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Rising scepticism - a chill wind?

Richard Black | 17:52 UK time, Friday, 5 February 2010

Over the last few months, a number of British commentators have been trumpeting an increase in scepticism about climate change.

The cold weather (often claimed - incorrectly - to be a hemisphere-wide phenomenon), the University of East Anglia e-mail hack, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's lack of rigour over projections of Himalayan glacier melt, the weak outcome from the Copenhagen summit: all these and more have been proclaimed as factors that are said to be deflecting the public away from climate concern.

IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan SinghNow comes evidence from an opinion poll - commissioned by the BBC, carried out by Populus - indicating that in Britain at least, tales of increasing scepticism may be true.

The headline stats are that between November last year and the beginning of February this year, there has been a net 9% downwards swing in the proportion of Britons believing that "the Earth's climate is changing and global warming is taking place".

Having said that, three-quarters of the population still believes global warming is a real phenomenon.

However, only one quarter believes it is a fact and that it is largely man-made - down from two-fifths last November.

Determining the cause of this change, however, is less easy.

More than half of respondents said they were aware of news stories about "flaws or weaknesses in climate science".

But in this group, 16% said they were now more convinced of the risks of climate change, against only 11% who were less convinced; so if exposure to "ClimateGate" or "GlacierGate" or other such issues has done anything, it has increased confidence in the scientific picture of greenhouse warming.

Which perhaps leaves the weather as a key factor. Having to dig your car out of a snowbank and sending the kids out to make a snowman would, you might think, tend to mitigate against belief in warnings of a dangerously warming world ahead.

Backing this argument, 83% of respondents said they were aware of news stories about the "coldest winter on record" (substantially more than were aware of reporting on the Copenhagen summit, incidentally).

David Cameron in the ArcticSo if this poll gives an accurate reflection of a change in public opinion, who does it vindicate, who does it encourage, and who does it depress?

It hardly vindicates those who see all the various "gate" stories as "exposing the climate science fraud", because if anything - as discussed above - exposure to these stories co-incided with rising confidence in the science, although the numbers are small.

It will encourage those hoping for a crack to emerge in the cross-party consensus on climate change pervading UK politics at the moment.

With a general election looming and political advisers looking for anything that could give them an edge, the poll comes at an apposite time for anyone arguing that their particular party should break the mould and downscale plans for wind turbines, energy-efficient lightbulbs and "walking buses".

It might well depress anyone who sees climate change as a real and looming danger, whether for UK citizens or people in less affluent parts of the world. Bob Watson, chief science adviser for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said it was "very disappointing".

But should he be so gloomy? If the mood really has been changed by a localised spell of cold weather - and that is a theory rather than a conclusion, I know - it shouldn't depress them too much.

Because who knows? An unusually hot summer - and globally, January was the warmest on record, in case you missed it, and El Nino conditions pertain in the Pacific - and fickle opinion might turn again.

One set of people who perhaps ought to be concerned are those working in the British media.

It would be interesting to see whether all 83% of those who had heard it was the "coldest winter on record" were also aware that the cold snap did not apply to the whole globe or even half the globe, but was much more limited in its extent.

Were all editors as rigorous as they might have been in making sure this context was put across - or was the footage of British snowploughs and closed British schools so compelling as to banish thoughts of including balance from further afield?

In terms of the global politics of climate change, it's hard to see the poll results making any difference at all.

One of the lessons of Copenhagen is that the question of whether and how the international community will get to grips with rising emissions is currently in the gift of a small, select group of nations - and the UK isn't one of them.

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