(NaturalNews) Climate-change scientists are facing a conundrum of sorts, and they're not really sure what to do about it.
On the one hand, when negative stories surface discounting claims that the earth is "warming" or that climate is "changing" the planet (for the worse), they have only a passing effect -- good news for them.
On the other hand, however, stories promoting the theory of climate change don't move public opinion either, researchers from Princeton University have said in a new study. They write that this dynamic suggests that climate change scientists need to take a new look at how to be more effective in regularly engaging the public.
Overall public interest in the topic has fallen since 2007, researchers said in a report published by the journal Environmental Research Letters, based on an examination of how often people search the Internet for information related to climate change.
However, "the downturn in public interest does not seem tied to any particular negative publicity regarding climate-change science, which is what the researchers primarily wanted to gauge," ScienceDaily.com reported.
William Anderegg, a post-doctoral research associate in the Princeton Environmental Institute who studies communication and climate change, and first author of the study, along with Gregory Goldsmith, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford's Environmental Change Institute, looked specifically into what effect, if any, a pair of widely reported, nearly simultaneous, events had on public interest and opinion.
Searches for 'global warming' and 'climate change'
As reported by the website:
The first involved the November 2009 hacking of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, which has been a preeminent source of data confirming human-driven climate change. Known as "climategate," this event was initially trumpeted as proving that dissenting scientific views related to climate change have been maliciously quashed. Thorough investigations later declared that no misconduct took place.
The second event was the revelation in late 2009 that an error in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- an organization under the auspices of the United Nations that periodically evaluates the science and impacts of climate change -- overestimated how quickly glaciers in the Himalayas would melt.
Both researchers, in order to get a sense of public interest in climate change in general, searched through the Google Trends database for the terms global warming and climate change, then for all related terms searched by people around the world between 2004 and 2013. Google Trends receives more than 80 percent of the world's Internet search activity; it is increasingly used by researchers examining economics, political science and public health.
Internet searches that were related to climate change climbed steadily following the 2006 release of former Vice President Al Gore's video documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (which was found by a British court to have contained a number of false claims); they continued to climb with the release of the IPCC's fourth report, according to researchers.
They specifically looked at searches for climategate between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31, 2009. They found that the search trend had a six-day "half-life," meaning that frequency of searches fell by 50 percent every six days.
After 22 days, they said, the number of searchers for climategate was just 10 percent of its peak. Information about climategate was searched for most in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
'These bursts were short-lived'
Researchers also tracked the popularity of the term global warming hoax to measure the overall negative effect of climategate and the IPCC error on what the public thought and believed about climate change. They discovered that searchers for the term were higher during the year before the events than the year afterward.
"The search volume quickly returns to the same level as before the incident," Goldsmith said. "This suggests no long-term change in the level of climate-change skepticism.
"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," he added.
Anderegg said that means that moments of great consternation for climate-change scientists seem to barely register in the public consciousness.
The study goes on to say that independent polling data also indicate that the events had very little effect on U.S. public opinion.
"There's a lot of handwringing among scientists, and a belief that these events permanently damaged public trust. What these results suggest is that that's just not true," Anderegg said.