June 24, 2015, by Andrew Gibson

Climate change consensus ‘needs more work’ (Adam Smith @CirclingTheSquare2)

Researchers’ claims that there is a scientific consensus on the view that humans are causing climate change is not the simple issue that it may seem, according to one leading scholar.

Mike Hulme is professor of climate and culture at King’s College London and published the popular book Why We Disagree About Climate Change in 2009.

Hulme does not question whether there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but asks academic questions about how consensus is formed. He also asks why there has been such a drive among climate scientists to form one through initiatives such as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“Some people think consensus is a prerequisite for political action,” said Hulme, giving a keynote speech at a conference on science and society on 23 June. This is why, he explained, so much effort has gone into reproducing the figure that 97.1 per cent of the scientists involved in over 4,000 peer-reviewed papers endorse the view that humans are causing global warming. President Obama has quoted the figure, and the Guardiannewspaper  has adopted it as the name of a news and opinion network.

The idea of consensus in climate change goes back to the original IPCC report in 1990. The chairman of that report, John Houghton, said: “Peer review has helped to ensure a high degree of consensus among authors and reviewers regarding the results presented.”

Hulme said that other research disciplines do not feel the need to reach consensus. In fact, consensus is often frowned upon in many disciplines. Hulme used his keynote to call for more research into the notion of consensus. “We need to do more work in understanding what this is all about, rather than wheeling out ‘consensus’ with numbers attached to it; we need to understand how consensus emerges.”

Hulme argued that research published this year by Yale Law School professor Dan Kahan shows that as the consensus among climate scientists that humans are causing climate change has emerged over recent years, the public consensus that humans are to blame has been shrinking. He said this called into question the scientists’ desire to reach consensus as a prerequisite for popular political action against climate change.

Hulme told delegates that scientists have different reasons for striving for consensus, such as needing to form a scholarly community, or to shore up support for a science that is under attack, to close down dissenting voices, or to offer a firm policy foundation.

He also showed how there are different types of consensus, arguing that the quality of any consensus matters more than its numerical value. Different types of consensus include: where scientists reach the same conclusion independently; where equal groups work together to reach a consensus, such as in the IPCC; and where several groups with different amounts of power and influence over each other work together to reach a conclusion that is a consensus, but not one of equals.

Hulme said his bid to the European Research Council for funding to do research in this area had been rejected. But he insisted that there are many research questions that need answering.

“What is the public meaning of consensus? How should one go about constructing consensus…and why is the climate consensus deemed so important?”


This article was originally published here on ResearchProfessional.com for subscribers.

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