Illustration showing a member of the public listening to all the different comments from scientists and politicians about climate change

Uneasy bedfellows

What happens when science, the public and politics meet?

There is now an extremely strong scientific consensus that global warming is real and manmade. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has increased its estimate of the level of certainty that human activity is the main cause of climate change from 90 per cent to 95 per cent.

Party lines?

A 2012 YouGov survey found that only 43 per cent of the British public thought the world was becoming warmer because of human activity.

Political allegiance may play a part in attitudes towards climate change. A Gallup Poll in the USA in 2014 found that just 42 per cent of Republicans think that most scientists believe global warming is occurring, compared to 82 per cent of Democrats.

Encouragingly, there also seems to be a political consensus about climate change emerging that did not exist five or ten years ago. The presidency of George W Bush was marked by its scepticism towards climate change, but the election of Barack Obama has changed the tone, with the launch of a Climate Action Plan aimed at cutting carbon emissions and US Secretary of State John Kerry comparing climate sceptics to members of the Flat Earth Society.

British politicians’ attitudes towards climate change vary. Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted his environmental commitment soon after becoming leader of the Conservative Party. The UK government now holds the consensus view: “I believe man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces,” the Prime Minister has said in Parliament.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has consistently warned against climate scepticism, while the UK Independence Party (UKIP) is sceptical of action to curb carbon emissions.

Australia is a major contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions. The country’s leader Tony Abbott has been sceptical about the challenge of climate change, but the Australian government is attempting to take the problem more seriously.

China – another major emitter of carbon dioxide – looks set to cap carbon emissions, which is a significant policy change for the developing country. The chairman of China’s climate change committee has suggested that the country will enforce an absolute cap, beginning in 2016. Regional neighbour India, also a substantial emitter of carbon dioxide, has resisted calls so far to do likewise.

Lead image:

Illustration © Glen McBeth


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development