Australians overestimate climate change rejection

CSIRO's Zoe Leviston has run a survey that found Australians' actual opinions on climate change are very different from what they estimate other people think. Credit: CSIRO

CSIRO’s Zoe Leviston has run a survey that found Australians’ actual opinions on climate change are very different from what they estimate other people think. Credit: CSIRO

People in Australia overestimate how many of their fellow citizens don’t think climate change is happening, but still think their own opinion is the most common. That’s according to a survey run by Zoe Leviston from Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), in Perth and her teammates. Roughly one person in 20 surveyed fell in the ‘not happening’ group, but on average people thought that one person in five did. That’s partly down to a well-known effect called ‘false consensus bias’, where we tend to think more people agree with us than really do. However, how politicians and the media in Australia discuss climate change could be making the effect stronger than usual.

“There is a mis-estimation of community sentiment,” Zoe told me. “Our perception of what others think is a dynamic process, and if we have these misperceptions, they can actually reinforce our own patterns of thinking. Other research has shown that people can be hesitant to speak out if they think their opinion is on the decline, because they think that they risk social censure. It’s important to communicate accurately what the consensus is, otherwise you can needlessly propagate this myth of widespread denial.”

As part of a major CSIRO research program, known as the Climate Adaptation Flagship, Zoe surveyed more than 5,000 Australians in both 2010 and 2011, 1,355 of whom completed both surveys. Among other questions, they were asked which of four statements best described their view. They could choose: climate change is not happening; don’t know whether it’s happening or not; it’s happening but natural fluctuations; or it’s happening and caused by humans.

But Zoe and her fellow CSIRO scientist Iain Walker wanted to look beyond this basic opinion. “In Australia the media and political debate surrounding climate change have often rested on these competing claims about what Australians support and what they think,” Zoe said. “We knew that people are very bad estimators of what others are thinking, so we decided to ask about that as well.” So straight after the first question, Zoe and Iain asked what proportion of Australians would choose each of the four answers. Read the rest of this entry »

Europeans not all at sea on marine climate threats

An illustration of some of the invasive species that are entering the Mediterranean as its seawaters warm. Credit: Glynn Gorick/Clamer

An illustration of some of the invasive species that are entering the Mediterranean as its seawaters warm. Credit: Glynn Gorick/CLAMER

While the public is rightly concerned by sea-level rise, climate change’s impact on European seas will also affect people through shifts in where bacteria and fish are found. That means that as well as the distant threat of property damage, the risks of disease, unemployment and hunger are raised. Those are among the findings collected in a 200-page book summarising research done since 1998 about climate change’s effects on Europe’s ocean environments. “The main message is that changes are happening,” said Carlo Heip, Director of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. “The second thing is that they are happening much faster than we thought.”

Heip was among scientists unveiling the results of the Climate Change and European Marine Ecosystem Research, or CLAMER, project in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Funded by the European Commission, CLAMER brought researchers from 17 European marine institutes both to create this summary, and look at how well-known the messages within it were among everyday people. “The European Commission has spent, over the last ten years or so, hundreds of millions of Euros in research to find what the impacts of climate change are on the environment, including the marine environment,” Heip said. “They wanted to know, first of all, what the public knows about it, how this research has contributed to public knowledge, what people’s perception is and whether they are willing to do something about it.”

Alongside compiling their book of science, to find out what people think, the scientists surveyed 10,000 people from 10 European countries in an online poll. In January, in association with Brussels-based TNS Opinion, they questioned 1,000 people each from Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Ireland, United Kingdom, Norway and Estonia. The results showed that Europeans are concerned about climate change’s impact on the seas, with sea level rise and coastal erosion among their leading worries. Not only this, but their estimates of sea level rise and temperature generally matched scientific forecasts, suggesting that “some fundamental messages” are spreading widely. Read the rest of this entry »

Simple Climate poll part 4: The effects of change

A cloud forest habitat in southern Peru where lizard species are found. Certain lizards in these habitats are at risk of extinction due to climate warming. Credit: Ignacio De la Riva.

A cloud forest habitat in southern Peru where lizard species are found. Certain lizards in these habitats are at risk of extinction due to climate warming. Credit: Ignacio De la Riva.

The impact that climate change will have on the world is what makes it such a crucial issue, and makes it important to understand. Consequently, when I have asked scientists what the situation is with climate change this year, some have given me an explanation based on the effects that they’ve seen or expect.

I’ve gathered these answers together as the last group of explanations that I’m summarizing in the Simple Climate end of year polls. These polls are a way for you to help me with one of the aims of my blog – producing a single, simple explanation of climate change. Please read them and then vote for your favourite and/or comment at the end. Also, if you haven’t already voted in them, the first three polls are still ongoing. The first includes direct explanations of the physics underlying climate change, the second one-line and metaphorical explanations, and the third includes attempts to explain it at a personal level. The winner from each poll will then go into a final poll-to-end-all-polls at the end of the year. Happy voting! Read the rest of this entry »

Seeds of doubt flourish as climate debate hots up

George Mason University's Edward Maibach

George Mason University's Edward Maibach

Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, thinks that much of the US has the wrong idea on climate change. While a large majority think that global warming is happening, he points out that they are too uncertain about the underlying evidence.

“The majority of the American public, our TV weathercasters, and our TV news directors have all reached an erroneous conclusion suggested by industries with a vested interest in the status quo,” Maibach told Simple Climate. “Namely, the majority believe that there is considerable disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening. A number of studies have shown that over 95 percent of the leading experts on climate science – active climate science researchers – have concluded that global warming – an increase in the global mean temperature relative to a pre-industrial era baseline – is real and that it is largely human-caused.”

Maibach’s “4C” centre published its third survey of US public opinion on climate change in June and July, conducted jointly with Yale University  to get over 1000 people’s outlook. It found that twelve out of every twenty people surveyed think that global warming is happening, compared to just four out of twenty that don’t. By contrast only seven out of twenty thought scientists agreed that it is happening, while nine out of twenty thought that there was a lot of disagreement. Read the rest of this entry »

I don’t care what the weatherman says, when the weatherman puts politics ahead of science

Temperatures have risen in the debate between the different US political parties over climate change in recent years - and now the country's weathercasters appear to be more influenced by that than their professional qualifications in their opinions of global warming. Credit: Weather Central

Temperatures have risen in the debate between the different US political parties over climate change in recent years - and now the country's weathercasters appear to be more influenced by that than their professional qualifications in their opinions of global warming. Credit: Weather Central

Many US TV weathercasters responded to last November’s “Climategate” scandal more on the basis of political beliefs than meteorology, scientists have claimed. That’s important, Edward Maibach of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, notes, because of their comparatively high profile and large audiences. “TV meteorologists are potentially an important source of informal climate change education in that most American adults watch local TV news and consider TV weather reporters a trusted source of global warming information,” Maibach and colleagues write. “At least temporarily, Climategate has likely impeded efforts to encourage some weathercasters to embrace the role of climate change educator.”

“Climategate” refers to the publication of hacked emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia – which is jointly responsible for one of just three global temperature records. Among these were statements that suggested climate researchers may have inappropriately tampered with and illegally avoided sharing data, and tried to suppress other scientists’ work. Since then a series of enquiries found that the conclusions of their research are not in doubt, although they did fail to display the proper degree of openness. Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Getting CO2 questions wrong

Changes in Net Primary Production (NPP, in green), a measure of the speed of the photosynthesis process is closely tied to the overall amount of CO2 in our atmosphere (red). For each rise in NPP, CO2 levels fell by a similar amount, and when NPP fell, CO2 rose. Credit: Maosheng Zhao and Steven Running

Changes in Net Primary Production (NPP, in green), a measure of the speed of the photosynthesis process is closely tied to the overall amount of CO2 in our atmosphere (red). For each rise in NPP, CO2 levels fell by a similar amount, and when NPP fell, CO2 rose. Credit: Maosheng Zhao and Steven Running

The blossoming hopes that plants will thrive as the world warms up have been pruned this week by measurements of how much CO2 is absorbed by species on land. Net primary productivity – which measures the speed of the photosynthesis process crucial to plants – fell by 1 percent from 2000-2009, researchers found this week. As photosynthesis turns solar energy, CO2 and water to sugar, oxygen and eventually plant tissue, it’s one way that the world keeps the greenhouse effect in check.

“We see this as a bit of a surprise, and potentially significant on a policy level,” explained Stephen Running from the University of Montana, Missoula. The surprise comes because a previous study had shown that between 1982 and 1999 net primary productivity (NPP) increased by 6 percent, which, Running explains, “suggested global warming might actually help plant growth around the world.” While 1 percent is only a small reverse in comparison to the earlier increase, it still means 550 million tonnes of carbon per year less are being taken into plants than at the beginning of the decade.

Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Humanity’s upper warming limit

This map shows the maximum wet-bulb temperatures reached in a climate model from a high carbon dioxide emissions future climate scenario with a global-mean temperature 12 degrees Celsius warmer than 2007. The white land areas exceed the wet-bulb limit at which researchers calculated humans would experience a potentially lethal level of heat stress. Credit: Purdue University graphic/Matthew Huber

This map shows the maximum wet-bulb temperatures reached in a climate model from a high carbon dioxide emissions future climate scenario with a global-mean temperature 12 degrees Celsius warmer than 2007. The white land areas exceed the wet-bulb limit at which researchers calculated humans would experience a potentially lethal level of heat stress. Credit: Purdue University graphic/Matthew Huber

Global warming of 12°C would make most areas of the world uninhabitable, and burning all the fossil fuels on the planet could get us to this level. That’s what Steven Sherwood of the University of New South Wales, Australia, and Matthew Huber of Purdue University, USA, claim.

Writing in a paper published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science this week, the scientists examine the heat stress that humans and mammals can bear. This is assessed through a measure known as wet bulb temperature, which combines the effect of heat and humidity. The world’s hottest areas normally have low humidity, referred to as “dry heat”, Huber explained. “When it is dry, we are able to cool our bodies through perspiration and can remain fairly comfortable,” he said.

They say that currently wet bulb temperatures on the planet never exceed 31°C, while humans and other mammals would die if exposed to levels above 35°C for extended periods. They predict that conventional temperature rises of 7°C would begin to see wet bulb temperatures above 35°C in some regions, while 11-12°C rises would force humans out of most areas where they currently live . Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday round-up: Breathing space on CO2 cuts?

As well as satellite measurements, US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration researchers used balloons at a single site in Boulder, Colorado, to find out how much water is in the stratosphere. (Credit NOAA)

Two major papers this week suggest that global warming is likely to accelerate at a slower pace than had previously been thought. In the first, Susan Solomon of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has identified a possible cause of lower temperature increases in the noughties compared to the nineties. In the second, David Frank of the University of Bern in Switzerland suggests that the effect of a natural process that worsens man-made climate change has been overstated.

Together with a different set of Bern researchers, Solomon and colleagues in Boulder, Colorado, have shed some light on the poorly understood impact of water in the stratosphere on the world’s temperature. Water vapour in the stratosphere – the layer of the atmosphere above that which we live in – is known to cool that part of the atmosphere down but warm the troposphere underneath. However, it’s taken having satellites floating around the planet to measure accurately how much water is actually there.

The period in which measurements have been possible includes the rapid warming of the 1990s, and slower warming since. Solomon and her colleagues’ measurements show that water concentrations were higher during the warm period, and lower during the cool period. Creating computer models from these data suggest that the drop in stratospheric water vapour after 2000 decreased the rate of warming compared to what would have been otherwise expected by about 25%. The 1990s increase in water vapour could “have steepened the rate of global warming from 1990–2000 by about 30%,” the January 29 Science paper says. The researchers point out that it’s not yet known whether this is a feedback through which the earth tries to cool itself, or something that changes periodically.

The previous day, Frank’s team’s Nature paper tackled the question of just how much CO2 is released from biological sources when the planet warms up, adding to what man is making by burning fossil fuels. “Approximately 40% of the uncertainty related to projected warming of the twenty-first century stems from the unknown behaviour of the carbon cycle,” they write. They evaluated all available large-scale temperature reconstructions and estimates of over the past thousand years. Their results suggest that the likely range of how much CO2 is put into the atmosphere for each degree of warming is likely to be in the lower half of current estimates.

Although neither Frank’s or Solomon’s research team suggests that global warming is about to reverse, taken together they might mean that humanity has longer to fight it than previously thought.

Another process currently helping to cool the globe is the formation of clouds under the ozone hole in the Southern hemisphere, researchers revealed in Geophysical Research Letters on Wednesday. Higher winds that are linked to ozone loss whip up more sea spray, which creates more clouds. These clouds reflect heat from the sun back out into space, helping counteract greenhouse-gas based global warming. The link between the winds that create clouds and ozone loss could lead to the strange situation where a fully-repaired hole could lead to faster worldwide temperature rises.

Outside of climate research this week, a Yale and Mason University survey of 1001 US adults shows that only 57% think that global warming is happening in 2010, compared with 71% in a similar survey in 2008. The proportion that think it is not happening has doubled over that period, to 20% now. Regardless of which side of this debate you stand on, the silver lining may be the reduced amount of stress global warming is now causing Americans: The number who say that they are “very worried” about climate change has fallen from 17% in 2008, to 12% today.
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