Science doesn’t deal in absolutes. Instead, science is the process. Scientists (the people that science) use doubt in established explanations of how the world works to create new theories that attempt to improve upon the old. New theories are rigorously tested, rejected theories are consigned to the history books, while theories that doubt cannot reasonably falsify are held up as our best explanation of reality. Individual scientific theories rise and fall, but given enough time, and enough brains working together, a stable understanding of our world emerges.
The following are some of those stable understandings that exist from the field of climate science, where it is almost inconceivable that they will be now overturned through further investigation (Rahmstorf 2004). Or to use normal people language: They. Are. Facts.Carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has risen dramatically since the industrial revolution.
- In 1850, CO2 concentration (measured in parts per million, a measurement that tells us, if you were to randomly pick a million gas molecules out of the atmosphere, about how many would be CO2) was at roughly 280 ppm. Today CO2 ppm the atmosphere is at around 420ppm.
- This rise in CO2 levels has been caused by human activity. Mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, with additional contribution from land use (deforestation and agriculture) and industrial processes.
- This additional CO2 effects the earth’s climate by changing its radiation budget, the overall balance between incoming energy from the sun and the outgoing thermal and reflected energy from the earth.
- Such changes have led to the average global temperature increasing by around 1°C since the start of the industrial revolution.
- Natural causes, such as fluctuation in solar activity, have played little to no role in the temperature increase.
While doubt, or to give it its scientific term skepticism, is an essential step in high quality sciencing, the concept can become poisonous when applied too liberally, or even weaponised by those that intend to deliberately mislead. This post looks at the prevalence of those that deny this scientific consensus on climate change and tries to uncover the ongoing global trends in climate change beliefs.
Is climate change denial on the rise, or is the science finally starting to win through?
If you’re looking for someone going for the easy dunk on the fringe loons, you might be disappointed, but if you’re here for graphs, statistics, and buckets of pedantic nuance you’ve come to the right place.
You can’t deny what you don’t know
Before I jump into the fun denialist stuff, I should acknowledge that we live in a big world where all 8 billion(ish) of us aren’t necessarily on the same page when it comes to the basics of climate change. Like, for example, that it’s a thing.
Recent (Feb 2021) polling from Yale/Facebook demonstrates this awareness gap quite nicely (Leiserowitz et al 2021). Their findings indicate that around a third of people in Nigeria, and around 20% of people in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Malaysia, India, and South Africa are currently unaware of climate change.
This data was collected through the Facebook platform itself, as such, people from lower income backgrounds or low literacy rates are likely underrepresented. So, climate change awareness is probably even lower than reported here, especially in low- and middle- income countries (although you’d be surprised just how far the tentacles of Facebook have reached lately).
This awareness gap undoubtably presents a significant barrier to tackling climate change in some countries. That said, awareness appears to have improved substantially over the last decade.
In 2008/9, Gallup conducted an extensive survey of 119 countries for their World Poll series. In the survey, respondents were asked a very similar question to that of the Yale/Facebook survey (Q: ‘How much do you know about global warming or climate change?’ Response options: ‘I have never heard of it’, ‘I know something about it’, ‘I know a great deal about it’, or ‘I don’t know’). The following figure shows the percentage that indicated they knew something or a great deal about climate change.
It’s not an ideal comparison, but if the Yale/Facebook data was plotted using the same criteria, we would see significant improvement in awareness from Egypt, India, South Africa, Indonesia, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria since the Gallup poll.
If we’re being cautious and judging the Yale/Facebook findings to be an underestimate due to the access issue, I think we can still be confident of increased climate change awareness. The following graph is made from data collected by the research institute Afrobarometer who conduct face-to-face public opinion surveys across Africa. If layered directly on to the Gallup map most of Africa would be the top two darkest blue.
Scepticism or denial?
As always, one of the first things we need to do in any social science research into belief is have a tedious and finicky debate about terminology. Hey, I don’t make the rules, sometimes we’ve just got to be pedantic, and in this case the pedantry comes in the form of ‘what do we call the beliefs that go against the scientific consensus?’.
Often the media, and much of the scientific literature in fact, refers to such a belief as ‘climate change scepticism’. This bugs me (mainly because that’s our word and they’re not using it right!). But I get it, denial can be a strong label for someone that hasn’t really thought about a topic that much and are perhaps using proxy cues, such as their politics or religion, to inform their opinions. Also given the lack of awareness in some parts of the world maybe scepticism makes sense. After all, in everyday language scepticism is often used interchangeably with cynicism and disbelief, so it does fit quite neatly.
Sadly, not everyone that voices a disbelief in climate change is doing so with sincere intentions, and, as the climate scientist Michael Mann puts it, “when we falsely label climate-change denialism as “scepticism” it legitimizes disinformation and muddies the climate communication waters. It makes concessions to those who have no interest at all in good-faith engagement, are unmovable in their views, and are intentionally trafficking in doubt and confusion.” Mann 2021, p261
So, here’s a compromise. Just as with vaccine beliefs, let’s use a continuum. The people that appear to be making a concerted effort to misrepresent the scientific consensus on climate change as false, irrespective of their particular claim, let’s call these people ‘climate change denialists’. The unsure middle people that might be convinced about the science of climate change though the use of careful communication, we can use the colloquial use of the word sceptic and call them ‘climate change sceptics’, with the acknowledgement that different people may hold different levels of attachment to the beliefs held within.
But as scientists, and science minded people, we engage in skepticism with a ‘K’. Which is the process of evidence accumulation through falsification.
Everyone happy? No? Well, let’s continue anyway.
Climate change scepticisms
“It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. But we can fix it”. This is the tag line from Dr Kimberly Nicholas’s excellent new book Under the Sky We Make. Aside from perfectly encapsulating climate change in, what is probably, the least number of non-swearing words possible, the line also works particularly well as a taxonomy of the different positions of opposition that are often staked out within climate scepticism.
And lucky for us, there is polling data that neatly fits into each of these topics.
We’ll look at the first three in the rest of this post and save “It’s bad” and “But we can fix it” for another day, as the belief in those concepts deserve far more space to breathe than we have room for here.
Trend Scepticism (it’s not warming)
The first stop on our scenic tour through the world of climate scepticism is that of trend scepticism. Put simply, trend scepticism is the, falling at the first hurdle, basic disbelief that the world’s climate is changing due to a warming trend since the industrial revolution.
There’s not a great deal of data that looks directly at trend scepticism. Often this belief is lumped in with the next scepticism we’ll look at, attribution scepticism. However, there have been a couple of recent international survey questions that look at the concept. Firstly, we have this from the Yale/Facebook (2021) study (full question text beneath the figure):
And secondly there is this from the European Social Survey (2016):
Both questions give us a useful indication of which countries hold the strongest scepticism/denial of climate change. In the Yale/Facebook question, Australia and the US stand out with 10% and 12% of their respondents indicating a lack of belief in a changing climate, and from the European Social Survey (2016 data), Russia leads Europe as the most trend sceptic country, at around 16% of respondents doubtful that the climate is changing.
From the European Social Survey, it is also important to note that while most respondents are certain, or lean towards accepting, that the climate is changing, there are considerable levels of uncertainty across many countries. In Finland, Norway, and Hungary, for example, there is relatively low levels of outright denial, however, less than half of respondents are definitely sure a warming trend exists.
Attribution & Consensus Scepticism (it’s not us & we’re not sure)
Science has wiggle room, and for most of the last two decades a dysfunctional media landscape has inadvertently used this wiggle room to make us all dumber.
Turn on TV news in the late 2000’s/early 2010’s, and if a world leading climate scientist was talking about how human activity is very likely changing our climate, then, you could all but guarantee up next would be some random guy arguing the opposite. This false balance, a counterproductive attempt for news organisations to appear less bias, was the hallmark of that era’s climate change discourse and likely caused irreparable damage to public understanding of the concept (Brüggemann & Engesser 2017).
Any good faith scientific disagreement that did exist at that time was quickly bastardised into deflection and obscuration, as those with vested interests were actively encouraged to spout their bad faith arguments to a, largely, uninformed public. Add in an unhealthy dollop of political polarisation, and the first great climate scepticisms of the 21st century were born: Attribution scepticism (the belief that human activity is not to blame for the increase in global greenhouse gas levels or the associated global temperature increase) and consensus scepticism (the belief that the science of climate change is not yet settled).
And as the old saying goes, with great scepticism, comes great public polling.
The Climate Change in the American Mind project from Yale university is a wonderfully specific in-depth tracking survey that collects nationally representative data, twice a year, on American beliefs and attitudes about climate change. Seeing as the survey has been running since 2009, it has managed to build up quite the dataset for investigating trends in climate change scepticisms.
Their most recent report (March 2021) demonstrates a small but clear trend in anthropogenic (human caused) climate change belief over the last decade or so.
If we take their first data point in 2009 as spurious (which is debatable, but potentially fair), then the last decade has seen a 10 to 15 percentage-point increase in those that believe that “global warming is caused mostly by human activities”, from a low of 46% in January 2010 to a high of 62% over the last couple of years. This increase corresponded with a, roughly, 5% decrease in those that believe that “global warming is caused mostly by natural changes in the environment”. The disparity likely implying a move of the undecideds towards a belief in anthropogenic climate change, and a relatively stable sceptical segment of the American public (30% +/- 5%).
A more pronounced trend can be seen with consensus scepticism, where people that previously believed “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists” have moved towards holding a “most scientists think global warming is happening” position.
A hard-line 2-5% remain in, what I think is fair to call, denial, believing that “most scientists think that global warming is not happening”.While a trend in the right direction is clearly occurring, this still only represents a little over half of the American public (57%) that currently hold a firm belief in the scientific consensus.
Trends are hard to see at a global level due to the lack of high-quality tracking surveys such as the Climate Change and the American Mind project. So instead, we must make do with some messy between survey comparisons. Thankfully, after the Gallup World Poll asked about awareness of climate change in 2008, they also asked about belief in the anthropogenic cause of climate change. To do so they asked the following: “Q: Temperature rise is a part of global warming or climate change. Do you think rising temperatures are…?” Response options: “A result of human activities”, “A result of natural causes”, and an unprompted “Both” option. The below figure shows the percentage of respondents in each country that were aware of climate change and that attributed climate change to human activity.
In a recent study by Levi, from which the above figure is taken, the author was kind enough to remove the legwork out of this next part for us. They collected up-to-date findings from a range of data sources (the European Social Survey, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the European Investment Bank, Latinobarometro, and Afrobarometer) to create the following comparison graph demonstrating regional trends in anthropogenic climate change belief.
While this method of comparison is far from perfect (see this article for why we might want to be sKeptical of such findings), it does indicate that the world is moving roughly in the right direction. A trend towards greater belief in anthropogenic climate change is clear in Latin America and Europe, slight in North America, and belief is stable in Africa. That said, these trends don’t necessarily guarantee a decrease in hard-line attribution scepticism, as, again, it could be undecideds moving towards accepting the science while the sceptical stay sceptical (and become denialists). But for now, let’s take it as a win.
Side note: Look at how far ahead Latin America is, and has been for a while, in believing the science of climate change! This is a theme that keeps cropping up in the international polling which I will have to delve into more in the future.
Of course, it’s not really the binary belief that we’re most interested in, but rather which way the middle people lean when considering the cause of climate change. To get a sense of this aspect I have reproduced some recent findings from the European Social Survey (2016), YouGov (2020), and Afrobarometer (2019). Seeing as humans are almost entirely the cause for long-term changes in the climate (ref), I’ve coloured each graph so that blue indicates being in line with the science, and cream is close enough that there’s hope of conversion with the right communication (again, comparison is not ideal due to different questions).
What strikes me here is the sizable chunk of various countries, sometimes up to around 50%, still holding a ‘both human and natural causes’ belief. To me, this signals a hangover from the years of false balance and disinformation campaigns. It’s doubt hiding in the shadows of uncertainty, but it’s probably not an unmovable denial. Anthropogenic causes have a foot in the door, we just need to keep pushing.
In Africa, however, the findings here is likely more to do with the awareness and knowledge gap mentioned earlier. Take Nigeria for instance. Almost 40% of respondents believe that climate change is due to natural causes. This belief is taking place within a public where, as the Yale/Facebook figure below shows, over half of respondents indicated that they “need a lot more information” before they make up their mind on issues surrounding climate change. I find it hard to believe that there isn’t an overlap between these two groups.
Findings from Africa, and many other low- and middle-income countries, therefore, shouldn’t worry us too much in my opinion. The kind of countries we want to pay close attention to are the high climate scepticism and high ‘I do not need any more information’ countries. Wrong and certain is a clear sign of festering denial, I’m looking at you US and Australia (and probably us here in the UK if I’m honest).
Is climate change scepticism dead now then?
The existence and causes of climate change have been unequivocable for decades now, but society doesn’t science like scientists. Societies science is socially constructed. Sources of information are trusted or distrusted to different degrees, messaging is consumed through a self-(and algorithmically)-curated field of information, which in turn builds a gut feeling about the science. Such a system for understanding the world is usually fine for our day-to-day life, but for a complicated issue such as climate change, where uncertainty is high and so are the vested interests, our guts can sometimes lead us down the dark hole of climate change scepticisms.
Are the scepticisms described above dead now, as is often claimed by climate change commentators? Absolutely not, but I do think it’s fair to say that they are in decline and will continue to fall in popularity. This argument doesn’t so much come from the trends in the polling data, but instead from the fact that climate denialists are starting to be given less in the way of platforms to shout their garbage from, and those that are given a platform are starting to shout about qualitatively different garbage.
Hopefully the recent IPCC report will be the final nail in the coffin for this kind of OG climate change scepticism. But of course, just because an individual concedes to the basic science of climate change, it doesn’t mean they are beyond being catastrophically wrong in a myriad of other ways.
Next time, climate scepticism 2.0: impact scepticism and response scepticism.
Brüggemann, M., & Engesser, S. (2017). Beyond false balance: How interpretive journalism shapes media coverage of climate change. Global Environmental Change, 42, 58–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2016.11.004
Lee, T. M., Markowitz, E. M., Howe, P. D., Ko, C. Y., & Leiserowitz, A. A. (2015). Predictors of public climate change awareness and risk perception around the world. Nature Climate Change, 5(11), 1014–1020. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2728
Leiserowitz, A., Carman, J., Buttermore, N., Wang, X., Rosenthal, S., Marlon, J., & Mulcahy, K. (2021). International Public Opinion on Climate Change. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Facebook Data for Good.
Motta, M., Chapman, D., Stecula, D., & Haglin, K. (2019). An experimental examination of measurement disparities in public climate change beliefs. Climatic change, 154(1), 37-47.
Rahmstorf, S. (2004). The climate sceptics. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, 76–82. http://www.pik-potsdam.de/stefan/Publications/Other/rahmstorf_climate_sceptics_2004.pdf
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