The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

97 percent of scientific studies agree on manmade global warming, so what now?

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(UPDATE, Monday, 12:45 p.m.:  I’ve added a parenthetical clarification in the first paragraph below noting that the 97 percent figure refers to studies that took a position on whether global warming was manmade or not (66 percent of the studies surveyed did not express a position).)

Original post, with clarification: A new study confirms there is strong scientific consensus that human activities are causing the planet to warm.  97 percent of scientific papers (that take a stance on the issue) agree, the study finds.

This finding serves as a nice talking point for cocktail party conversations, but it’s less clear it will have a meaningful effect on public’s level of concern about climate change.

The authors* of the study (Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature), who painstakingly sifted through nearly 12,000 academic journal article to reach their conclusion, say they hope their results bridge the divide between publishing scientists who are convinced human activities are causing global warming and the segment of the public, who are not. This, they say, will motivate action on climate change.

“The public perception of a scientific consensus on [manmade warming] is a necessary element in public support for climate policy,” the study says. “However, there is a significant gap between public perception and reality, with 57% of the US public either disagreeing or unaware that scientists overwhelmingly agree that the earth is warming due to human activity.”

But Keith Kloor,  a science writer for Discover, smartly argues that while closing this gap is a laudable goal, it doesn’t necessarily move the needle on public’s level of concern about the issue or their motivation to act.

“Over many years of research, we have consistently found that, on average, Americans view climate change as a threat distant in space and time–a risk that will affect far away places, other species, or future generations more than people here and now,” concludes a Yale report that Kloor cites.

Kloor opines: That. Is. The. Stumbling. Block. And. He’s. Right.

What the consensus study does not address is the level of concern about the human role of climate change expressed in the studies surveyed or by the studies’ authors.  Nor does it provide a sense of what the studies say about how severe climate change will be, and the consequences.

My view is that to raise public concern we need to be able to communicate not just that the overwhelming majority of scientists believe humans are causing climate change, but that scientists have some unified level of concern as well as strong sense of the specific consequences of climate change on society and the individual.  And, then, the public needs to see these consequences in action for validation.

But due to uncertainties in the future rate of warming,  there’s a wide spectrum of consequent possibilities. That makes it more difficult for scientists to tell a unified story.  And then, as the consequences of climate are only gradually manifesting themselves amidst a noisy background of weather, it renders them difficult for the public to appreciate.

For all of these reasons, the climate change communications problem is especially thorny and the simple fact scientists agree human activities cause warming is unlikely to make much difference when it comes to acting on it.

(*The lead authors of this study operate the climate change website “Skeptical Science“, which offers commentary on the science of climate change and debunks widely-held myths.)

Recommended related reading:

The Other Climate Science Gap (Andrew Revkin Dot Earth)

Annual “new study” finds 97% of climate scientists believe in man-made climate change; public consensus sure to follow once news gets out (The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School)

About the SkS Study That Finds a 97% Consensus (Quark Soup – David Appell)