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What does Climate Change do for the public image of Science?

By Adam Roer, on 17 March 2015

Concern about differences in priority over Climate Change between specialists and the public

changing-environment-(c)-istockphotoAs a young researcher I see a vast disparity in the way in which Climate Change is seen by the general public and in academia. In academia, we are intensely occupied with the solutions for achieving sustainability, supplementing our own work by attending conferences and reading journals. The general public will see Climate Change articles in the media and some may find themselves watching a documentary on the subject every now and then. But this gulf goes with any topic where ‘specialists’ are involved; take medicine for example. The question is – does this matter?

This asymmetry of preoccupation was brought into sharp focus in 2009 when the ‘Climategate’ controversy drove a further wedge between the public and academic communities. The scandal revolved around email evidence that scientists were colluding behind the scenes in order to magnify the negative impacts of climate change. Today the scientific community is trying to smooth over the resulting wave of bad PR by engaging with the public.

One such example of this was the recent BBC4 documentary ‘Climate Change by Numbers’. The programme aimed to explain the facts and uncertainties behind three statistics that are often reported when anthropogenic Climate Change is discussed in the media. The simple language and careful explanations made the programme very accessible to the public. If you are interested you still have about 15 days left to watch it before it disappears from BBC iPlayer!

The programme delivered the message that science, rather than intuition, is the most powerful tool for predictions of the future. I can predict no better way of encouraging  younger people to get involved in science than offering them a sixth sense of foresight.

As for the more down to Earth amongst us, the programme’s mention of more practical topics like pensions might cause you to prick up your ears. Science doesn’t just deal with magical predictions about the future but it helps us deal with important day to day decision like how much should we save today to look after ourselves in the future?

This engagement is going to be vital if the link between specialists and the public is to be repaired. Unfortunately this excellent show only made it to BBC4 whereas the Climategate headlines made it to the front pages of the daily papers.

So what will happen if this link between specialists and the public is not maintained? Naturally we would expect to see a different sense of priority between the two parties.

There is one particularly good example of where this tension has been felt in the UK over the last year; there is now a growing feeling that environmental scientists are contributing to the increasing cost of household energy bills. Feeling the heat of Ed Miliband’s attack on the cost of energy, David Cameron stated his intent to cut back on ‘green charges’ in energy bills, which makes the public ask why they were introduced in the first place?

This problem is likely to be only exacerbated. For Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) green charges fall under the part of your energy bill set aside for ‘government environment and social schemes’. From the pie chart below, taken from SSE’s website, we see that 10% of the average energy bill goes to this sector.

Where does the money from your energy bill go to? Source: SSE

Part of the ‘green charges’ are set aside to pay for the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme or ETS. This initiative was set up to add an extra charge on emissions which reflects the damage that CO2 does to our collective environment.

Yet there is an almost unanimous feeling in the academic world that the current cost of carbon emissions in the ETS is too low. At the point of writing, carbon emission Futures, Listed on London’s Inter-Continental Exchange Index, are priced at €6.47/ tonne. Yet prices of an order of magnitude higher are regularly touted in the corridors and lecture halls of Universities. So if the slice of the pie diverted to government environmental schemes is set to grow we are likely we are set to see further price hikes, widening the gap between specialists and members of the public.

What I am therefore advocating is a major ramp up of the engagement between specialists and the public in order to close the ‘priorities gap’. Programmes like ‘Climate Change by Numbers’ deserve a slot of BBC1 otherwise we face a future of more bickering over the dispatch box, instead of focusing our efforts on the crux of the matter.

By Adam Roer, PhD Stduent, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources 

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