Where do citizens stand on climate change?

2 01 2017
Talk to the hand

Talk to the hand

Climate change caused by industrialisation is modifying the structure and function of the Biosphere. As we uncork 2017, our team launches a monthly section on plant and animal responses to modern climate change in the Spanish magazine Quercus – with an English version in Conservation Bytes. The initiative is the outreach component of a research project on the expression and evolution of heat-shock proteins at the thermal limits of Iberian lizards (papers in progress), supported by the British Ecological Society and the Spanish Ministry of Economy, Industry and Competitiveness. The series will feature key papers (linking climate change and biodiversity) that have been published in the primary literature throughout the last decade. To set the scene, we start off putting the emphasis on how people perceive climate change.

Salvador Herrando-Pérez, David R. Vieites & Miguel B. Araújo

“I would like to mention a cousin of mine, who is a Professor in Physics at the University of Seville – and asked about this matter [climate change], he stated: listen, I have gathered ten of the top scientists worldwide, and none has guaranteed what the weather will be like tomorrow in Seville, so how could anyone predict what is going to occur in the world 300 years ahead?”

Mariano Rajoy (Spanish President from 2011 to date) in a public speech on 22 October 2007

Weather (studied by meteorology) behaves like a chaotic system, so a little variation in the atmosphere can trigger large meteorological changes in the short term that are hard to predict. On the contrary, climate (studied by climatology) is a measure of average conditions in the long term and thus far more predictable than weather. There is less uncertainty in a climate prediction for the next century than in a weather prediction for the next month. The incorrect statement made by the Spanish President reflects harsh misinformation and/or lack of environment-related knowledge among our politicians.

Climate has changed consistently from the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The IPCC’s latest report stablishes with 95 to 100% certainty (solid evidence and high consensus given published research) that greenhouse gases from human activities are the main drivers of global warming since the second half of the 20th Century (1,2). The IPCC also flags that current concentrations of those gases have no parallel in the last 800,000 years, and that climate predictions for the 21st Century vary mostly according to how we manage our greenhouse emissions (1,3).


Modern climate change has multiple dimensions (4). Along with warming (the most popular dimension), other dimensions include increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events (floods, droughts, heat waves), advance or delay of seasons, and growing climate variability locally, regionally and globally. This panoply of complex phenomena is resolving into a new spatial distribution of the Earth’s climates, including new climates never known to the planet before (4). We are already sensing those changes in our daily urban lives, although most dramatic events are already underway far from our doorstep, e.g., thaw of mountain glaciers and polar ice caps, ocean acidification and sea-level rise, and erratic availability of fresh water.

Species (including Homo sapiens) are responding to modern climate change in all oceans and continents (5,6,7,8). Some strive to adapt in their native areas of residence, others disperse in search of their native climates. Both capacities (adaptation and dispersal) determine the degree of vulnerability to climate change and that there are (have been and will be) winners and losers (9). Those species unable to adapt and/or move are doomed to go extinct, and such scenario obliges scientists to be meticulous in what species traits to measure in order to predict the future of biodiversity (10). Climate is changing at rates species cannot match up with relative to the rates of environmental change they have experienced in evolutionary (i.e., geological) time (11). As a result, synergies of climate change with the ongoing transformation of ecosystems are translating into the sixth massive extinction in the history of our planet (12,13), which is already framed in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene: the period over which humans have left a geological print on the planet (14,15).

We are interested in citizens’ perception of climate change because it can influence habits of energy consumption and promote demonstrations, laws and environmental deals that reverse or mitigate the current situation. With such idea in mind, a multidisciplinary team led by Singaporean Tien Ming Lee surveyed citizens from 119 countries about two questions: are you aware of climate change? (two possible answers: aware or unaware), and (if aware) is climate change a serious threat to you or your family? (two possible answers: serious or not serious) (16). For the first question, Lee found that most individuals from industrialized countries were aware of climate change, while in African, Asian and Middle West countries people unaware of climate change predominated. As to the second question, the pattern swapped, so among those aware of climate change, threats were perceived more strongly by people living in less industrialized countries. That is to say that an Australian or a Spaniard are more likely to have access to information on, but to neglect the risks of, climate change, than a Moroccan or an Indian. Lee also revealed that people familiar with climate change has relatively high (academic) education, and people most sensitive to the associated risks have elaborated beliefs about the cause(s) of climate change.

The good news (anything but a surprising outcome!) is that a country wanting to make an honest commitment against climate change must invest in education – covering specific contents on climatology free of ideological bias. The icon of such bias is the USA where climate change is a worrying matter for the liberals and Democrats but a minor issue for the conservative and Republicans (17). As seen in the recent Clinton versus Trump election, the discrepancy unfolds highly pitched debates often laden with imprecise and/or false statements. The controversy permeates through politics to science, and vice versa, due to an appalling duality. On one hand, the ruling model of energy production, based on fossil fuels, determines the economy, trade market and relationships among countries. On the other hand, the threats to our society and wellbeing impinged by climate change question such model and the (dis)order that maintains and justify it – like none of our other major impacts on biodiversity has posed before.

Improving the clarity of language by which we (scientists) communicate with other researchers, and with society as a whole, is one of the most important challenges ecologists and conservation biologists face right now and for the next decades (18) – and represents a major need on educational grounds to handle a conceptually and terminologically complex concept such as ‘climate change’ (19). We will do our best in the coming articles to contribute to ameliorating this type of communication.


  1. IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. IPCC, Geneve, Switzerland
  2. Abram, N. J. et al. (2016). Early onset of industrial-era warming across the oceans and continents. Nature 536: 411-418
  3. Maslin, M. (2014). Climate Change. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford)
  4. Garcia, R. A. et al. (2014). Multiple dimensions of climate change and their implications for biodiversity. Science 344: 1247579
  5. Godbold, J. A. & Calosi, P. (2013). Ocean acidification and climate change: advances in ecology and evolution. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 368: 20120448
  6. Hoffmann, A. A. & Sgro, C. M. (2011). Climate change and evolutionary adaptation. Nature 470: 479-485
  7. Parmesan, C. (2006). Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 37: 637-669
  8. Walther, G-R. et al. (2002). Ecological responses to recent climate change. Nature 416: 389-395
  9. Dawson, T. P. et al. (2011). Beyond predictions: Biodiversity conservation in a changing climate. Science 332: 53-58
  10. Urban, M. C. et al (2016). Improving the forecast for biodiversity under climate change. Science 353
  11. Jezkova, T. & Wiens, J. J. (2016). Rates of change in climatic niches in plant and animal populations are much slower than projected climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 283
  12. Bellard, C. et al (2012). Impacts of climate change on the future of biodiversity. Ecology Letters 15: 365-377
  13. Brook, B. W. et al (2008). Synergies among extinction drivers under global change. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23: 453-460
  14. Ruddiman, W. F. (2013). The Anthropocene. Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences 41: 45-68
  15. Waters, C. N. et al (2016). The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351
  16. Lee, T. M. et al (2015). Predictors of public climate change awareness and risk perception around the world. Nature Climate Change 5: 1014-1020
  17. McCright, A. M. & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001-2010. Sociological Quarterly 52: 155-194
  18. Herrando-Pérez, S. et al. (2014). Ecology needs a convention of nomenclature. BioScience 64: 311-321
  19. Hofmann, M.E. et al. (2011). Classifying knowledge on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability in Europe for informing adaptation research and decision-making: a conceptual meta-analysis. Global Environmental Change 21: 1.106-1.116



One response

3 01 2017

Sounds really interesting and enjoy Quercus publications to try and keep up to date with what is happening in Spain.


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