Climate change: the merchants of doubt will soon run out of steam

Last week saw the release of three university-led nationally representative surveys on public attitudes towards climate change – two in the US (1, 2) and one in the UK. In line with previous surveys from the last few years, the UK poll shows four consistent findings:

  • A large majority of people think the climate is changing (78%)
  • A large majority of people are concerned about this (71%)
  • A large majority support the use of tax revenue to fund low-carbon policies such as investment in renewables (68%)
  • A large majority of people say they are willing to reduce the amount of energy they use in order to tackle climate change (65%)

If this doesn’t sound like the findings you saw reported, or your impression of public attitudes towards climate change, then go and look up the results which are publicly available. The picture in the US is slightly different, but not drastically so, with large majorities agreeing that climate change is happening and expressing support for developing low-carbon energy infrastructure.

Large majorities agree that climate change is happening and express support for developing low-carbon energy infrastructure

But what about belief in whether humans are causing climate change? Isn’t that the crucial measure of scepticism?

Intriguingly, given that the public are frequently portrayed as teetering on the brink of abandoning climate change altogether, one of the US polls recorded an increase in the number of people who believe that human activity is changing the climate (the other had no previous survey to compare with, but found that 75% acknowledged human influence on the climate).

True, the number of people who agree that climate change is largely the result of human activity is significantly lower (in the UK and the US) than it was three years ago. But given the four consistent findings outlined above, the big question has to be ‘so what’?

Consider the BBC poll conducted in February, routinely cited as the most damaging of the public opinion polls in the UK. The statistic that was widely reported and repeated was that only 26% of the public agreed that:

“Climate change is happening and is now established as largely man-made”

Seems pretty damning doesn’t it? But a further 38% agreed that:

“Climate change is happening, but not yet proven to be largely man-made”

Even in the BBC poll, at the height of everything-gate, a healthy majority accepted that the climate was changing. In the very same poll, only 11% reported being any less concerned about the risks of climate change. The BBC results are completely consistent with the fact that a majority of people are concerned about climate change – anthropogenic or not – and want something done about it.

That significant numbers of people feel confused about whether human influence is responsible for climate change is unsurprising – a great deal of effort has been expended in trying to confuse them. The parallels between the strategies of the tobacco industry in the 1960s and the tactics of ideologically driven climate sceptics today are now well documented. The tobacco companies knew that if they could create enough uncertainty around the link between smoking and lung cancer, then people would continue to consume their product. But as opinion poll after opinion poll comes in, it is starting to look like the link between belief in human-caused climate change and support for low carbon policies is nowhere near as direct.

There is no escaping the fact that there is a major disparity between the level of certainty expressed by climate scientists and by the general public about the basic facts of climate change. It seems counter-intuitive that people dispute anthropogenic climate change, but are willing to modify their behaviour to prevent it. It seems bizarre that 73% of the BBC poll respondents who had heard about ‘climategate’ and IPCC glaciers error claimed that their views about climate change had not been altered. But this is what the polls are telling us.

The merchants of doubt will soon run out of steam – for all the uncertainty they can generate about human impact on the climate, public support for mitigating climate change remains high.

2 Responses

  1. Josie

    “It seems counter-intuitive that people dispute anthropogenic climate change, but are willing to modify their behaviour to prevent it”

    Its very interesting, and deserving of research to understand it better.

    However, I don’t think that it should be interpreted to mean that the scepticism doesn’t matter.

    I find it hard to believe that scepticism would not influence how much of a PRIORITY people made renewable energy etc. There is a big difference between vaguely supporting something and passionately supporting it, actually taking action etc.

  2. Harold Forbes


    Good point. Last week EDF published their research in support of Green Britain Day, which suggested that the British public lagged our mainland neighbours on appetite for tackling climate change with less than a third saying they believe the issue is “serious and urgent” and requires “radical steps”.
    My belief is we need to start focusing on the need to shift our shared imagination that this problem is actually solvable; all we need to do is agree to solve it. That is more difficult than it appears because we are asking people to make changes today that they themselves may not see any benefit from but it really does strike right to the heart of what it is to be a human. The problem lies with our social and financial systems that tell us that destroying the future is “rational” behaviour. My belief is that the only rational response to that is to change the system. We must align how we account for our economic activity to reward us for nourishing the environment with our everyday actions, not tell us that wealth comes from destroying it.

    Harold Forbes is Author of “How to be a Humankind Superhero: a manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate”. Read chapter summaries at or download the complete first chapter at


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