'Climategate' had only fleeting effect on global warming scepticism

Oxford University analysis of Google Trends suggests impact of climate scientists' email release in 2009 was short-lived

Media storms attacking the science of climate change have only a fleeting effect on the public's interest and do not appear to alter opinions, according to new research.

Oxford University scientists used the Google Trends tool to track web searches related to global warming over the past decade but found that peaks of interest in major stories, such as the release of climate scientists emails in 2009 – dubbed “climategate” – disappeared within a few weeks.

“We found that intense media coverage of an event such as 'climategate' was followed by bursts of public interest, but these bursts were short-lived,” said Greg Goldsmith at the University of Oxford. “This suggests no long-term change in the level of climate change scepticism.”

“The evidence suggests that events like “climategate” tend to reinforce existing beliefs,” he said. “There's almost no evidence that it converts people's opinions”

Goldsmith and William Anderegg from Princeton University used Google Trends to analyse the level of searches for terms including 'global warming', 'climate change' and 'global warming hoax'. The findings are published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The revelation of emails from climate change researchers in 2009, which led to allegations of misconduct of which the scientists were later cleared, saw a big spike in searches, particularly for the term 'global warming hoax'. But this spike fell by 50% in six days and 90% in 22 days.

The pattern was the same for analyses of global web searches, those from the US or the UK only and for searches in English, Spanish or Mandarin.

The pattern was also repeated for searches for 'Himalayan glaciers' following the revelation in 2010 of a mistake about their rate of melting in a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Goldsmith said Google Trends was a useful tool because it amasses a very large and anonymised data set.

The short term effect of media coverage on levels of public interest is consistent with other work, according to James Painter, also at Oxford University but unconnected to the new work.

Painter led a study of climate scepticism in the media in 2012. “Scepticism is driven more by other factors, and particularly pre-existing values often linked to people’s political ideology,” he said. Painter also noted that only 25% of Americans were aware of climategate.

Bob Ward, policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics, said: “The findings are consistent with other recent surveys showing that only a very small proportion of the population disagrees with the scientific consensus that the climate is changing and that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause. However, it is grossly over-represented in terms of media coverage, particularly by right-wing newspapers.”

The researchers also found that the level of web searching for 'global warming' fell by about half from 2004-7 to 2010-13.

Anderegg said: ‘The volume peaked in 2007 around a unique sequence of major events — the releases of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in August 2006 and the IPCC report in April 2007. There is no single reason why the public have become less interested in climate change. However, research certainly suggests that economic issues, such as the recent recession, tend to take precedence over environmental issues like climate change.”


Damian Carrington

The GuardianTramp

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