Why politicians are reluctant to stir up some issues, like global warming

A few days ago I published the following essay in the most-visited science website in the world, Watts Up With That. I posted it there because it had a wider international relevance than most of the pieces I write, which generally have an Australian context. I’ve edited it a little but you can read the original here.

A few weeks ago the G7, meeting in Bavaria, issued a statement about climate change. It was widely reported, and I wrote about it myself, here. What no one much commented on was that the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, had plainly agreed to it, yet his position is skeptical. That is to say, he is opposed to carbon taxes, has repealed or let lie dormant greenhouse gas measures that his predecessors had introduced, and has said that Canada will not do any thing further after the Kyoto accord. Yet he agreed to the G7 statement, which among other things called for ‘deep cuts in global greenhouse emissions’.

Or consider our own Prime Minister, who famously said that the arguments supporting climate change were ‘crap’, and whose government actually repealed our carbon tax. Australia is not in the G7, but had Mr Abbott been included in the meeting, I would bet a dollar to nothing that he would have had let the statement go out without protest on his part. In fact, I have little doubt that the other six members of the G7 have their own private views about the notion that greenhouse gas emissions must be stopped now, that a 2 degree C rise in temperature would be a disaster for humanity, that the seas will rise dangerously, and all the rest of the AGW mantra. But they agreed with the statement, too.

Why? Why don’t these leaders set an example, you ask, if, like Harper and Abbott, they have made it clear that they do not regard ‘climate change’ as a globally pressing issue? The answer lies in the distribution of views within the electorates of these representative electoral democracies. Opinion pollsters have been asking respondents about their attitudes to climate change for twenty years and more, and there is a large amount of data about it.

The methodology of these opinion polls varies a great deal. I once had claims to know something about survey research, and in my judgment some of the polls are hardly worth noticing. What, for example, is the sensible way to respond to this choice: ‘Climate change has been proven by science’ OR ‘Climate change has not been proven by science.’ A terrible pair of alternatives.

But once you’ve read and thought about the first few dozen poll results — and it doesn’t really matter what country we are talking about — it is plain that while attitudes vary over time and across the world, a few things begin to stand out.

1. ‘Climate change’ (I use the inverted commas to signify that I am talking about the political definition coined by the UNFCCC — a change in climate caused by human activity) is not a high  political priority anywhere. People are much more worried about jobs, health, immigration, transport costs and welfare. If you ask people to list their own concerns, climate change comes in way down the list.

2. However, if you ask people whether or not they are concerned about ‘climate change’ then you get quite a high affirmative response — around a quarter to a third in most of the developed countries. What does that ‘concern’ actually mean? In one British survey, about one in seven thought ‘climate change’ was a major threat, and three quarters would support a global treaty. But few would get in touch with their local MP to press their concern. What sort of concern is that?

3. And if you ask people how much they personally would pay to deal with ‘climate change’, support drops off very quickly. Not many people, and not much. Yes, ‘climate change’ is a threat, but it’s something for governments to deal with, and they shouldn’t do it by asking the respondent  for more money.

Now how does an elected politician interpret all this? Again, it doesn’t really matter which country we’re talking about. He or she will see that ‘climate change’ is one of those things, like motherhood, and germs, about which there is a conventional position. In this case, one should be opposed to it. If, on the contrary, you think that the whole thing is emerging as a beat-up, you need to realise, just the same, that quite a lot of electors are secure in their view that it is a worry.

What you do then, if you are in power, as are Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott, is to say as little as possible. If pressed, you retreat to a position that is defendable but does not stir up the ant-heap. In Harper’s case, the fall-back position is to say that Canada will do its bit when everyone else does their bit, but until they do there is no point at all in acting unilaterally. That just costs Canadians, for no good outcome at all. Tony Abbott has behaved in much the same way. In fact, at the 2009 meeting in the Australian bush where he pronounced on the validity of climate science, the full quotation goes like this: The argument is absolute crap. However, the politics of this are tough for us. Eighty per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger. 

I once took part in a public meeting on global warming speaking for the sceptical side, as did someone who is now one of Tony Abbott’s senior colleagues in government. Afterwards, when he and I compared notes, he said something similar to me: the issue had to be handled delicately, and that time was needed.

After nearly two decades in which there has been no significant warming, you might think that there should have been enough time by now. For my part there has been. The notion that carbon dioxide is a pollutant that increases global temperature in an alarming and dangerous way, melts the Greenland icecap, and imperils those in Bangladesh, ought now be dead and buried. But I’m not a politician who is looking anxiously at the next election. If I were, I’d be looking at the size of the passionate minority who believe in the threat of global warming, hoping that it is declining, and at that the size of the more or less indifferent majority, hoping that it continues to rise steadily.

In the meantime, the argument against the orthodox AGW/’climate change’/extreme weather/climate disruption alarmists has to be carried out outside politics, in large part, I think, through websites likeWUWT and Climate etc. Time is important, and so is spreading the argument. While we spread the argument, our elected governments talk about the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but do nothing that would achieve such an outcome.

It is a strange world that we live in, where our leaders try hard not to be controversial. I am reminded of the remark attributed to Ledru-Rollin, a French politician of the mid 19th century: There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader. Mahatma Gandhi used the phrase too, and he meant that a leader can never be too far from the views of those he wants to lead.

So, we need more good argument, more good analysis, and more controversy on WUWT and elsewhere, especially in the mass media. In time there will be someone, somewhere, who has been elected, and takes on the alarmists. But not tomorrow. I know that among the Republican hopefuls for the American Presidential election in 2016 there are already a couple who have denounced ‘climate change’. But those pinning their hopes on one or other of them need to remember that in January this year a Stanford poll reported that two-thirds of those interviewed said that they would vote for a candidate ‘who would campaign on fighting climate change.’

So I would not be expecting the election of 2016 to see a vigorous debate about ‘climate change’. And for reasons very similar, I would expect that whatever comes out of Paris in December will be as vapid and innocuous as the G7 statement earlier this month.






Join the discussion 32 Comments

  • 70s Playboy says:

    Hi Don. I’ve been trying to do my own bit one conversation at a time. It works for a little while but then becomes a topic to be avoided. People who hold these beliefs find it useful to have the strawmen of Republicans, Big Oil, Tinfoil hat/Flat Earthers etc. When someone they know and love holds a skeptical position it generates a polite silence after a while.

    I work in the media and have a UTS Communication and ABC background. The views in my milieu are the standard boilerplate of the progressives. I love to talk about science but the stone wall of “settled science” “97% of scientists agree” and “big oil” has made a fascinating topic off-limits.

    It is difficult to keep bringing up without seeming obsessed. Maybe this is a part of the political strategy – to avoid being stamped with the straw man sobriquets that are easily applied but difficult to untangle oneself from.

    • dlb says:

      One should never bring up politics and religion in polite company.

    • Don Amoore says:

      This is exactly my experience also, and I despair of ever being able to quietly discuss this with anyone. When I first saw Gore’s movie I was convinced and committed, for a while, then healthy scepticism set in and gradually grew. Do we not need another such movie stating the other side? And who would make it, and pay for it, and promote it? Que sera,

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Hullo 70s,

      Your experience of the polite silence is true I imagine for nearly every informed CAGW sceptic. I consider there are a few forces at work. One is the desire to conform, unless it is too one’s serious disadvantage. Another is our tendency to accept the advice of “the experts”. Having done so, it’s a matter of ego-protection for many to protect the position they have taken.

      The desire to conform is heavily influenced by political leanings, as I’m sure you’ve also found over there. A higher proportion of climate sceptics among Republicans than Democrats, just as in Australia we have that pattern with Labor and Green parties, compared to our conservative parties.

      I have a funny story from a year ago; a conversation with a chap in the next seat on an overseas flight. Well educated, quite informed of the normal CAGW arguments, polite, but finding it incredible that I should have the contrary view, regardless of the climate observations both past and recent that I cited. Early in the conversation, and again much later, he asked quite seriously whether I had some connection with the oil industry. He seemed quite unable even to evaluate what I was telling him.

      There must be many such deep blocks in our psyche to changing what has become a deeply held belief. Here’s an example of such a block I would have. Imagine you have very strong evidence supporting the argument that the theoretical marxist model “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”, can actually work fairly and harmoniously over the immediate and very long term in a large society. You would have great difficulty in persuading me to accept your evidence, let alone the inferences you drew. My convictions developed over quite some years, would deeply block my objective evaluation of your position.

      But people of personal and intellectual integrity do change their view as they deal with new and reliable information. In the early 2000s, I had seriously been thinking the dire forecasts might be right, but as I was working a farm at the time and have had many years living in and around nature, I just had this niggling suspicion that Nature so often turned things around – not to some innate equilibrium, but rather, that Nature was the boss. (And in due course, in drought-stricken Australia, that long drought did break, just as our warmist Tim Flannery and others were saying “get used to it!”)

      Don Amoore below is another like me, first inclined to accept the orthodox view, but then starting to question. What galvanised me was reading some of the scientific papers in AR4 (on temperatures, sea levels and ice), and finding such a contrast in the SPM, reflecting none of the scientists’ cautions and caveats and uncertainties!

      But most of those who have the educational background to read those papers (and they don’t have to be scientists – you don’t have to understand everything and all the maths in many papers), don’t have the time to do that homework, nor the interest. So they won’t have the advantage of the “ah ha” moment that I did.

      Nevertheless, bit by bit these fundamental shifts of opinion about CAGW are occurring quietly and almost unnoticeably. Once the media catches on about the real situation with the climate, and realises there’s mileage in pulling down the house that the “climate scientists” built, they will do so with a vengeance. And the general populace will follow, as ever.

      Meanwhile we should continue to stick quietly to our guns; While at present we are met with that incredulity or that polite silence, we may never know what impact our quiet good sense has brought. Some of those ten or twenty people that during the course of a year each of us has given pause for thought, should they start to question the CAGW position, will in turn influence others by propagation.

  • Alan Gould says:

    With clarity you catch why the issue is radioactive for politicians who may be getting quiet advice on the facts from one advisor and quiet advice on polls from another. I do like the idea you touch of Climate Change being as embracing as motherhood, as micro as a germ.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Are you extrapolating from a weather event to a change in climate, David? If so, on what basis?

      • David says:

        No, I am not.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Then why is a cyclone like this one important in the context of this thread?

          • David says:

            Because its the first, ever.

            I don’t need a single cyclone to support AGW, there is obviously mountains of evidence to support. But the fact that this is the first cyclone in July is a further piece of evidence, which is consistent with AGW.

            The fact that Queensland has just had its warmest 6 months ever is also consistent with AGW.

            just saying thats all.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            Not the first one, ever, David – how do any of us know what happened pre-1788? But more recently (if you don’t mind going back to 1889), and courtesy of Jo Nova’s site: (http://joannenova.com.au/, quoting this site: http://hardenup.org/umbraco/customContent/media/1153_EastCoastLows_1846-2009.pdf ):

            17-19 Jul 1889

            Cyclone near Rockhampton 17th, Brisbane 18th then moved east. Gales and heavy seas on north and Central coasts of NSW. Vessels lost Fraser Island to Coffs Harbour.

            28 Jul 1919

            Cyclone passed southwards between New Caledonia and Queensland. Ships driven on Barrier Reef southeast of Mackay.

            22-24 July 1921

            Cyclone from NE struck northern NSW coast causing gales and shipping disruptions before recurving to SE. Disastrous floods SE Qld and northern NSW. Goondiwindi, Warwick and Roma flooded. Several houses washed away and 2 men drowned at Texas. A man drowned at Inglewood.
            Heavy stock and crop losses and damage to roads and bridges.

            29-30 Jun 1929

            Cyclone recurved to SE just to NE of Cape Moreton with gales and heavy rain. Much damage at Sandgate. Flooding in Pine and Nerang Rivers.

            7 July 1931

            Cyclone developed SE Qld and moved towards the SE. High winds Brisbane.

            10-11 Jul 1933

            Cyclone recurved over Broadsound and Rockhampton towards southeast. Floods Central Q.

            7-10 July 1935

            Cyclone recurved over Shoalwater Bay and moved towards SE. Gales. SS Maheno driven ashore. Heavy rain Central Q. (See other Trove newspaper reports). “Waves 30 feet high“. Boats were caught in a “harrowing” experience.

            11-13 Jul 1954

            Complex cyclonic system crossed coast
            near Bundaberg and then recurved towards SE. Winds to hurricane force left a trail of damage along the coast south from Bundaberg. Woman killed at Nambour Houses when shed was lifted by wind and hurled into her . House, shops , jetties and boats were badly damaged. 200 people
            were left homeless, hundreds of small craft were wrecked. Many houses unroofed including 50 at Caloundra. Hurricane force winds in Moreton Baywith widespread property and boat damage at Redcliffe, Sandgate and
            Wynnum. The Redcliffe jetty was badly damaged by large waves with most of the decking forced upwards and ripped off. The Dutch naval sloop Snellius reported waves to 21 metres off the South Coast.

            9-11 Jul 1962

            Cyclone developed NE of Fraser Island and moved past Gold Coast. 60 to 70 knot windsreported from Tweed Heads to Yamba in the 24 hours to 9am 11th. Local
            Flash floods Brisbane to Gold Coast. Fruit trees damaged buildings flattened Sunnybank. Small boats wrecked, buildings flattened, extensivebeach erosion and roads damaged Gold Coast. Radio Mast wrecked Lytton.
            Widespread flooding Nerang, Albert and Logan Rivers.

            In NSW Small craft lost or damaged at North Coast harbours. Bad floods Murwillumbah, Lismore, Bellingen and Grafton with many evacuations and people drowned. At 1pm 9th 2 waterspouts came ashore at Port Macquarie
            and left a trail of destruction. 3 men were killed when a 2 story building they were building was wrecked. 30 house were damaged. Largest 24 hr rain totals 265mm Springbrook and 227mm Lismore.

            And now we’re very cold here in Canberra this winter. I suppose that’s AGW evidence as well? Reminds me of the cold here in the 1970s Lots of AGW round the place then as well, I guess.

    • JMO says:

      A cyclone north of the Salomon Islands i.e at, or close to, the equator? Really David! The Equator has no seasons, everyday is 12 hours it’s hot all year round and a cyclone can form any time.

      Perhaps the Qld met have recently expanded their weather range and so this cyclone is “the first that Queensland forecasters have ever recorded in July”.

      This is weathe,r pure and simple, just like ort -6 or-7’ss C mornings in Canberra.

      We can have record number of well below zero cold mornings (2014 winter) and unseasonally cold springs eg 3-4 years ago and in 1986 (coldest spring for over 40 years) but all that is weather. However if we get a very high temperature day, eg 41.7C on 18 January 2013 which was claimed to be a record high – true if you only look at the 4-year old weather station records at Canberra airport – whilst ignoring the decades of records from the old Fairbairn airport weather station next door recording many days of 42 C and above – and, ah ah, that is climate change!

      • David says:

        JMO sSend Jess and email and share your insights.

        “Bureau of Meteorology forecaster Jess Carey said tropical cyclones usually only formed in the southern hemisphere in summer.”

        • dlb says:

          David, one could say “usually” means a 95% a probability of happening. So one in twenty is not particularly noteworthy. The southern hemisphere is a large area, so a cyclone forming in the Australian region was going to happen sooner or later.
          Wake me up when we start getting winter cyclones five years running.

          • David says:

            “A TROPICAL cyclone that has formed north of the Solomon Islands is the first that Queensland forecasters have ever recorded in July.”

            So the first ever for Queensland. At 2 or 3 per year for 100 years that is 1 in 300? Way outside the 95% CI 🙂

  • aert driessen says:

    A good post Don and I think that you are right on the mark in all the assessments you make. It raises many disparate topics for me — too many for me to take the time and make the effort to marshal together into a coherent response, so I’ll just post a few points. As Gandhi said, leaders must stay close to their constituents and not drift too far ahead, else they won’t follow. Someone you mentioned said that ‘more time was needed’. I agree but for a different reason — time for the climate to tell its own story. The populace doesn’t notice ‘no warming for 18 years’ and they don’t have the time and resources to check ice coverage at the poles or Greenland for themselves. Conversion time could be shortened considerably if mainstream media would report it the way it is, but particularly if the ABC and SBS report the truth because they have accumulated much ‘trust’, even if only some 15% tune in on them. Still, that 15% is the deluded portion of the populace. If the ABC reported all of the science and evidence as reported in the peer-reviewed scientific literature and not just the alarmist side and their flawed science and failed models, then the populace would be better informed and more sceptical. Alas the ABC is blatantly biased and beyond repair. Then there are other ‘trusted’ organisations like BoM and CSIRO that have also succumbed to zombie science on this issue (although a core function for BoM), and even the public education system which will probably make this an inter-generational issue. Therefore I’m hoping for a cooling so severe, painful as that will be, especially for the poor, that even Blind Freddie will see the light.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Nice graphics. I supposed you noticed that the timeline stopped at 2005, and that there has been no significant warming since then…

      I agree that greenhouse gases have had a contribution. What isn’t clear to me is how much of a contribution greenhouse gases actually make, whether or not warming is bad, and why anyone thinks that carbon taxes and their like will reduce temperature, even if that were a good thing to do.

      • David says:

        Don, FYI, cherry picking is not a valid statistical method. 🙂

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Isn’t that what you’ve done? The graph you presented stops at 2005, ten years ago. Don’t you think Bloomberg’s should be updating the graph? However valid it was in 2005, it’s not valid now — just on that issue alone.

          • David says:

            Nice try 🙂

            1. The dependent variable (observe land ocean temp) runs to 2014.

            2. And 2014 is the highest temp in the time series

            3. There is no pause in that trend.

            I hope you weekend was good Don 🙂

          • Don Aitkin says:

            And all the independent variables stop at 2005. You’ll have noticed that even in GISS, the ‘hottest’ of the five main global temperature datasets, there is very little net warming after 1998 (the sharp spike). What do you think it was that countered the effect of CO2?

          • David says:


            Analyzing data points the way you do (i.e. , “…very little warming after 1998”) is called cherry picking. 🙂

          • David says:

            But to answer you second question, it looks like the decrease in aerosols moderated the effect of CO2 on temp, by about 25% ???

            The science was right on aerosols, and right on CO2, too

          • David says:

            sorry, that should be “increase” in aerosols

          • Don Aitkin says:

            You were right the first time, I think. Aerosols are argued to have been denser in the middle of the 20th century, before clean air acts and their like. The skies have been brighter since 1980ish, so the CO2 effect should have been less moderated. But nobody knows quite how it works, and in any case, there has not been significant warming since 2005.

            Skeptical Science, which I searched looking for a statement from the orthodox quarter, says this:

            ‘Atmospheric aerosols caused a global dimming (eg – less radiation reaching the earth) from 1950 to 1985. In the mid-80’s, the trend reversed and radiation levels at the Earth’s surface began to brighten. From 1950 to the mid-80’s, the cooling effect from aerosolswas masking the warming effect from CO2. When aerosol cooling ended, the current global warming trend began.’

            Trouble is, the ‘current warming trend’ is not significant.

            Make of it what you can. The effect of aerosols is much argued about.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            I’m just pointing out the inconsistency in your argument. You give us a trend line that stops at 2014, and then show that some supposed explanations don’t do the work, but they all stop in 2005. What is to explain the period 2005-2014? As it happens, apart from the super el Nino in 1998, there were substantial el Nino episodes in 2010 and 2012 and we are in one now in 2014/5, though it may be subsiding.

            So far as we know, el Ninos are not caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

  • […] have written before about public opinion and the AGW scare (for example, here). To summarise, a properly conducted survey would, I think, find that AGW or  ‘climate […]

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