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Trump or NASA – who's really politicising climate science?

Posted on 25 November 2016 by John Cook

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.The Conversation

Climate research conducted at NASA had been “heavily politicised”, said Robert Walker, a senior adviser to US President-elect Donald Trump.

This has led him to recommend stripping funding for climate research at NASA.

Walker’s claim comes with a great deal of irony. Over the past few decades, climate science has indeed become heavily politicised. But it is ideological partisans cut from the same cloth as Walker who engineered such a polarised situation.

Believe it or not, climate change used to be a bipartisan issue. In 1988, Republican George H.W. Bush pledged to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect”.

Since those idealistic days when conservatives and liberals marched hand-in-hand towards a safer climate future, the level of public discourse has deteriorated.

Surveys of the US public over the past few decades show Democrats and Republicans growing further apart in their attitudes and beliefs about climate change.

For example, when asked whether most scientists agree on global warming, perceived consensus among Democrats has steadily increased over the last two decades. In contrast, perceived consensus among Republicans has been in stasis at around 50%.

Polarisation of perceived consensus among Republicans and Democrats. Dunlap et al. (2016)

How is it that party affiliation has become such a strong driver of people’s views about scientific topics?

In the early 1990s, conservative think-tanks sprang to life on this issue. These are organisations promoting conservative ideals such as unregulated free markets and limited government.

Their goal was to delay government regulation of polluting industries such as fossil fuel companies. Their main tactic was to cast doubt on climate science.

Using a constant stream of books, newspaper editorials and media appearances, they generated a glut of misinformation about climate science and scientists.

The conservative think-tanks were assisted by corporate funding from the fossil fuel industry – a partnership that Naomi Oreskes poetically describes as an “unholy alliance”.

Over the past few decades, conservative organisations that receive corporate funding have grown much more prolific in publishing polarising misinformation compared to groups that didn’t receive corporate funding.

Politicising the scientific consensus

Robert Walker also brought up the topic of agreement among climatologists. The scientific consensus on human-caused global warming is a topic I’ve been rather heavily involved in over the past few years.

In 2013, I was part of a team that analysed 21 years worth of peer-reviewed climate papers. We found that among papers stating a position on human-caused global warming, 97% endorsed the consensus.

Our 97% consensus paper has been incessantly critiqued by Republican senators, right-wing think-tanks, Republican congressmen and contrarian blogs promoting a conservative agenda (eagle-eyed readers might detect a pattern here).

This led us to publish a follow-up paper summarising the many different studies into consensus. A number of surveys and analyses independently found around 90% to 100% scientific agreement on human-caused global warming, with multiple studies converging on 97% consensus.

Summary of consensus studies. Skeptical Science

Raising doubt about the scientific consensus has been an integral part of the conservative strategy to polarise climate change. A clear articulation of this strategy came from an infamous memo drafted by Republican strategist Frank Luntz. He recommended that Republicans win the public debate about climate change by casting doubt on the scientific consensus:

Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming in 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.

Conservatives dutifully heeded the market-research-driven recommendations from Luntz. One of the most common arguments against climate change in conservative opinion pieces has been “there is no consensus”.

Their persistence has paid off. There continues to be a huge gap between public perception of consensus and the actual 97% consensus among climate scientists (although new data indicates the consensus gap is closing).

In the following graph, taken from my own research into public perceptions of consensus, the horizontal axis is a measure of political ideology, with liberals to the left and conservatives to the right.

The slope in the curve visualises the polarisation of climate perceptions. While perceived consensus is lower for more conservative groups, there is a significant gap between perceived consensus and the 97% reality even among liberals.

This “liberal consensus gap” has two contributing factors: a lack of awareness of the 97% consensus, or the impact of misinformation.

The consensus gap: the divide between public perception of consensus and the 97% consensus. Skeptical Science

This data, consistent with Riley Dunlap’s polarisation data mentioned at the start of this article, indicates that many conservatives think the consensus is around 50%. This matches what Walker claimed to The Guardian:

Walker, however, claimed that doubt over the role of human activity in climate change “is a view shared by half the climatologists in the world”.

Given the multitude of studies finding consensus between 90% and 100%, where does this 50% figure come from? Further clues come from an interview on Canadian radio where Walker again claims that only half of climatologists agree that humans are causing global warming.

The source for Walker’s consensus figure seems to be the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group that lists “multiculturalism”, “diversity” and “sustainability” in academia as sources of concerns. A press release on the group’s website includes the following excerpt:

S. Fred Singer said in an interview with the National Association of Scholars (NAS) that “the number of sceptical qualified scientists has been growing steadily; I would guess it is about 40% now”.

Multiple studies have measured the consensus among climatologists by diverse methods including examining their papers, looking at their public statements, and simply asking them.

But Walker doesn’t appear to be interested in evidence. Instead, he seems to be relying on an unsupported guess by retired physicist S. Fred Singer.

It’s telling that Walker cites conservative sources in his efforts to manufacture doubt about the scientific consensus. If there is any politicising of science going on, it appears to be by Walker, not by the scientists.

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. Singer, eh?  Why am I not surprised.  Multiple real surveys are obviously biased, but the mere opinion of a washed-up right-wing scientist who has a long history of getting things wrong ('Star Wars,' anyone?) is obviously reliable.  That way madness lies (in truth we're already there).

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  2. If the climate scientists are conducting a hoax, it could devastate the fossil fuels industry.  Is the richest industry in the history of capitalism just unable to find the money to 'fact check' the climate scientists, and make sure this isn't a hoax?  Yet, instead of the clamor of directly-fossil-funded scientific opinion challenging the IPCC, its the silence that is deafening here.  It's the absence of directly-fossil-funded climate science, countering the standard viewpoint, that informs us more than the presence of fossil-funded doubt-mongerers.  In fact, if you ask Exxon its direct opinion, you'll get a weak admission that the scientists are right and we should be preparing for warming.

    So, of course the climate science is 'political'.  Exxon just finds it more effective to 'make it political' than to do its own science, which it knows would just add more evidence to what scientists have compiled.  There are two incidences in history, that I'm aware of, when fossil fuels directly funded science to challenge the standard viewpoint.  In both cases, those efforts did little more than confirm the standard viewpoint.  So, for the fossil fuels industry, it's Plan B, first elucidated by WC Fields: 'if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bull'. 

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  3. Excellent article.

    "Climate research conducted at NASA had been “heavily politicised”, said Robert Walker, a senior adviser to US President-elect Donald Trump.This has led him to recommend stripping funding for climate"

    I think the claim is empty. Walker provides no evidence, because there is none and hopes that bluff will win the day. The media need to start demanding these right wing schills provide hard proof, and it needs to be something more than some trivial rubbish or sophistry.

    In my opinion the accusation is also a subtle form of bullying to try to cripple and intimidate the researchers by wearing them down with constant false accusations. We have seen other attacks on scientists documented on this website. Its more off the same.

    In contrast the rhetoric of the denialists is full of political statements about liberal scams, Chinese scams, etc, etc, in a gish gallop of click bait designed to inflame people. Yet most in the media are so weak they let people get away with this without challenge.

    I agree that climate denail is clearly related to political ideologies opposing government actions and roles. The correlation is striking. The reason is ultimately fear of change or constrraints on personal activities, and letting this reach an unhealthy level.

    The consensus is really important, as it shows the climate community is of one mind (apart from a few eccentics that you will always get,) so hence the sceptics attack the consensus. I have emailed this consensus material to local media, and encourage others to do the same. The consensus studies are reasonably recent, and not part of IPCC releases, so many of the mainstream media are likely just not aware of them, and certainly not that there are several consensus studies finding much the same thing.

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  4. That is the start of the fallout from this irresponsible presidency by a con man. I'm really worried what will happen to Gavin and his staff. The con man realizes some of the grossest deceitfull and childish promisses that absurdly gave him a White House job (like prossecuting his opponents and building border walls) are getting him nowhere so he backs off with no regrets. But fighting the climate science is not one of them, so in his selfish, abhorrent desire, he will proceed dismantling climate science together with climate regulations. Like a child who does not see the reason the regulations are needed (FF burning -> AGW) trying to find a scapegoats (climate scientists) instead. Is there any way to stop that? Petition/letters of disapproval from world academies of science?

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  5. I understand what christoz is saying but I am trying to be optimistic and hope Trump comes to his senses regarding climate science.  He has already changed his tune some since the election.  Does he really want to take the U.S. in a different direction that the rest of the world on this?

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  6. Just a heads-up: The UK telegraph is saying the Robert Scott and Earnest Shackleton expeditions of the 1910's prove Antarctic sea ice area has not changed in a century.  To quote the article "the levels in the early 1900s were between... 5.3 and 7.4 million square kilometres".  The article goes on to suggest the current value is '6 million square kilometres'.  Hence the title of the article: "Antarctic sea ice is not shrinking [in]... 100 years".  This is all well and good, except the current minimum Antarctic sea ice extent is not 6 million square kilometres, but 3 million square kilometres.  A Tamino reconstruction of Antarctic sea ice extent (10^6 km2) over the 20th century is shown here.  The Telegraph will probably retract their statement in a week, claiming that they got their units (mi^2 versus km^2) confused.  But the 'meme' will be out there, and that will not be retracted: which was the entire point of the article.

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  7. Trump's original position was climate change is a Chinese scam and he was adamant the USA would pull out of the Paris accord. Now Trump says humans are implicated in climate change to "some extent", and he is open minded about Paris. This has been in the news the last couple of days.

    I suspect Trump lacks sincerity on this change of mind, and is just trying to be all things to all people. I hope Im wrong of course.

    More significant is this. Trump is not going to find it so easy to get what he wants all the time, whatever that may be. He is used to running his family empire and will find government quite different. He has already appointed hard line climate sceptics, and his election has empowered the Republican Congress. Trump simply doesn't have the power to dictate what all these people think and do, and they are mostly all climate denialists. So even if Trump softens his position personally, it will spin out of Trumps control.

    Memes do get out in the public, deliberately so. People hear the memes they like, and close their mind to anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. So many people are driven by gut feelings and emotions its scary.

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  8. ubrew12 @2

    We now know that Exxon actually did fund climate science in the 1970s.  Their team of climate scientists confirmed what other climate scientists had concluded.  Exxon used the information to safeguard its installations against the expected effects of climate change in the future.  However, they also realized that to combat climate change, people had to reduce the burning of fossil fuel — which would hit Exxon in the pocket.  To safeguard their profits therefore, they launched their campaign of deceit about climate change.  You know the rest.

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  9. rkrolph@5

    I assume you responded to my post @4 but please note that 'christoz' is not me, next time please avoid such mistake.

    I do not share your optimism about T-man's possible transformation. I also do not share pessimism of some doomsayers who predict rise of fascism or similar degeneration of US political system - opposing forces in Congress won't alow it. I'm simply a pragmatist, whose opinions about the world are shaped by the available evidence and can change as more evidence becomes available.

    In case of T-man, the available evidence does not indicate that he cares any bit about US. Quite opposite: he cares how to deceive and ruin his country's economic balance. Proof: he extorted almost $1bln from Uncle Sam through a tax loophole. No need to say anymore about his morale. And there is no single piece of evidence about his ability to comprehend and connect the things. Everything, his incoherent & rambling speeches, his use of emotions therein and total lack of any substance in everything he says, point to opposite: an empty headed narcissist driven by random whims. This video by Sam Harris(watch just from 2:00 to 5:00 where Sam explain how the ideasin human brain are connected, therefore it is impossible to "pull out a diamond" out of it when you've pulled out tons of junk) matches my opinion quite well.

    So, any signs that T-man recently may be "coming to his senses" cannot be inrterpreted as such, given the evidence above. Rather, they should be interpreted as a signs of a con man changing his propaganda because he realises he cannot go far with his previous deceits. Regarding climate science, I'm affraid, there is nothing that can stop the con man, with REP Congress in ever widening denial. I'm pessimist here and think this is the area most damage will be done in next 4 years of "dark age" in US mitigation policies. Unless of course you can show me something that will stop the con man in his ravings.

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  10. I agree with rkrolph. I actually believe climate associations should be trying hard to reach Donald Trump, and they could actually sway him into taking action or, at the very least, not taking counter-action. He is no hard-core conservative. He is not a believer in completely free markets if he wants to keep companies from moving abroad.

    It is time to find some common ground. The smugness that liberals have been accused of, and that probably got DJT elected should be avoided.

    If DJT wants to fight manufactured products from abroad, one excellent way would be to heavily tax products that do not meet certain environmental requirements. Companies in the US face tougher enviro. regulations than those in China, US products will be neatly favoured by such legislation. Let's pitch that idea and others to him.

    A few Republican congressmen and senators may always be convinced for some action.

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  11. chriskoz @9

    If he had been unable to connect and comprehend things, I don't think he would have won the election. He has been able to realise where the battleground was and campaigned with the right messages in places that were more useful to him that where Clinton did, for example.

    Why do I see an opportunity? If Obama says that global warming is a thing, he convinces zero Republicans.

    Now, imagine, if this time someone convinces DJT to say something or take some action. Or even just leave the Clean Power Act as it is.

    He has the power to settle the issue and completely leave hardcore oil-backed Republicans alone. Not even Republicans believe the Republican establishment anymore, the proof being DJT getting elected.

    And DJT has proven to be as malleable as it gets. Even if he has said what he said in the past.

    I guess it boils down to: who is more likely to change his ming on global warming? Mitt Romney/any other ideologically conservative establishment Republican, or notoriously "practical" Donald Trump?

    Even his actual written positions give quite some room for global warming action:

    Yes, he (for now) wants to push fossil fuels, but he wants full energy independence, something which is heavily aided by moving away from fossil. Let's find the common ground in there and try to push him for the latter rather than the former.

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  12. lepidolite @10, sure I agree we should encourage Trump to take climate change seriously, reduce emissions and start seeing the upside of all this for business and the country. Yes Trump appears more flexible than the Republican Congress. (That would not be difficult).

    However Trump is just so changeable its distinctly unusual. Basically I suppose people have to just hope he is pragmatic and does the right thing on the day. It's hopelesss predicting what he will do.

    However at least 4 of Trumps companies have gone bankrupt owing billions and Trump is lucky to have excaped in one piece. This is the guy the whole world is supposed to trust to make the right decisions. I think it will be a very rough ride, and will not end well.


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  13. lepidolite@10,

    If he [Trump] had been unable to connect and comprehend things, I don't think he would have won the election

    No. I don't think the result of this election and the ability by the candidates to connect and comprehend things are related. It they were, Clinton would have won by a landslide. This election turned out to be the result of voters' emotions (mainly white middle classs resentment of the establishment) rather than any rational decision. Pre-election polls of the rest of the world (i.e. of people who have no emotional interest in it) consistently showed preference for Clinton to be future president as much as 85%. A stark difference to some 50.5% support domestically (remember: more people within US showed their support for Clinton, T-man won the White House by a procedural fluke of Electoral College).

    I would share your optimism that DJT could overturn "Republican Establishment" and even contributed to the process of denial eradication therein (a process that must happen sooner or later, or our GOP is doomedd to simply implode in future) but I see not a single saign of it. I admit even a person with a "trumpesque intelligence" can be a good leader if he surrounds himself with good experts and knows how to turn their advice into good decision and has good morale to choose the best decision of conflicting interests. But T-man has been showing consistently opposite qualities: he surrounds himself with fake experts (e.g. Myron Ebell Takes On the E.P.A.) and I've already mentioned the level of his morale. The recent signs of his "softening" on his key "election promisses" indicate he's not a man on hard will but rather a cowardly bully. He likes to shout "I'm the winner" but when faced with difficult realities he just silently retreats. The prospect of such a leader looks good for GOP establishment who would like to see him as his puppet and that's abviously the worst possible prospect for climate mitigation in US

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  14. And lest we forget, LBJ in 1961...

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link

  15. This is an interesting discussion of the perception by a range of communities of the likelihood of climate change. But it is misleading as it focusses on the variation of perception rather than on the fact that the overwhelming view, especially amongst those knowledgeable of the scientific backing, is that rapid, irreversible climate change (and ocean acidification and warming) is under way. So the article adds to the confusion rather than fostering the mitgration and amelioration that the precautionary principle ordains

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