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July 29, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

An accurately informed public is necessary for climate policy

This is a guest essay by Dana Nuccitelli

Last week, the Making Science Public blog published a guest post by Ben Pile, What’s behind the battle of received wisdoms?, which focused on Andrew Neil’s interview with Ed Davey on BBC Sunday Politics and my articles at The Guardian discussing the scientific errors Neil made on the show and in a subsequent BBC blog post.

Response to Professor Hulme’s Comments

Before addressing this post, I would like to respond to some comments made by Professor Mike Hulme regarding a paper I co-authored, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, which was one of the topics discussed on Sunday Politics and in Pile’s post.  Professor Hulme said,

“It seems to me that these people are still living (or wishing to live) in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?”

With all due respect to Professor Hulme, his perception of the public understanding of climate science is not reflected in the polling data.  In fact, we discussed this in our paper (which is open access and free to download),

“…the perception of the US public is that the scientific community still disagrees over the fundamental cause of GW. From 1997 to 2007, public opinion polls have indicated around 60% of the US public believes there is significant disagreement among scientists about whether GW was happening (Nisbet and Myers 2007). Similarly, 57% of the US public either disagreed or were unaware that scientists agree that the earth is very likely warming due to human activity (Pew 2012).”

Polling data for the UK show a similar level of public misperceptions on climate change.  For example, a 2012 Guardian/ICM poll found that only 57% of British voters accept that human-caused climate change is happening.  In an April 2013 YouGov poll, 39% of the UK population agreed that “the planet is becoming warmer as a result of human activity,” and 53% agreed “the world’s climate is changing as a result of human activity.”  This public misperception on human-caused climate change and the associated scientific consensus was the reason we embarked on our study.  For this reason I would also respectfully disagree with Professor Hulme’s description of our paper as “irrelevant,”

“The irrelevance is because none of the most contentious policy responses to climate change are resolved *even if* we accept that 97.1% of climate scientists believe that ‘human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW’…”

Again quoting from our paper,

“An accurate perception of the degree of scientific consensus is an essential element to public support for climate policy (Ding et al 2011). Communicating the scientific consensus also increases people’s acceptance that climate change (CC) is happening (Lewandowsky et al 2012).”

Our co-author John Cook’s PhD research has similarly shown a strong correlation between public awareness of the scientific consensus and support for government climate policy across nearly the entire political spectrum.  Our paper is well suited for correcting the public’s misperception that humans are not causing global warming or that there is no scientific consensus on the subject, and hence it is a relevant and useful contribution.

Ben Pile’s Guest Post and Andrew Neil’s Errors

Regarding Ben Pile’s guest post on this blog, I would first like to say that I encourage healthy scientific skepticism, and also a healthy debate about what climate policy should entail.  I have no problem with Andrew Neil asking Ed Davey if the recently slowed global surface warming and/or some recent scientific papers should cause the UK government to revise its climate policy.  As I detailed in my second Guardian article on the subject, I think the answer is that it clearly shouldn’t, but there is certainly no problem with the question being asked.  However, as I noted, healthy skepticism and an informed climate policy discussion must accurately consider all available evidence, which Andrew Neil did not.  On that subject, Ben Pile wrote,

Dana Nuccitelli (who is not a climate scientist) compiled a list of what he thought were Neil’s mistakes.”

To be more precise, I provided evidence to illustrate why most of Neil’s climate comments were erroneous.  In his post, Pile did not dispute any of my characterizations of the many errors made by Neil, and I would encourage readers here to click the links to read my articles and the evidence I provided to support my assertions.  I think any open-minded reader will agree that Neil made a great many errors on the show and in his subsequent blog post.

“Skeptics” are Not Included in the 97% Consensus

Regarding our consensus paper, Ben Pile repeated claims made by Andrew Montford, Richard Betts, and Roy Spencer (Professor Hulme also made similar statements in the comments) suggesting that even climate “skeptics” would fall within our 97% consensus.  As I discussed in my second article referenced by Pile, these claims display a lack of understanding of the nuance in our study.

“The “skeptic” papers [in our study] included those that rejected human-caused global warming and those that minimized the human influence. Since we made all of our data available to the public, you can see our ratings of Spencer’s abstracts here. Five of his papers were captured in our literature search; we categorized four as ‘no opinion’ on the cause of global warming, and one as implicitly minimizing the human influence.

Thus, contrary to his testimony, Spencer was not included in the 97 percent consensus. In fact his research was included in the fewer than 3 percent of papers that either rejected or minimized the human contribution to global warming.

Our survey also included categories for papers that quantified the human contribution to global warming. In the author self-ratings phase of our study, 237 papers fell into these categories. 96 percent of these said that humans are the primary cause of the observed global warming since 1950. The consensus on human-caused global warming is robust.”

To summarize, our study did not merely show that 97% of peer-reviewed studies taking a position on the issue agree that humans are causing global warming, although that conclusion was our main focus because of the public misperception on the subject.  The 97% also excluded papers that minimized the human influence on global warming (either implicitly or explicitly stating that humans are responsible for less than 50% of the observed warming since 1950).  And we also collected data on papers explicitly quantifying the human influence, among which 96% agreed that humans are the primary driver of global warming since 1950.

Job Well Done by Ed Davey

Our study should certainly not be used to suggest all climate science and policy questions are settled.  Ben Pile seemed to suggest Ed Davey did so on the BBC program,

“Yet the survey was cited by Davey himself in defence of the government’s climate policies in the face of changing science.”

I would encourage readers here to go back and watch the interview.  The entire discussion of the 97% consensus was limited to the first two minutes of the program.  It merely involved Davey pointing out that human-caused global warming has been established in the peer-reviewed literature, and now it’s time to move on and discuss the appropriate policy to address the issue (followed by Andrew Neil making false statements about our paper).  Throughout the interview Ed Davey pointed out that it’s important to retain healthy skepticism of the science, but that it’s also important to consider all the available evidence (which Andrew Neil refused to do throughout the show).  In fact, Ed Davey displayed a strong understanding of the basic science.  I think British citizens should be happy to have such a well informed Energy and Climate Change Secretary.

Pile’s Inaccurate Claims About Our Paper

Finally, Ben Pile made a number of factually inaccurate claims about our paper and its authors,

“Accordingly, rather than being a dispassionate study into scientific opinion, the 97% survey was a superficially academic exercise, intended to obfuscate the substance of the climate debate. Those who fell for it forget that its authors, aside from having their own — shock horror! — agendas, have no expertise in climate science, much less any interest in taking the sceptics’ arguments on.”

As noted above, the purpose of our study was to try and correct the widespread public misperception about human-caused global warming and the scientific consensus on the subject.  That was our “agenda” – as it always is – to communicate what the peer-reviewed literature says to the public.  Frankly Ben Pile’s comments about our “agendas” are offensive, as are his claims that we have no climate science expertise.

Aside from compiling a vast database summarizing peer-reviewed climate research, four of the co-authors on the Cook et al. (2013) consensus paper also co-authored Nuccitelli et al. (2012) – a climate paper about global heat accumulation, among our many other combined climate science publications.  John Cook co-authored a climate textbook, and several of our co-authors are graduate students researching climate science at various universities.  Not that our expertise should matter – Ben Pile’s comment on the subject is ad hominem – but for the record, it’s also factually inaccurate, as is much of his blog post.

Contrarianism is Not Skepticism

To summarize, contrary to the widespread public misperception on the subject, there is a consensus in the peer-reviewed literature that humans are causing climate change.  There is also a consensus that humans are the primary cause of the current global warming.  Correcting that misperception is critical in achieving public support for climate policy, and has been the goal of our discussions about our study.  I hope we would all agree that a misinformed public is not in our best interest – we cannot solve a problem without first understanding it.

There are of course remaining climate uncertainties and nuances that are not addressed in our consensus paper, and it’s certainly valid to ask if they should impact our climate policy.  However, the argument among “skeptics” seems to be that given remaining uncertainties, we should take a “wait and see” approach to climate change for the time being.  That argument is fundamentally flawed.  Uncertainty is not our friend in climate science – it simply means the problem could either be larger or smaller than we currently expect.  Meanwhile our current climate policy is woefully inadequate in addressing the problem, so even in a best-case scenario we’re not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately the most important thing to bear in mind is that true skepticism requires considering all available evidence.  Ben Pile claimed,

“Andrew Neil, in just one show, has done more to promote an active understanding of climate science and its controversies than has been done by the Carbon Brief blog…”

I could not disagree more, precisely because (aside from the many scientific errors he made) Neil refused to consider all the evidence (unlike Pile’s example of the Carbon Brief blog, which is an excellent resource that does consider all the scientific evidence).  That approach of only considering selective pieces evidence and ignoring the inconvenient data simply cannot promote an active understanding of climate science.  That is not skepticism; it’s contrarianism.

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