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Climate change, science, the media, and public opinion

By Ted Christie - posted Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Science and the media have the power to shape public opinion on climate change. Communicating competing arguments requires the goals of objectivity, independence, balance and fairness to be adhered to. Overcoming bias in communicating divergent scientific opinion requires facts to be accurately presented and not distorted by a selective use of the available information.

Climate change is a complex environmental problem, built on cross-disciplinary knowledge from many sources – a range of scientific disciplines, mathematical modelling, economics, sociology, law and policy. Climate change is also a controversial issue. As a result, climate change creates significant challenges for communication for science and the news media. For very different reasons, polarisation of public opinion can arise.

Communicating the findings of scientific research in ways that the public understands is not always a strength of science and can lead to public opinion becoming polarised:


"Engineers [and scientists] are a pain to deal with … They speak a language that 99% of the human race cannot understand. They have two hemispheres in their brains, just like the rest of us, but they insist on using only one of them, the logical analytical side."

Dale Gorczynski (1991)

As science does not generate exact knowledge with logical certainty, divergent scientific opinion on any issue will always exist, making some degree of polarisation unavoidable. Mathematical models are used to predict the probability, not the certainty, of climate change. Models may be of varying accuracy and become a source of scientific uncertainty.

A further problem for science is in communicating environmental risk. Decisions by science that an environmental risk, such as climate change, may be managed and reduced to an acceptable level may not always provoke public confidence. Public opinion may be quite different from scientific opinion as to what represents an acceptable level of risk.

For the news media, a great deal of research suggests that conflict is the inevitable outcome for the media when controversial issues are reported to make the public fully aware of the issues. When there is a wide diversity of news media sources involved in communicating controversial issues, members of the public identify with the media opinion that they understand and accept. In these circumstances, public opinion may become polarised.

The status of polarisation of public opinion on action for climate change in Australia, today, can be gauged from the findings of the following polls published in March 2011.


A poll undertaken by Sydney radio station 2GB received responses from 21365 people. In response to the question "Do you want your Federal M.P. to vote in favour of a carbon tax", 98.7% of the responses answered "No".

A poll undertaken by Essential Media Communications sought responses to the question, "Do you support or oppose the Government's recent announcement to introduce a carbon pricing scheme from 1 July 2012, which will require industries to pay a tax based on the amount of carbon pollution they emit?"Forty-nine percent opposed the introduction of the carbon pricing scheme; 38 % supported it.

It should be emphasised that the methodology used in these polls needs to be evaluated to ensure that accepted sampling principles have been adhered to, in terms of random sampling, freedom from bias and representativeness in sampling. This would ensure that the poll findings on part of the population sampled are statistically sound and can be extrapolated to the wider Australian community.

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About the Author

Dr Ted Christie is an environmental lawyer, mediator and ecologist specializing in resolving environmental conflicts by negotiation and is the author of the cross-disciplinary (law/science/ADR) book, Finding Solutions for Environmental Conflicts: Power and Negotiation (Edward Elgar Cheltenham, UK). Ted Christie was awarded a Centenary Medal for services to the community related to education and the law. He was the Principal Adviser to Tony Fitzgerald QC in the “Fraser Island Commission of Inquiry” and a Commissioner in the “Shoalwater Bay Commission of Inquiry”.

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