Climate change: a tidal wave of agreement

"Great Wave Off Kanagawa" by Katsushika Hokusai. Image in public domain.

“Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai. Image in public domain.

 John Cook, Climate Communications Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and writer/editor of the blog Skeptical Science, has jointly published a paper in Environmental Research Letters entitled Quantifying The Consensus On Anthropogenic Global Warming In The Scientific Literature. As you might expect, the results show an overwhelming agreement that climate change is happening, and it’s largely caused by human activity.

Cook discusses this paper in this article in The Conversation, and states that his results show that 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that human activity is significantly changing the global climate. So there’s a scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. (You can find a beautifully simple animated illustration of the results at The Consensus Project).

There are a couple of important points along the way. One that deserves to be highlighted is that the number of papers that explicitly endorse the consensus is decreasing over time. This is not because there is less evidence for it: quite the contrary. The evidence for the consensus keeps mounting up. It’s because more and more scientists have been convinced by this mounting evidence, and consider the question settled. Cook’s analogy is “you don’t expect to see geography research papers endorsing the fact that the earth is round.”

Another point that’s more ominous is that, as scientific support for the consensus position has increased, public belief that scientists mostly agree has decreased. A US survey showed that the public believed that an average of 50% of scientists agreed: that is, most people believe the science is not at all settled, and there’s still plenty of evidence each way.

And that’s just not true.

So why do people deny that climate change is real? For starters, it’s because some people are spending lots of money to give this impression: this Guardian article from February this year showed that conservative billionaires donated more than US$120 million between 2002 and 2010 to groups casting doubt on the science behind climate change. These were not scientific research groups, they were ‘think tanks’ and activist groups. And when you can spend that much purely on publicity, you can certainly change more than a few minds, especially since you won’t have to do any science to back up your claims.

These think tanks use several ‘straw man’ arguments to make it appear that (a) the climate isn’t changing, (b) it may be changing, but it’s not caused by humans, (c) there’s no scientific agreement about it, or, as a last resort, (d) there’s nothing we can do about it. Andy covered some of these stages in his post, “The 5 stages of climate change denial“.

Aside from all the money being splashed around, there’s another reason why people may not want to believe that climate change is real or caused by humans: fixing it means we need to change the way we live. And while some folks consider that a positive thing, given that we live on a finite planet and we already have the technology to make the shift, it makes some very uneasy to think of any change to their routines. Read through the comments of any article on climate change, and you’ll find responses ranging from these widely-promulgated climate myths to sinister, world-spanning conspiracy theories that make the ‘faked moon landing’ story look like hard fact.

Whatever the public believes, the overwhelming majority of climate scientists consider the science settled. Now if only the public and the politicians could accept this, we could make a start on dealing with the problem.

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