curiosity about the ways of the world

Uncertain certainties about climate change

Most of us had done the easy things before we bought our tickets for The Age of Stupid in 2009.  We’ve already switched to low energy light bulbs,  turned down the heating and we wash our clothes at 30 degrees C. Most of us even drive less and buy more local food.  But if the makers of the climate change film were setting out to change more than that, the results of an Edinburgh survey may prove disappointing.

Two years ago I took part in questionnaires exploring the impact of the film.  The results have just been published by Rachel Howell, a PhD student at Edinburgh University’s  Centre for the Study of Environmental Change and Sustainability.

Rachel produced four questionnaires: the first two (Q1 and 2) were answered by willing members of the cinema audience immediately before and after seeing the film; Q3 a few months later and Q4 12 months after that.

So the results? People left the cinema feeling they must do something NOW but the film probably did little to change long term behaviour and attitudes. This is my paraphrase of Rachel’s summary but essentially the film (starring the late Pete Postlethwaite) was preaching to the converted. Most of us had already done the easy things. Even the converted can’t shift habits like flying and living in badly insulated homes with non-renewable energy when alternatives are not easily available or affordable.  By the end of Rachel’s project respondents had dropped from 241 to 104. Perhaps worst of all by June 2010:

“Belief that it’s worth lobbying politicians about climate change had fallen by Q3 and fell even further by Q4.”

Age of Stupid: Trailers: Original Theatrical Trailer from SPANNER FILMS on Vimeo.

I went to see the film because I am concerned about climate change.  I can see and feel my own small world getting warmer (despite this arctic winter) and I believe the great majority of scientists who link climate change with human actions.

If you disagree you have probably stopped reading this. If you went to see the film as a climate change sceptic you possibly came out of the cinema even more convinced that reducing ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions is unnecessary.  If the world is warming it is not because we are flying, driving and consuming more.  (It’s sunspots or a natural cycle.  And it’s too late to change).

That’s our  ‘Confirmation bias’ –  people with opposing views can be presented with exactly the same information without shifting ground. Even if they wobble, as a Stanford University experiment shows, people usually return to their original stand regardless of  evidence (sometimes more convinced than ever).

Floods, forest fires and blizzards rage across the warming world. Is it impossible for us to change? Luckily there are people with open and questioning minds. According to The Edge, a web magazine quoted by Saturday’s Guardian,  “A good scientist is never certain”. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions about complex issues more reliable  – in arguments about climate change scientists are rigorously testing each others’ theories.

So respect scientists who acknowledge uncertainty.  As Rachel concludes:

“I have submitted a second paper, about the final follow-up, which is as much about the difficulties of conducting longitudinal studies of behaviour as about the results.”

Like others in the survey I try to avoid flying (the train  is more fun anyway).  But big changes need political leadership so, unlike others,  I  believe in lobbying my MP and MSP more than ever. In fact they are both actively trying to strengthen legislation on climate change.  Even if they were not this is probably one circumstance where their ‘confirmation bias’ would give way to evidence of mass public support for change.  That’s one certainty: politicians want to be elected.

Rachel says if you want to know more about the survey, final follow-up or a copy of the paper she has published in the academic journal Global Environmental Change, email:


  1. Administrator

    that would be good though I feel self-interest always has the upper hand. As one environmentalist said recently (can’t remember his name) people feel weather in their bones and mistake it for climate.

    Both the weather and the economic climate are pretty challenging and it would be great if people do make the connection between the economy and the environment.

    I have also wondered if extreme weather might force governments to abandon at least some of the crazy cuts in spending on infrastructure – is the snow nature’s way of encouraging a little Keynesian investment in heated rail tracks not to mention mending all those pot holes in the road.

  2. Chris Berry

    Very interesting article. I do wonder if “issue fatigue” may also be a factor. With the near melt down of global capitalism, resulting in the most savage cuts in public spending for decades, now at the top of the agenda, do people push climate change towards the back of the mental “issue pack”? Especially when we have experienced two severe winters in a row.

    The key things to try to get across are: climate change will result in shifts in weather patterns – hence our recent snowy winters; and the collapse of the financial sector and its miraculous recovery – due for the most part to unsustainable “economic growth” are linked, being both respective symptoms and causes of climate change.

    Perhaps politicians do need work harder to make the links in peoples minds, and take swift action to address the issue of climate change. Or perhaps people might, just might, start making the connections themselves, as has been the case recently with the anti-tax dodging campaigns…

  3. Administrator

    Certainly true about IPCC. I suppose one of the problems is that their reports defy accurate soundbites. The media is not good at covering shades of grey and the general public is not used to the idea that if 90% of scientists broadly agree over climate change then that is pretty much the same as unanimous.

    As a journalist I have been amazed at the shift in scientific opinion over the last 20 years or so. When I first started interviewing botanists for environmental stories I often used to be frustrated by their careful language when they described the destruction of habitats and all the creatures living in them. The facts were truly disturbing. I wanted them to inject some urgency into the story.

    Now it’s the scientists who are frustrated by the slow response of politicians, fiddling while the world (sometimes literally) burns.

    Public concern about climate change seems to have declined thanks to Copenhagen, East Anglia University and harsh winters. But there are still probably enough of us to make a difference if we lobby our elected representatives for bold action like investment in renewable energy, public transport and environmental building. It would be good for the economy too.

  4. Ray

    The IPCC reports admitted a level of uncertainty, but as each report was published – four so far, with a new assessment now in progress – the degree of confidence that climate change is influenced by our actions has got higher.

    The evidence is there, the problem is persuading people to read it.

  5. John

    Interesting results but probably not surprising. As you say it will take political leadership to make the big shifts in behaviour. Why does Germany and Scandinavia lead in ecobuilding? Could it be because of government incentives?

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