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There is no such thing as climate change denial

Posted on 15 February 2013 by John Cook

This is a re-post from The Conversation

In a sense, there is no such thing as climate change denial. No one denies that climate changes (in fact, the most common climate myth is the argument that past climate change is evidence that current global warming is also natural). Then what is being denied? Quite simply, the scientific consensus that humans are disrupting the climate. A more appropriate term would be “consensus denial”.

There are two aspects to scientific consensus. Most importantly, you need a consensus of evidence – many different measurements pointing to a single, consistent conclusion. As the evidence piles up, you inevitably end up with near-unanimous agreement among actively researching scientists: a consensus of scientists.

A number of surveys of the climate science community since the early 1990s have measured the level of scientific consensus that humans were causing global warming. Over time, the percentage of climate scientists agreeing that humans are causing global warming has steadily increased. As the body of evidence grows, the consensus is getting stronger.

Two recent studies adopting different approaches have arrived at strikingly consistent results. A survey of over 3000 Earth scientists found that as the climate expertise increased, so did agreement about human-caused global warming. For climate scientists actively publishing climate research (79 scientists in total), there was 97% agreement.

This result was confirmed in a separate analysis compiling a list of scientists who had made public declarations on climate change, both supporting and rejecting the consensus. Among scientists who had published peer-reviewed climate papers (908 scientists in total), the same result: 97% agreement.

While individual scientists have their personal views on climate change, they must back up their opinions with evidence-based research that withstands the scrutiny of the peer-reviewed process. An analysis of peer-reviewed climate papers published from 1993 to 2003 found that out of 928 papers, none rejected the consensus.

Despite these and many other indicators of consensus (I could go on), there is a gaping chasm between reality and the perceived consensus among the general public. Polls from 1997 to 2007 found that around 60% of Americans believe there is significant disagreement among scientists about whether global warming was happening. A 2012 Pew poll found less than half of Americans thought that scientists agreed humans were causing global warming.

The gap between perception and reality has real-world consequences. People who believe that scientists disagree on global warming show less support for climate policy. Consequently, a key strategy of opponents of climate action for over 20 years has been to cast doubt on the scientific consensus and maintain the consensus gap.

How have they achieved this? Hang around and you’ll witness first hand the attack on consensus in the comment threads of this article. The techniques of consensus denial are easily identifiable. In fact, if one rejects an overwhelming scientific consensus, it’s inevitable that they end up exhibiting some of the following characteristics.

Expect to see reference to dissenting non-experts who appear to be highly qualified while not having published any actual climate research. Fake expert campaigns are launched with disturbing regularity. Recently, a group of NASA retirees issued a press release rejecting the consensus. While possessing no actual climate expertise, they evidently hoped to cash in on the NASA brand.

A prominent Australian fake expert is Ian Plimer, the go-to guy for political leaders and fossil fuel billionaires. He hasn’t published a single peer-reviewed paper on climate change.

There should be many cases of cherry picking but how do you identify a genuine cherry pick? When a conclusion from a small selection of data differs from the conclusion from the full body of evidence, that’s cherry picking. For example, a common cherry pick of late is the myth that global warming stopped over the last 16 years. This focus on short periods of temperature data ignores the long-term warming trend. Importantly, it also ignores the fact that over the last 16 years, our planet has been building up heat at a rate of over three Hiroshima bombs worth of energy every second. To deny global warming is to deny the basic fact that our planet is building up heat at an extraordinary rate.

One way of avoiding consensus is to engage in logical fallacies. The most common fallacy employed to deny the human influence on climate change is the non sequitur, Latin for “it does not follow”. The onslaught of Australian extreme weather in 2013 has led to a surge in the fallacy “extreme weather events have happened before therefore humans are not having an influence on current extreme weather”. This is the logical equivalent to arguing that people have died from natural causes in the past so no one ever gets murdered now.

Finally, with consensus denial comes the inevitable conspiracy theories. If you disagree with an entire scientific community, you have to believe they’re all conspiring to deceive you. A conspiracy theorist displays two identifying characteristics. They believe exaggerated claims about the power of the conspirators. The scientific consensus on climate change is endorsed by tens of thousands of climate scientists in countries all over the world. A conspiracy of that magnitude makes the moon landing hoax tame in comparison.

Conspiracy theorists are also immune to new evidence. When climate scientists were accused of falsifying data, nine independent investigations by universities and governments in two countries found no evidence of wrongdoing. How did conspiracy theorists react? By claiming that each investigation was a whitewash and part of the conspiracy! With each new claim of whitewash, the conspiracy grew larger, encompassing more universities and governments.

A key element to meaningful climate action is closing the consensus gap. This means identifying and rebutting the many rhetorical techniques employed to deny the scientific consensus.

This article was adapted from Understanding Climate Change Denial.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 25:

  1. The comments by pseudoskeptics and assorted contrarians on The Conversation version of this post, as far as I can tell, universally neglected the most important part of the post:

    There are two aspects to scientific consensus. Most importantly, you need a consensus of evidence – many different measurements pointing to a single, consistent conclusion. As the evidence piles up, you inevitably end up with near-unanimous agreement among actively researching scientists: a consensus of scientists.

    The reason there's a consensus of scientists is because there's a consensus of evidence. But for some reason, none of the contrarians wanted to engage with that part (I can't imagine why not).

    Discussion on the relative importance of a scientific consensus on climate change IMO obscures the fact that every single other widely-accepted major scientific theory is also backed by a large, perhaps overwhelming, scientific consensus, in an almost identical manner to the way climate science is accepted:

    • evolution of organisms through descent & modification
    • quantum mechanics
    • general & special relativity
    • plate tectonics
    • germ theory of disease

    (and the list goes on)

    The only difference is that, except for medical science, attacks on these consensus positions are generally the sole purview of isolated individuals or groups.

    What self-styled climate "skeptics" might not realize (or might try to ignore or downplay) is that anyone familiar with attacks on some of these other consensus positions can quickly spot similarities between their methodologies and those of, say, young earth creationists, or anti-vaccine activists, and the like.

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  2. I prefer the term "climate science denial" over "climate change denial" for the reason that John outlines in the first paragraph.

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  3. @Composer99: In self-perceived critical movements, I dislike the non scientific bias towards criticism (sometimes leading to esoteric or unscientific conclusions and sometimes even climate change denial). On the other hand, I do not like uncritical belief of science, if the source of the money and along with it the research goals and limitations are clear: being skeptical is especially useful, if research is driven by big business, as is the case for GMOs (no checks due to revlving doors legislation) and pharmaceutical products ...

    So, I am a science skeptic and especially a climate skeptic, but I did not find anything to complain about in climate science, up to now: it's not business driven (view the oil company benefits and you see where the majority of the money interests are), it's independent, open, scrutinized, multinational. But I remain skeptic on genetic engineering and pharmaceuticals   and I have (non scientific) reasons to remain so, because business is at least partially involved in what is researched.

    ---

    @Initial (re)post: I agree: I am not a climate scientist, but I read a lot on it, including books on climate science (currently blackbody radiation and placks law, phew!), but I try to communicate the scientific consensus, and I can see all sorts of excuses for not wanting to change, which all boil down to one of the top 10 arguments of denial listed in Sks, which basically go back to the genuine, independent scientific consensus. This is why I absolutely like the scientific guide to global warming skepticism, which draws a complete model of reality and points to the failure of skptics of having a consistent model of reality and the escalator graphics, which brings at least questionmarks into peoples minds who are unwilling to read the 12 pages they don't like ... This is a "constructive" approach, together with real life examples that communicate that even a big change need not be a loss in quality of life, only a change in habits, with a hard transition period, we all know that. 

    But I think we also need to cover who brings in the money to deny science consensus: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/climate-of-doubt

    Also, the former tobacco harm deniers are now in the climate denial business, e.g.
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/S._Fred_Singer

    Apparently, it 's the same strategy over and over again ...

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  4. Importantly, it also ignores the fact that over the last 16 years, our planet has been building up heat at a rate of over three Hiroshima bombs worth of energy every second. To deny global warming is to deny the basic fact that our planet is building up heat at an extraordinary rate.

    From <a href="dana1981's"></a> article it says -


    In fact, heat is accumulating in the Earth's climate system due to the increased greenhouse effect at a faster rate today than it was 15 years ago, and the energy is equivalent to detonating four Hiroshima atomic bombs per second, every second over the past 15 years.

    Which is it 3 or 4? When you consider their detonating every second that makes a difference.

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  5. Clyde @4, from Nucitelli et al, 2012, Table 1 the average increase in heat at the Earth's surface from 2002 - 2008  was 0.73 W/m^2.  In contrast, the average heat accumulation from 1990 to 2008 was 0.46 W/m^2.  Clearly for those figures to make sense, the heat gain from 1990-2002 must have averaged 0.3 W/m^2.  The perceived discrepancy is because John takes the average over 16 years, while Dana contrasts the endpoints of a 15 year interval.

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  6. use of language plays some havoc in these situations. It's natural for people to use short hand of one form or another. So climate change denial is short hand for rejection of the consensus view of the social problem created by emissions of GHGs. Unfortunately that gives disinformationists room to play on the ambiguity of meaning. But this isn't really any different when some people say scientiic theory X (e.g. general relativity) can't be 'proven'. The word prove has different associations depending on who is saying it and what the context is.

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  7.  

    It is a shame that this article falls for the manipulation of public opinion that has been so successful in branding all conspiracy theorists as somehow lacking the intellect to see the mainstream or official line on a topic. This is especially so when one considers the discrepancy between the scientific consensus and public support for action on climate change. Something close to the hearts of all who post articles here and the vast majority of those who comment on them I assume.

     

    I have always tried to follow the science of any issue that I choose to take an opinion on. That is as true of my stance on climate change as it is on 9/11. When someone can show me that climate change is not going to be a major problem by reference to the science, I might change my opinion. But there is a lot of evidence to contradict before I do so. Until then, I will campaign for the need to act and act now, if not sooner.

     

    Similarly, (-snip-).

     

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    Moderator Response: [DB] Off-topic snipped.
  8. "Consequently, a key strategy of opponents of climate action for over 20 years has been to cast doubt on the scientific consensus and maintain the consensus gap."


    As a recent example of this, please see the Forbes editorial written by James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, posted this week and entitled "Peer-Reviewed Survey Finds Majority Of Scientists Skeptical Of Global Warming Crisis."

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  9. Cara #8,

    Mark Hoofnagle on the denialism blog has a good takedown of James Taylor. The paper Taylor reports on contains these statements:

    First and foremost, our study is not a representative survey. Although our data set is large and diverse enough for our research questions, it cannot be used for generalizations such as “respondents believe …” or “scientists don’t believe …”

    In addition, even within the confines of our non-representative data set, the interpretation that a majority of the respondents believe that nature is the primary cause of global warming is simply not correct.

    http://scienceblogs.com/denialism/2013/02/15/denialism-from-forbes-courtesy-of-heartland-hack-james-taylor/

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  10.  
    The perceived discrepancy is because John takes the average over 16 years, while Dana contrasts the endpoints of a 15 year interval.
     
     
    Thanks for the prompt & cordial reply.
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  11. It is amusing to see the comment right at the top of the page as you open the Forbes site:

    Forbes Thought of the Day

    " Let a man practice the profession which he best knows.

    — Cicero

    It is obvious which profession Taylor belongs to.

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  12. The phrase 'climate denial' is a perfectly acceptable shorthand for 'climate-change-related denial'.

    Those who choose to make an issue of it by being literal are usually seeking to deflect from the subject under discussion. In other words; if you can't argue the evidence, nit-pick about phraseology.   

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  13. As has been pointed out many times, consenses amongst scientists doesn't make it true.  There is an ever shrinking possibility that we have it wrong and this is simply a natural (not human) phenomenon.  However, even if the whole theory of climate change is in error, there are a lot of other reasons to cease our use of fossil fuels.

    http://mtkass.blogspot.co.nz/2010/10/forget-climate-change.html

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  14. Howdy Cara, welcome to SkS.

    Interesting and gratifying that the authors of the study actually posted a comment on Taylors post saying that he couldn't make the claims he has about their study. It was in the polite language of science but actually it was quite a slap down.

    And, a Forbes staffer, Alex Knapp posted a few hours ago, pointing out that the title of his article was misleading. Maybe Forbes might start to take an interest in the quality (not) of what Taylor is putting upon their site.
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  15. It has been gratifying to see how many have pointed out Mr. Taylor's egregious interpretations of the Lefsrud and Meyer study, including seeing the authors of the study politely but firmly insist his interpretation was erroneous. Taylor has tried this tactic before, most recently with his "analysis" of a suvey of members of the American Meteorological Society.

    The editors of Forbes should be aware that Mr. Taylor's articles are providing rich fodder for those of us in the academy who wish to teach our students how not to interpret science.

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  16. >> The reason there's a consensus of scientists is because there's a consensus of evidence. But for some reason, none of the contrarians wanted to engage with that part (I can't imagine why not).

    In case you really didn't imagine why not, I do imagine at least this much:

    They generally are not scientists, so they don't read the research papers and frequently wouldn't understand good evidence and conclusions from bad ones. The evidence they "know" are overviews from various websites that use simplified arguments and very frequently cherry pick the data to help build out the narrative being sold.

    Understandably, led astray to see a limited and misleading portion of the elephant, many get angry and think climate scientists are doofs and/or dishonest in failing to see what "is" there.

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  17. Good to see that John's article has been reprinted in the The Age and is also currently the lead story in the Google News science section.

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  18. I stopped reading when I reached the phrase "consensus of evidence". There is no such thing. The dictionary defines the word as "agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole". It involves people. So, what is consensus of evidence? Is it BS?

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  19. MohammedY @18, for the hard at reading, the 'consensus of evidence' is "...many different measurements pointing to a single, consistent conclusion".   Of course, you already knew that.  You just could not resist the temptation to pretend that pointing out that the term 'concensus of evidence' is a metaphore, and and pretending that represents a substantive comment.  It is as if you wish that the term being metaphorical will make the evidence vanish.

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  20. Re "consensus of evidence", I try to be poetic and the literalists jump all over me. Maybe this is what happens when a physicist tries to get creative with language. I could've said "consilience of evidence" but most people respond "consili-whatnow?!"

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  21. "Consilience" is a excellent term - well defined and accurate. Perfectly applied to climate science.

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  22. John Cook @20, I don't think this has anything to do with your being a physicist.  People scoring merely verbal points by obtusely not recognizing a metaphore when they see one is a product of those people desperately clinging to beliefs for which they have no real evidence that they could adduce.

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  23. Well said Tom,

    Consilience or convergence or concordance of evidence would all have been more precise phrases here (and would need to be used in a scientific report) but the term "climate science consensus" has been stuck for so long in popular media that we all subconciously know what it means.

    It would be nice if MohamedY@18 pointed out to John that his popular term is  imprecise and suggest the precise alternative from above but "I stopped reading [because this term] is BS" is not only impolite but perhaps abusive and even moderation might be in order here.

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  24. James Taylor has followed up on his dishonest editorial of last week with a second editorial based on misrepresenting the very same study. The latest editorial is entitled "As The Consensus Among Scientists Crumbles, Global Warming Alarmists Attack Their Integrity" and can be found here.

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  25. https://acontent.atutorspaces.com/home/course/content.php?_cid=576

     

    I am interested in how to calculate hiroshima bombs/second. Figure two gives me a view of earth as a flat disk or as a spheriod.

     

    LINK

     

    The link above calculated the earth as a flat disk and calculated bombs per second with an energy of 2 thru 9 joules/sec.

    I noticed that the numbers from comments above were in the .3 watts/meter*2 to about .7 watts/meter*2. I assume this was calculated from the view of the earth as a spheriod.

     

    Assuming I am correct, how are the joules/sec or watts/meter*2 arrived at?

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    Moderator Response: [RH] Fixed link that was breaking page formatting.

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