Climate change consensus: the percentage game
A notorious lobby group just launched another scurrilous attack on the 97% consensus on climate change. Why do they waste their time, when proving the lack of consensus should be so easy to do?
Once more, environmental scientist and risk assessor Dana Nuccitelli has been obliged to defend the paper he co-authored with John Cook, assisted by a shed-load of Skeptical Science readers: “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”. The paper proved – once more – that the vast majority of scientific papers (and the scientists who wrote them) endorse the principle theory of anthropogenic climate change; that the climate is changing so rapidly there has to be a very un-natural cause, and humans are it.
On the off-chance that you’re unfamiliar with this issue, Cook and Nuccitelli’s peer-reviewed paper, published by respected journal Environmental Research Letters, confirmed what a number of previous studies had already found: Oreskes 2004, Doran & Zimmerman 2009, Anderegg et.al., 2010 all discovered that around 97% of climate scientists and/or the papers they published support the basic tenets of global warming caused by human agency. In the common parlance, this 97% are said to form a consensus, which on the face of it hardly seems to merit contention. Needless to say, this consensus is in fact one of the most contentious issues in the entire climate change debate.
Displaying a rare regard for accuracy, climate change ‘skeptics’ point out that science is not done by consensus, and that’s nearly right. Science isn’t correct because the majority voted for it. While much science is never proved in the mathematical sense, it becomes an accepted part of the canon when nobody disputes it any longer, so compelling is the evidence that supports the theory: evolution is a perfect example, the ‘big bang’ theory another. And so too is climate change – there are few credible scientists who dispute the principle theories, choosing instead to indulge in ‘lukewarm’ opposition – it won’t get as hot as we think, or it won’t be as bad – that kind of stuff.
Who Fears The Consensus? Climate Change Deniers
“Those who do not understand the scientific consensus about human-caused climate change are, in turn, less likely to believe that climate change is happening, human-caused, will have serious consequences, and is solvable (i.e., can be mitigated through concerted action). In addition, not understanding this scientific consensus undermines Americans’ support for a broad societal response to the threat”
Climate change isn’t affected by the consensus one way or another; no amount of agreement or disagreement will change the rate at which the ice melts or the sea level changes. In which case, we arrive at an obvious question. If the science isn’t done by consensus, but is accepted by the vast majority because it is robust, what’s all the fuss about?
The fuss is about public perception. There are numerous examples of how lobby groups have sought to instil doubt about science when it suits their paymasters. A good example is found in an extract from a memo written by Republican strategist Frank Luntz for then president George W. Bush. The topic was global warming. Despite admitting that “”The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science…” Luntz advised the Bush administration to sow doubt:
” Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…” [Original Emphasis].
(By the way, you may have seen complaints that ‘warmists’ changed the name from ‘global warming’ to climate change’ but it turns out this was in fact another strategy advocated by Luntz – in the same memo – because as he puts it “Climate change is less frightening than global warming”).
This strategy – to sow doubt in order to prevent the public from believing that the scientific position is virtually unanimous – is still being employed today. Nuccitelli was obliged to defend the consensus in his Guardian column in response to a new attack, this one published in the Wall Street Journal. Written by Joe Bast, president of fossil-fuel funded lobby group the Heartland Institute, and professional climate skeptic Roy Spencer, it rehearses any number of specious arguments in another attempt to dispute the consensus.
The Argument That Dares Not Speak Its Name
Climate change denying lobby groups and pundits have spent an inordinate amount of time and money trying to mislead the public over the ‘settled science’ – the tenets of global warming that are now undisputed by the 97% of climate scientists doing the work.
The odd thing is that even if they were correct – that none of the previous papers had correctly demonstrated a consensus – this still wouldn’t prove there wasn’t one. Even if we accepted that all the papers were fatally flawed, all that would prove is that the consensus had not been demonstrated.
Here we come to the core problem for the sceptical community. The easiest way to disprove the consensus isn’t by taking issue with previous papers, because that doesn’t achieve anything. As a recent statement signed by 41academics pointed out (in relation to a different academic dispute):
Above all, we urge scholars with criticisms of each other’s work to pursue them through the normal channels of academic debate. If you doubt another researcher’s results, try to replicate the analysis, and then publish your findings. If you don’t like a published article, publish a better one. (My emphasis).
And there it is, the one avenue not available to the skeptics. They can’t ‘publish a better one’ and indeed, they’ve never tried. Why not? Because if they launched a survey of climate scientists – all the scientists who had published anything on climate change in the last decade, for example – they know perfectly well that their survey would replicate the findings of all the previous ones.
The whole issue is propaganda of the worst kind. The most obvious way to prove there is a lack of consensus – a credible survey – is the one method the skeptics cannot employ, and have never attempted (except if you count meretricious shite like The Oregon Petition). It should not be necessary to elaborate this point, nor hammer home the clear message, but here it is anyway: the fastest and most effective way to demonstrate the lack of consensus would be to publish a peer-reviewed survey that proved its absence. I leave you to ponder why the dissemblers and doubters have never done so.