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 That is to say, he is opposed to carbon taxes, has repealed or let lie dormant greenhouse gas measures that his predecessors had introduced, and has said that Canada will not do any thing further after the Kyoto accord.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Minister, who famously said that the arguments supporting climate change were ‘crap’, and whose government actually repealed our carbon tax.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.