet the evidence is that they seem to be falling on deaf ears. Our behaviour certainly has not changed much: the carbon content of our atmosphere has risen by two per cent since 2010 alone. And attitudes, the precursor to action, still have some way to go. According to NASA, 97 per cent of scientists agree the climate is very likely to be warming due to human activity, while an Ipsos Mori survey this July revealed a significant number of people in the US, UK and Australia (32, 24 and 25 per cent respectively) still do not believe this.

No wonder that in a speech at Imperial College London in April, Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, said that “the gulf between scientific reality and the public debate must seem unbridgeable”.

So what happened to all those climate change warnings that were so ubiquitous and seemed so pressing just a few years ago? Have we blown arguably the most important piece of communication we as a species have ever had to send or receive?

Much of the responsibility for the “gulf bet­ween science and the public debate” must lie with those who do not believe in climate change and who, for a variety of reasons, have successfully muddied the waters. Some have an ideological aversion to the state intervention needed to address climate change. Some do not like the res­traints on their behaviour that climate change would require. Others are simply contrarians.

According to an analysis of climate change rep­orting in six countries by the Reuters Institute of Journalism and Birkbeck College, ‘deniers’ are almost exclusively represented in the US and the UK. This may explain why in Ipsos Mori’s Global Trends, a survey across 20 countries, the US, UK and Australia are at the top of the list for the percentage of people doubting global warming is man-made.

The analysis also found that in these countries a particularly high propPRW_010914_Cover_0_001_1453524.pdfortion of climate coverage consists of opinion pieces rather than news content. This creates the impression that the scientific community is divided. It also transforms science into politics, a PR tactic used in the past against regulations on smoking, acid rain and the ozone layer, argue Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt…

Continue reading on PR Week, a monthly magazine of the Haymarket Media Group, September 2014 (cover story). 

Photo: Earth Rise as Seen From Lunar Surface. This image was taken before separation of the Lunar Module and the Command Module during the Apollo 11 mission, 1969. © NASA Images via Wikimedia Commons.