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Public are terminally bored with climate. Anderegg denies devastating Climategate damage

The big news from this new study is no news — the public are more bored with climate change than ever, and the trend is down. The fever peaked in 2007, and the last great spike of interest was in late 2009 when ClimateGate finished it off. Though that’s not the way Anderegg sees it.

Anderegg infamously published the blacklist of scientists in PNAS, so we know he struggles with the scientific method. Here, flawed assumptions render the conclusions a wishful fantasy. Anderegg argues that ClimateGate was not a big deal, didn’t affect opinions much, and (yawn) climate scientists need to do better communication. He’s wrong. His study misses the major damage — by assuming that the public are a uniform block his research could never uncover that the real effects of ClimateGate were devastating and irreversible. The scandal changed the opinions that matter — those of the smart engaged thinkers and leaders. I noted at the time that ClimateGate had put a rocket under the layer of influential busy achievers like never before. Suddenly people who hadn’t taken much interest in the debate were fired into action by the fraud. The nodes of influence shifted — as I said in The ClimateGate Virus at the time: “Behind the scenes, well connected businessmen in California, surgeons in Sydney, lawyers in the UK, and top ranking physicists are emailing and linking up.” My site traffic rose like never before and now is even higher. Climategate brought in a new caliber of players. Recent survey’s back me up: the highest proportion of skeptics are in the upper middle class. The unskilled workers, the unemployed and pensioners are more likely to believe in “climate change” (whatever that means).

What followed in the next four years was that the money shifted out of the game, politicians lost their nerve (think of Kevin Rudd), people paid  lip-service, but in reality, the faith was sliding as the opinion leaders melted away. By mid 2011 even the media abandoned the meme.

Princeton University and University of Oxford researchers found that negative media reports seem to have only a passing effect on public opinion, but that positive stories don’t appear to possess much staying power, either. Measured by how often people worldwide scour the Internet for information related to climate change, overall public interest in the topic has steadily waned since 2007. To gauge public interest, the researchers used Google Trends to document the Internet search-engine activity for “global warming” (blue line) and “climate change” (red line) from 2004 to 2013. They examined activity both globally (top) and in the United States (bottom). The numbers on the left indicate how often people looked up each term based on its percentage of the maximum search volume at any given point in time. (Image courtesy of William Anderegg)

I point out the assumptions and holes below:

 Public interest in climate change unshaken by scandal, but unstirred by science (Environ. Res. Lett.)


The good news for any passionate supporter of climate-change science is that negative media reports seem to have only a passing effect on public opinion, according to Princeton University and University of Oxford researchers. The bad news is that positive stories don’t appear to possess much staying power, either. This dynamic suggests that climate scientists should reexamine how to effectively and more regularly engage the public, the researchers write.

Public opinion hasn’t changed? Hardly — a recent UK study showed 62% don’t believe in man-made global warming. Worse, the believers are more likely to be lower class, unskilled workers.  The smart layer of society got the message in ClimateGate and that genie can’t be put back in the bottle.

Measured by how often people worldwide scour the Internet for information related to climate change, overall public interest in the topic has steadily waned since 2007, according to a report in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Yet, the downturn in public interest does not seem tied to any particular negative publicity regarding climate-change science, which is what the researchers primarily wanted to gauge.

Anderegg apparently can’t see that the last surge of interest coincides exactly with ClimateGate.

And if public interest is not tied to “publicity” that could be because the mainstream media are becoming less and less relevant. More people are finding out through word of mouth, and that spreads slowly but irrevocably, just like the long term trend on the graph.

First author William Anderegg, a postdoctoral research associate in the Princeton Environmental Institute who studies communication and climate change, and Gregory Goldsmith, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, specifically looked into the effect on public interest and opinion of two widely reported, almost simultaneous events.

The first involved the November 2009 hacking of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, which has been a preeminent source of data confirming human-driven climate change. Known as “climategate,” this event was initially trumpeted as proving that dissenting scientific views related to climate change have been maliciously quashed. Thorough investigations later declared that no misconduct took place.

Thorough investigations according to whom? Anderegg? The investigations were obvious whitewashes, that didn’t investigate the scientific evidence or logical assumptions. One was chaired by Lord Oxburgh, who also chaired a windfarm company. They were not even trying to appear impartial.

The second event was the revelation in late 2009 that an error in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — an organization under the auspices of the United Nations that periodically evaluates the science and impacts of climate change — overestimated how quickly glaciers in the Himalayas would melt.

To first get a general sense of public interest in climate change, Anderegg and Goldsmith combed the freely available database Google Trends for “global warming,” “climate change” and all related terms that people around the world searched for between 2004 and 2013. The researchers documented search trends in English, Chinese and Spanish, which are the top three languages on the Internet. Google Trends receives more than 80 percent of the world’s Internet search-engine activity, and it is increasingly called upon for research in economics, political science and public health.

Internet searches related to climate change began to climb following the 2006 release of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” starring former vice president Al Gore, and continued its ascent with the release of the IPCC’s fourth report, the researchers found.

“The search volume quickly returns to the same level as before the incident,” Goldsmith said. “This suggests no long-term change in the level of climate-change skepticism.

Does search volume equal “belief”? I believe that gravity is real, my search volume is zero. I don’t believe the moon-landing was a hoax, and my search volume for that is also zero. Searches represent interest, not belief.

We found that intense media coverage of an event such as ‘climategate’ was followed by bursts of public interest, but these bursts were short-lived.”

All of this is to say that moments of great consternation for climate scientists seem to barely register in the public consciousness, Anderegg said. The study notes that independent polling data also indicate that these events had very little effect on American public opinion. “There’s a lot of handwringing among scientists, and a belief that these events permanently damaged public trust. What these results suggest is that that’s just not true,” Anderegg said.

No damage to public trust? Not so. What these results suggest is that ClimateGate killed off interest in climate change, but salaried social researchers are still producing blind drivel in peer reviewed papers about it.

A public with little interest in climate change is unlikely to push for policies that actually address the problem, Anderegg said. He and Goldsmith suggest communicating in terms familiar to the public rather than to scientists. For example, their findings suggest that most people still identify with the term “global warming” instead of “climate change,” though the shift toward embracing the more scientific term is clear.

“If public interest in climate change is falling, it may be more difficult to muster public concern to address climate change,” Anderegg said. “This long-term trend of declining interest is worrying and something I hope we can address soon.”

One outcome of the research might be to shift scientists’ focus away from battling short-lived, so-called scandals, said Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton’s Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs. The study should remind climate scientists that every little misstep or controversy does not make or break the public’s confidence in their work, he said. Oppenheimer, who was not involved in the study, is a long-time participant in the IPCC and an author of the Fifth Assessment Report being released this year in sections.

On the contrary, this study should remind scientists that hype can only generate interest for so long, and that once engineers, geologists, lawyers, doctors, investors and business men and women have realized it was hype there is no recovery, no matter how many glorious, exaggerated, and full gloss reports keep being issued with prophesies of doom that few believe.

“This is an important study because it puts scientists’ concerns about climate skepticism in perspective,” Oppenheimer said.

Puts scientists concerns in perspective? Hardly. This is yet another meaningless report that tries to band-aid over the great sickness of modern bureaucratized science.

“While scientists should maintain the aspirational goal of their work being error-free, they should be less distracted by concerns that a few missteps will seriously influence attitudes in the general public, which by-and-large has never heard of these episodes.”

The damage to the brand name of science may never recover.


Anderegg, William R. L., Gregory R. Goldsmith. Public interest in climate change over the past decade and the effects of the ‘climategate’ media event. Environmental Research Letters, May 20, 2014

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