Perceptions of Climate Change

An extract from: Alex Evans and David Steven, 2007
The London Accord and Centre of International Cooperation,
Climate change: the state of the debate


In the next section of the paper, we make an assessment of a range of polling data to try to determine whether perceptions of climate change really did pass a tipping point in 2006, and if so, what exactly has and has not tipped. But first, a brief review of some of the key themes we can discern in the history.

First, the importance of an ebb-and-flow dynamic in public perceptions of climate change is striking. The story of levels of interest and engagement about the issue is anything but a steady, linear increase in airtime and concern. Instead, perceptions of climate change have been characterised by peaks of attention followed by lapses back towards indifference. But each peak of focus seems to lay the foundation of the next – by catalysing higher levels of scientific engagement, or the development of the environmental movement, or in other ways initiating conversations. A geological metaphor seems appropriate. The ‘earthquakes’ of public or media focus and attention happen only irregularly. In between, the shocks, tectonic plates of opinion are shifting – but silently, below the surface.

Second, the history of perceptions of climate change often seems to be characterised by a dialectic between two opposed, or at least contrasting, schools of thought. From disbelief in the early years of the twentieth century that humans could influence a system so vast as the climate, to disputes between environmentalists and US conservatives, between sceptics and believers, or between unilateralists and multilateralists, debate has always been a key motor in driving the climate change agenda. Action will almost always awaken resistance. Understanding climate change requires a certain amount of ‘looking ahead’ to enquire which forces will be awakened if the debate moves in direction x or direction y. Europeans, for example, await eagerly a Democrat replacement for George Bush. If one should come, however, it is already clear that the front will simple move towards those who will paint any concession on climate as evidence of an un-American betrayal. Players need to have the vision to think two or three moves ahead, not be locked into the game as it stands today.

Third, it is crucial to notice that the history of climate change is not just about facts, evidence and argument. Images – of melting glaciers, of Kilimanjaro sans snow, or polar bears on ice floes – matter enormously. So do relationships, as with the friendships between James Hansen and Walter Sullivan or Senator Tim Wirth that were to lead to so much media coverage. Values count, too, much as they are often overlooked in analyses of social dynamics. So too do beliefs, both as in ‘what people believe’ and ‘what people want to believe’. Finally, myths count a great deal, the deep stories that societies tell themselves about why they exist, about what is and is not taboo, and about their relationships with other societies and with the natural world. We are on dangerous ground indeed if we assume that perceptions of climate change are driven wholly – or even primarily – by rational considerations.

Fourth, it is worth noting the role played by shared concepts, vocabularies, conventions and institutions. The IPCC set a standard for describing the nature and extent of the climate problem, and laid the basis for consensus about its seriousness. The Stern Review did some of the same work in the economic sphere, detailing how much action and inaction would cost. The Climate Change Convention offered a framework for climate stabilization. There is a hierarchy here. The ‘problem’ consensus is stronger than the ‘costs’ one. The ‘solutions’ consensus is shakiest of all. Moreover, the consensus is not formed by the reports or agreements themselves, but by the ‘informal conversations’ that surround them.

Finally, it should be noted that the climate change ‘aristocracy’ – those who matter to an eventual agreement – is an increasingly large and diverse group. It may be comforting to believe that a solution will eventually come down to the views of three or four heads of state (the US, China, India, and whichever European leader is most eager to please), but it is also quite wrong. Foreign policy in the modern age is about many interlocking networks. Governments are only one participant in a distributed, multiplayer game. The number of pieces on the board will grow, not shrink, if the game shows any sign of moving towards an endgame. Climate change’s ‘informal conversations’ will have to be extensive and wide-ranging if anything approaching a final settlement is to be reached.

(source: Global Gas Concentrations CO2, Earth Trends, World Resources Institute (; and Mauna Loa CO2 monthly mean data, Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL (

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the complete paper by Alex Evans and David Steven is available here
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