18 December 2009

Lost Trust

The image above is from the Washington Post today in a story reporting the results of a new poll on climate change. The poll shows that the biggest change in public opinion from April 2009 to last week has been in President Obama's approval rating on his handling of the climate issue and in public trust of scientists, and these finding hold across the political spectrum in different degrees. Interestingly, and consistent with past polls, public support for action on greenhouse gases remains very strong. Here is an excerpt from the story:

There's also rising public doubt and growing political polarization about what scientists have to say on the environment, and a widespread perception that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is happening.

But for all the challenges American policymakers have to overcome, nearly two-thirds of people surveyed say the federal government should regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars and factories in an effort to curb global warming.
What lesson to take here? First, if climate science is perceived to be deeply politicized it will probably lead to a loss of public trust. How long this will last and what might be done to recover the lost trust remains to be seen. I suspect that continued efforts to participate in overt or covert political advocacy are just not going to help in recovering this trust, and may do exactly the opposite.

The leadership of the climate science community has thus far shown no ability to differentiate between taking care of the integrity of its institutions in terms of building credibility and legitimacy, and advocating for action on climate change, emphasizing the latter almost exclusively. I would guess that many climate scientists will respond to this poll by complaining about the stupidity of the public and the efforts of disinformation campaigns, rather than looking to get their own house in order. If so, they may be in for a rough ride in opinion polls for some time to come.

More broadly, public support for action remains an untapped reservoir. The problem of course is, what action? Those being discussed in Copenhagen don't seem to be the ones.