This post is the first in a series about the state of American climate skepticism. I'll be expanding upon the ideas put forward in my recent Slate piece, Do Climate Skeptics Change Their Minds?, so read that first. Image: YouTube ScreenGrab
So Why Was it Such a Big Deal?
Remember Climate-Gate? Wherein a still-unknown hacker swiped a cache of emails from the server of one of the world's premier climate research facilities, revealing scientists to have not-so-great correspondence etiquette in the process? If not, don't sweat it: You're in good company. See, despite the gallons of proverbial ink spilled over the affair in climate, green, and hardline conservative circles, a forthcoming study reveals that three-quarters of the nation has no idea it ever occurred. But that doesn't mean it didn't have a seriously damaging effect on the American climate discourse.In the course of investigating a recent piece for Slate on how climate skeptics can "convert" to believe in the science, I spoke with Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, the Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He has a working paper on Climate-Gate pending publication, and it focuses on the impact the event had on American belief in climate change.
"That paper shows that Climate-Gate did have a significant impact on public opinion," he tells me. "We found that, first of all, 75% of the public didn't even know about it."
I had to ask him to repeat himself: Was that did, or didn't? After all, an event that only one in four Americans knows about is rarely considered hugely controversial on the national stae. It certainly wouldn't seem worthy of a '-Gate' suffix. Yet it appeared so ubiquitous: The cable news coverage was dreadful and never-ending, the climate skeptic politicians and pundits were opportunistically declaring global warming a hoax, and the trolls were never noisier on the comment boards.
And indeed, therein lies the impact:
"But of the 25% that did hear about it, about half, 12-13%, said that it caused them to disbelieve that climate change was happening, to distrust the scientists... that scientists were involved in a conspiracy, essentially. So it did have a significant impact," Leiserowitz says.
It appears that the biggest impact of Climate-Gate was essentially to turn doubters into disbelievers. Those whose political and ideological beliefs had already made them wary of climate change found their smoking gun in the hacked emails (even though in reality they were anything but). The noisiest core of climate skeptics grew, and Climate-Gate gave them a specific event to rally around and take to the blogosphere to decry. It was a political event more than a scientific one -- that much has been painfully obvious since the beginning.
As such, Leiserowitz notes that "the other important point about [Climate-Gate] is that it wasn't universally spread. That in other words, people who lost trust in the science and the scientists were very much concentrated among Republicans, conservatives, and in particular, people we've identified with very strong individualistic worldviews or values -- which is actually more powerful a predictor than being a conservative or Republican."
Again, this is unsurprising -- the people that were turned into full-blown "dismissive" climate skeptics, as Leiserowitz calls them (read more about the various kinds of climate skepticism here) were largely who you'd expect to: the Tea Party, the stereotypical Fox News aficionado, the right-wing radio listener.
Which is also how Climate-Gate managed to prove hugely influential for an event that only 25% of Americans were aware of: Like resistance to health care reform, or the stimulus spending package, 'Climate Gate' became a key plank of the Tea Party right's ideology. Thus, any conservative politician hoping to capitalize on the anger amongst those Republicans, libertarians, and 'individualists' had to convince them that Climate-Gate had closed the case on global warming.
And so, as of last year, those 26% of Americans (the number of 'nay-saying' climate skeptics at last count) who doubt climate change is real were having an out-sized influence on the policy debate -- even though about half Americans still recognize that warming is at least in part caused by man.
More on So-called Climate-Gate
Calm Down Over ' Climate Gate ': 6 Points for a Level-Headed Discussion
And " Climate Gate " Will Henceforth Be Known As