Skip to content

Climate Change: Reality and Perception


Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory just reported that the annual increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere in 2012 was 2.67ppm bringing the mean concentration for the year to 395ppm.  The only prior year to record a greater increase was 1998 when CO2 mean annual concentration jumped 2.93ppm (a continuous record of CO2 at Mauna Loa has been collected since 1958).  The average rate of increase over the last decade has been 2.07ppm, almost double the rate in the 1960s.  The data show that overall, the rate of increase in CO2 has been itself increasing – we are emitting CO2 faster and warming more rapidly year by year.


Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory, where record CO2 increases are being documented
(Photograph: © Richard Vogel/AP)

In reporting this story, The Guardian chose to note the publication at about the same time of a study I had seen in Science for March 8th.  That study reported on an analysis of world temperatures over the past 11,000 years (the Holocene period) using a variety of proxies and 73 records from a broad range of locations around the world.  The study gives new precision to estimates of temperature back to the end of the Pleistocene, but does not otherwise break any new ground.  Shaun Marcott, from Oregon State University, and three colleagues from there and from Harvard, report that the Holocene commenced with a warming phase during which temperatures rose about 0.6oC between 11,300 and 9,500 years ago.  Global temperature remained warm until about 5,500 years ago, and then slowly fell about 0.7oC, to a low point at the “Little Ice Age’ 200 years ago.  The warming that has taken place during the last 100 years has not yet brought us back to early Holocene warmth but the Earth is now warmer than during 75% of the Holocene.  More importantly, the current warming trend is far more rapid than those slow fluctuations during the Holocene, and models of future warming confirm that temperature will exceed the highest Holocene temperatures by end of this century under even the most aggressive scenario for CO2 mitigation.

These events confirming that our climate continues to warm at an ever more alarming rate come within days of the release of the GlobeSpan Radar annual tracking poll assessing peoples’ attitudes to climate change and other environmental threats worldwide.  That report reveals the public has other things on its collective mind.  The poll, administered to 22 thousand people across 22 countries, asked for opinions on the importance of six environmental threats: air pollution, water pollution, species loss, automobile emissions, fresh water shortages, and climate change.  When the proportion of respondents scoring each as ‘very serious’ is examined, 2012 saw a dramatic decline in interest.  For all threats except climate change the percent considering the threat very serious fell to its lowest level in 20 years, and the drop in percentage for climate change was nearly as far.  This graph shows the results for citizens of the 12 (developed) countries that had been polled throughout the 20 year period.


Graph showing the trend in percentage of respondents in 12 countries who considered each environmental threat ‘very serious’ over the past 20 years.  Image © GlobeScan

It is interesting to look at how these results were presented and how they were received by the media.  GlobalScan announced the results with the statement: “Environmental concerns among citizens around the world have been falling since 2009 and have now reached twenty-year lows.”  Several paragraphs in, they noted that concern for climate change had not fallen as far, and that there was less concern in 1998-2003.  The Independent (U.K.) announced: “Green fatigue sets in: the world cools on global warming”, then went on to not the fall in concern since 2009, managed to avoid noting that concern for climate change remains higher than it was earlier in the decade, and managed also to not mention any of the other threats included in the study except for a parting comment that respondents considered water shortages the most serious concern.  Canadian Underwriter, an insurance business magazine, did somewhat better.  It opened with, “concern for climate change is up globally from where it was a decade ago, but overall concern for other environmental issues has reached a 20-year low” and generally did a better job of covering the content of the report.  And The Voice of Russia announced, “economics have put climate change, once the buzz topic of political debate, on the back burner”.  Yes, there was a certain amount of anti-capitalist gloating there.

What strikes me about the GlobalScan graph is that, while there has been a marked turn-down in the last couple of years, the majority of people polled around the world still consider four of these threats to be “very serious” (and climate change missed that mark by just 1% — 49% thought it “very serious”).  GlobalScan suggests the economic downturn has captured peoples’ attention, and that is very likely correct.  But, even diverted by the most pressing economic problems since the 1930s, most of us still think most of these environmental threats are “very serious”.  I wonder how the report would have been received by the media if GlobalScan had opened their report with, “Despite the most serious economic downturn since the 1930s, a substantial proportion of people across the globe still see climate change and five other environmental threats to be very serious problems?

I’m reminded of an article from late 2011, by Michael McCarthy, writing in The Independent, which reviewed the concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Values, as an explanation for the turning away from environmental issues that seems to have been occurring over the last few years.  Maslow’s argument was that you had to attend to more basic individual needs like food and water before you were able to attend to other matters.  Only in prosperous, civilized, peaceful nations could individuals devote time to what he called self-actualization – including creativity, morality, altruism and concern for the environment.


Image © KZ Miller, Wyrd Goat Press

McCarthy argued that present tough economic times have deprived us in the west of the luxury of having time to engage on issues such as climate and the environment, and that environmental scientists and activists would find it necessary to develop new arguments to engage people who have other things on their mind.  My own view, despite the downturn in the GlobalScan graph, is that the Earth is delivering us a continuous stream of new, and more alarming evidence of a deteriorating environment, and that this new information should be more than sufficient to keep people engaged, and get them more engaged than they have been in the past.

I’m actually becoming slightly more optimistic about our collective ability to act sensibly.  Perhaps it’s only that spring is coming and we are now back on daylight saving, but the world seems a bit brighter to me.  I sense that awareness of environmental issues is growing.  Indeed, every now and then you see it in unexpected quarters.  An article today in something called theenergycollective (all one word) is an interview with Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of U.S. Forces in the Pacific.  When he was asked what he considered to be the most serious threats in the Pacific region, he did not list items like North Korea’s interesting new leader, or China’s aircraft carrier, or even the arguments between China and Japan over tiny islands in the South China Sea.  Instead he said the following,

“You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level. Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon 27 or 28 this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about 17.”

“The ice is melting and sea is getting higher,” Locklear said, noting that 80 percent of the world’s population lives within 200 miles of the coast. “I’m into the consequence management side of it. I’m not a scientist, but the island of Tarawa in Kiribati, they’re contemplating moving their entire population to another country because [it] is not going to exist anymore.”

“We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue – even with China and India – the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations,” he said. “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.’’

And there is more.  It’s pretty clear to me that some of our leaders, in areas where you least expect environmental awareness, are very much aware.  Now, if only we could get the Canadian government to actually start thinking about climate and environment instead of about tar sands mining and polar bear hunts….  But I looked at the Environment Canada website again and sighed… What a content-free excuse for information from this country’s environmental science department.

2 thoughts on “Climate Change: Reality and Perception”

  1. “temperatures rose about 0.6ppm” (?)

    Maslow eh? I was thinking about him recently too in relation to Bernays & Walt Disney ( ), when I was a consultant in Ottawa the lead authors would throw in Maslow once in a while to impress the government rubes – it worked, we got paid … but I’m being cynical 🙂

    I also had questions about the way the Globescan results were presented, glad to hear similar ones from you, I think these people are simply focussed on career advancement above all, and who can blame them?

    and in the scientific community too – your recent look into the K-Pg made me go back and find a young fellow, Colin Goldblatt (at UVic, in the same general zone as Andrew Weaver), who thinks (by conflating all cases to compare with Venus, and having a geoengineering card in his back pocket) that tipping points are … not likely (see: )


    1. Thank you, David. I’ve dragged temperature back onto the usual scale, but I value your sharp eyes. I’ll take a look at your U Vic colleague, but I think the likelihood of us not seeing some surprises in the next few years is vanishingly small. Hey, even the recent meteorite in Russia was a surprise and it was big as a Volkswagon. You’d think somebody wise would have known it was coming. And, if it has a big brother…..

Comments are closed.