Consensus, Criticism, Communication

Thanks in good part to our critics, our paper Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature keeps getting more attention. It almost seems that you can’t open up a browser without seeing the “97%” meme somewhere. The extra interest prompted by Richard Tol’s recent critical article has maintained the rate of downloads of the paper at 500 per day and has pushed the total to nearly 200,000. The recent buzz has also spurred discussions on And Then There’s Physics, Variable Variability, Twitter, in The Guardian and a renewed line of criticism in a series of articles by Yale University Professor Dan Kahan.

I was surprised—a little shocked even—at some reactions to the release of our consensus paper. I was prepared, of course, for an angry response from those people who maintain that the expert consensus on the basics of anthropogenic climate change is either non-existent or crumbling. But my colleagues and I were never expecting to change their minds.

However, strong and sharply-worded opposition was unexpected from people like Dan Kahan (sarcasm), Mike Hulme (“infamous”), some journalists (“unwarranted attention”) and some climate scientists (satire), none of whom actually dispute the existence of an expert consensus on the basics of anthropogenic climate change. That the criticism often seemed tinged with peevishness (at least before they did some back-tracking) was especially surprising. I never saw our work as in any way undermining their approaches and analyses, but rather complementing them. And the complaints continue.

To give you a flavour of the nature of the recent discourse, here are some Tweets. (Keywords: Haha, doesn’t work, distraction, diversion, Sad, don’t inform, They insult, psychological control):


The apparent anger and the throw-everything-at-the-wall criticism suggest that this is something other than a measured scholarly critique. Let’s first look at the main strands of argument in a bit more detail. Continue reading

Consensus Matters

The publication of the paper that I co-authored, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature,  in May 2013 caused quite a splash. The paper received a lot of positive coverage, including Tweets from Barack ObamaAl Gore and Elon Musk.  (They didn’t always get the details quite right: our survey was of the literature, not of scientists’ opinions and we had nothing to say about how dangerous climate change would be.) The paper has been downloaded, as of June 2nd 2014, 183,335 times, which is a record for any Institute of Physics paper. The editorial board of the journal, Environmental Research Letters, awarded the paper the “Best article of 2013” prize.  The research for the paper was done by a team of unpaid non-specialist volunteers of students and industrial and academic scientists, along with other enthusiasts and the funding for its publication was raised by donations from Skeptical Science readers. No taxpayers were harmed during the making of this article.


Not everybody was pleased to see our work in print. In particular, many people who are unconvinced of the urgency to act on mitigating climate change have been claiming that our study is flawed and biased. Even somebody like economist Richard Tol—who accepts that global warming is real and caused by humans and who acknowledges that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus—has made extraordinary efforts over the past year to get a critique published. He finally succeeded, with the paper Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the literature: A re-analysis published in the journal Energy Policy,. The journal editors somehow came to believe that this article fell within its scope of  being “an international peer-reviewed journal addressing the policy implications of energy supply and use from their economic, social, planning and environmental aspects“.

Energy Policy was good enough to give us a chance to respond, which we did with this short paper, which has now (June 21, 2014) been  published. We were only allowed 1000 words, however, so we wrote a much longer article, published on the Skeptical Science website, detailing the 24 errors that Professor  Tol made. Continue reading

John Oliver asks: Are there hats?

On his new HBO show Last Week Tonight John Oliver skewered the whole idea that there is a genuine debate on the scientific basics of man-made climate change. He also mocked the conventional media format of  pitting one “skeptic” against one “scientist” that so badly misrepresents the real world of informed opinion.

I admit that I was particularly delighted to see the paper I co-authored with John Cook and other Skeptical Science colleagues get a mention.

Paul Krugman had a recent article in the New York Times where he looked at how some conservatives not only deny that humans are causing climate change, but also that they need to deny that expert opinion overwhelmingly believes that to be true, invoking an international conspiracy of scientists. And, in a blogpost he reminded us that conservative journalist Charles Krauthammer in “no Einstein”.

It’s tragic that there is no coherent conservative response to the problem of climate change. Any solution is going to require a policy consensus among people of all political persuasions.  The longer we put off a solution, the less likely it becomes that we will be able to deal with the problem with free-market measures. The more that conservatives rail against climate science on the bogus grounds that scientists want to usher in an authoritarian world, the more that dismal political future becomes likely.

Yet, as John Oliver shows us, tragedy and comedy are never far apart.

Nothing abusive about stating climate facts

This article originally appeared in the Gulf Islands Driftwood on January 7th, 2014

Elizabeth Nickson1 gets some things right: there is some good news about the Earth’s population. According to the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling2 we may have reached Peak Child — the number of people aged less than 15 may well never again be larger than it is today. And she may be correct that material consumption in rich countries may be reaching a plateau.

However, this is not the same as saying that the demand on the Earth’s resources has stopped growing. The population of the planet will continue to grow from the current seven billion to, about ten billion by the end of the century. That’s roughly 40 per cent more mouths to feed than now. More importantly, the six billion poorest people on the planet are quickly getting richer. While this is undoubtedly great news, nine billion people at the end of the century aspiring to live like the richest billion of us do today will place huge additional demands on the planet’s resources.

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Big Oil and the Demise of Crude Climate Change Denial

Originally posted at Skeptical Science

From 1989 to 2002, several large US companies, including the oil companies Exxon and the US subsidiaries of Shell and BP, sponsored a lobbying organisation called the Global ClimateCoalition (GCC), to counter the strengthening consensus that human carbon dioxide emissions posed a serious threat to the Earth’s climate. As has been documented by Hoggan and Littlemore and Oreskes and Conway, the GCC and its fellow travellers took a leaf out of the tobacco industry’s playbook and attempted to counter the message of peer-reviewed science by deliberately sowing doubt through emphasizing uncertainties and unknowns. The climatescientist Benjamin Santer accused the GCC of deliberately suppressing scientific information that supported the IPCC consensus.

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The Continuing Denial of the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

Originally posted at Skeptical Science

One of the perennial Skeptical Science top ten climate myths is “There is no consensus” (currently at number 4 in popularity). Consensus means the elements of knowledge that research scientists tend not to discuss or actively investigate any more. Consensus is the stuff that fills textbooks and is the established knowledge that teachers try to cram into high school and undergraduate students’ heads. It doesn’t mean an impregnable bastion of knowledge—there are many well-known examples of consensus-changing revolutions in the history of science—and even school textbooks have to get updated every now and then.

Consensus doesn’t mean unanimity, either. There is always a minority of gadfly scientists who decide to take on the consensus: scientists who challenge the biotic origin of oil or medical researchers who doubt HIV as a cause of AIDS. In such cases, the contrarian scientists don’t typically deny the existence of the consensus; they just think that the content of it is wrong.

Nor does consensus mean that everybody is happy with every single element that others believe to be settled. Consensus in any field has a hard core but fuzzy edges.

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