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The consensus on consensus messaging

Posted on 7 August 2019 by John Cook

A scientist would never tolerate statements about climate change that weren't based on scientific research and empirical evidence. However, the same evidentiary standards don't always seem to apply to statements about how to communicate about climate change. For example, on the topic of communicating the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, there are lots of opinions on whether communicating the scientific consensus is effective or not. Many of these opinions are not based on the body of empirical research into consensus messaging. 

So this post is a summary of the empirical research into consensus messaging and how people think about consensus. In psychological research, public perception of scientific consensus has been found to be so important that researchers now describe this dynamic as the Gateway Belief Model. This model finds that communicating the scientific consensus on climate change increased beliefs about climate change, which subsequently increases public support for climate policy. The vast majority of research in this field either confirms the Gateway Belief Model or confirms the efficacy of consensus messaging.

The following table lists any papers that test either consensus messaging or the Gateway Belief Model. Studies are either correlational (surveys that explore whether there's an association between perceived consensus and other climate beliefs) or experimental (randomized tests that measure the impact of consensus messaging). The Country column lists which countries the participants come from. The Support column indicates whether the study supports the Gateway Belief Model or the positive effect of consensus messaging.

Table: Studies into the Gateway Belief Model or Consensus Messaging

  Author (year) Study type Country Finding Support
1 Malka et al. (2009) Correlational USA Perceived consensus mediates association of knowledge with climate concern among Democrats and Independents who trust scientists. Y
2 Ding et al. (2011) Correlational USA Low perceived consensus is associated with lower climate beliefs and lower policy support. Y
3 Lewandowsky et al. (2013) Experimental Australia Consensus messaging increases acceptance of AGW. Y
4 Rolfe-Redding et al. (2011) Correlational USA Perceived consensus predicts climate beliefs and attitudes among Republicans. Y
5 McCright et al. (2013) Correlational USA Perceived consensus affects policy support, mediated by global warming beliefs. Y
6 Aklin & Urpelainen (2014) Experimental USA Modest amounts of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy. Y
7 Bolsen et al. (2014) Experimental USA Consensus messaging reduces partisan differences on behavioral intent and belief in AGW. Y
8 van der Linden et al. (2014) Experimental USA Consensus messaging (in pie-chart form) reduces partisan difference in perceived consensus. Y
9 Myers et al. (2015) Experimental USA Consensus messaging is equally effective among liberals and conservatives. Y
10 van der Linden et al. (2015) Experimental USA Increasing perceived consensus is significantly and causally associated with climate beliefs, which predicts increased policy support. Y
11 Cook & Lewandowsky (2016) Experimental Australia, USA Consensus messaging reduces partisan differences on belief in AGW for Australians. It increases partisan differences for Americans but still have an overall positive effect on belief in AGW. Y
12 Deryugina & Shurchkov (2016) Experimental USA Consensus messaging increases acceptance of climate change and human causation. Y
13 Hamilton (2016) Correlational USA Acceptance of AGW correlates with perceived consensus. Y
14 Hornsey et al. (2016) Correlational USA, UK, Australia, 30 European countries Perceived consensus is a strong predictor of belief in climate change (stronger than cultural cognition). Y
15 Schuldt & Pearson (2016) Correlational USA Perceived consensus is associated with mitigation support for both whites and non-whites. Y
16 Brewer & McKnight (2017) Experimental USA Comedy segment about consensus has strongest effect on belief in climate change among participants with low interest in the environment. Y
17 Cook et al. (2017) Experimental USA Consensus messaging neutralizes polarizing influence of misinformation. Y
18 Dixon et al. (2017) Experimental USA Consensus messaging does not produce significant effects (including no backfire effect among conservatives). Neutral
19 van der Linden et al. (2017a) Experimental USA Consensus messaging reduces partisan differences on perceived consensus. Y
20 Bolsen & Druckman (2018a) Experimental USA Consensus messaging backfires with conspiracy theorists, but consensus messaging coupled with belief validation increases acceptance of AGW among conspiracy theorists. Neutral
21 Bolsen & Druckman (2018b) Experimental USA Consensus message increases perceived consensus with indirect effect on belief in AGW and policy support. Y
22 Harris et al. (2018) Experimental UK Consensus messaging increases perceived consensus and climate beliefs. Y
23 Kerr & Wilson (2018a) Correlational New Zealand Perceived consensus does not predict later personal climate beliefs. N
24 Kerr & Wilson (2018b) Experimental New Zealand Consensus messaging increases perceived consensus with indirect effect on belief in AGW. Y
25 Kobayashi (2018b)

Correlational, Experimental

Japan Perceived consensus predicts climate beliefs. Consensus messaging increases climate beliefs through perceived consensus.   Y
26  Tom (2018) Correlational USA  Misconception about consensus is one of the most important factors in predicting scientifically deviant beliefs.  Y
27 van der Linden et al. (2018b) Correlational USA Perceived consensus did predict later personal climate beliefs.  Y
28 Zhang et al. (2018) Experimental USA Consensus messaging is most effective in conservative parts of the USA.  Y
29 Bertoldo et al. (2019) Correlational  UK, France, Germany, & Norway Perceived consensus predicts belief in anthropogenic climate change with the relationship moderated by whether people’s model of science is “truth” vs “debate.”  Y
30 Goldberg et al. (2019a) Experimental USA Consensus messaging reduces partisan differences on perceived consensus. Y
31 Ma et al. (2019) Experimental   Consensus messaging produces reactance among conservative dismissives. N
32 van der Linden et al. (2019a) Experimental USA Consensus messaging increased climate beliefs and attitudes, which were associated with increases in support for action. Conservatives showed greater belief updates. Y
33 van der Linden et al. (2019b) Experimental USA No evidence of psychological reactance in response to consensus messaging among Republicans, conservatives, or those with dismissive prior views. Y
34 Goldberg et al. (2019b) Experimental USA A video consensus message indirectly increased climate beliefs, climate worry, and global warming issue priority. Y
35 Rinscheid & Wüstenhagen (2019) Correlational Germany The closer people's perceived consensus is to the true level of scientific consensus, the stronger their preference for an earlier phase-out of coal-based energy Y
36 Clarke, Klas, Stevenson, & Kothe (2019) Experimental USA John Oliver video featuring 97% consensus increased climate action intentions among liberals, with no effect among conservatives. Little effect on mitigation or adaptation attitudes. Neutral
37 Sloane & Wiles (2020) Experimental USA Consensus messaging increased worry about climate change and confidence to communicate about the scientific consensus. Y

This is a quickly growing body of literature and I will continue to add to this list as more studies are published (so please don't hesitate to let me know if there are new studies or if I missed any).

References

Aklin, M., & Urpelainen, J. (2014). Perceptions of scientific dissent undermine public support for environmental policy. Environmental Science & Policy, 38, 173-177.

Bertoldo, R., Mays, C., Böhm, G., Poortinga, W., Poumadere, M., Tvinnereim, E., Arnold, A.,Steentjes, K., & Pidgeon, N. (2019). Scientific truth or debate: On the link between perceived scientific consensus and belief in anthropogenic climate change. Public Understanding of Science, https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662519865448

Bolsen, T., Leeper, T. J., & Shapiro, M. A. (2014). Doing What Others Do Norms, Science, and Collective Action on Global Warming. American Politics Research, 42(1), 65-89.

Bolsen, T. and Druckman, J.N., (2018a). Validating Conspiracy Beliefs and Effectively Communicating Scientific Consensus. Weather, Climate, and Society, 10(3), pp.453-458.

Bolsen, T., & Druckman, J. N. (2018b). Do partisanship and politicization undermine the impact of a scientific consensus message about climate change? Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21(3), 389-402.

Brewer, P. R., & McKnight, J. (2017). “A Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate”: Satirical Television News, Scientific Consensus, and Public Perceptions of Global Warming. Atlantic Journal of Communication, 25(3), 166-180.

Clarke, E. J., Klas, A., Stevenson, J., & Kothe, E. J. (2019). The Role of Late-Night Infotainment Comedy in Communicating Climate Change Consensus. PsyArXiv. October, 4.

Cook, J. & Lewandowsky, S. (2016). Rational Irrationality: Modeling Climate Change Belief Polarization Using Bayesian Networks. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8(1), 160-179.

Cook, J., Lewandowsky, S., & Ecker, U. K. (2017). Neutralizing misinformation through inoculation: Exposing misleading argumentation techniques reduces their influence. PLoS One, 12(5), e0175799.

Deryugina, T., & Shurchkov, O. (2016). The Effect of Information Provision on Public Consensus about Climate Change. PLoS One, 11(4), e0151469.

Ding, D., Maibach, E. W., Zhao, X., Roser-Renouf, C., & Leiserowitz, A. (2011). Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement. Nature Climate Change, 1(9), 462-466.

Dixon, G., Hmielowski, J., & Ma, Y. (2017). Improving Climate Change Acceptance Among US Conservatives Through Value-Based Message Targeting. Science Communication, 1075547017715473.

Goldberg, M. H., van der Linden, S., Ballew, M. T., Rosenthal, S. A., & Leiserowitz, A. (2019a). The role of anchoring in judgments about expert consensus. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, e0001.

Goldberg, M. H., van der Linden, S., Ballew, M. T., Rosenthal, S. A., Gustafson, A., Leiserowitz, A. (2019). The Experience of Consensus: Video as an Effective Medium to Communicate Scientific Agreement on Climate Change. Science Communication.

Hamilton, L. C. (2016). Public Awareness of the Scientific Consensus on Climate. SAGE Open, 6(4), 2158244016676296.

Harris, A. J., Sildmäe, O., Speekenbrink, M., & Hahn, U. (2018). The potential power of experience in communications of expert consensus levels. Journal of Risk Research, 1-17.

Hornsey, M. J., Harris, E. A., Bain, P. G., Fielding, K. S. (2016). Meta-analyses of the determinants and outcomes of belief in climate change. Nature Climate Change, DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2943.

Kerr, J. R., & Wilson, M. S. (2018a). Changes in perceived scientific consensus shift beliefs about climate change and GM food safety. PloS One, 13(7), e0200295.

Kerr, J. R., & Wilson, M. S. (2018b). Perceptions of scientific consensus do not predict later beliefs about the reality of climate change: A test of the gateway belief model using cross-lagged panel analysis. Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Kobayashi, K. (2018b). The Impact of Perceived Scientific and Social Consensus on Scientific Beliefs. Science Communication, 40(1), 63-88.

Lewandowsky, S., Gignac, G. E., & Vaughan, S. (2013). The pivotal role of perceived scientific consensus in acceptance of science. Nature Climate Change, 3(4), 399-404.

Ma, Y., Dixon, G., & Hmielowski, J. D. (2019). Psychological Reactance From Reading Basic Facts on Climate Change: The Role of Prior Views and Political Identification. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture13(1), 71-86.

Malka, A., Krosnick, J. A., & Langer, G. (2009). The association of knowledge with concern about global warming: Trusted information sources shape public thinking. Risk Analysis, 29(5), 633-647.

McCright, A. M., Dunlap, R. E., & Xiao, C. (2013). Perceived scientific agreement and support for government action on climate change in the USA. Climatic Change, 119(2), 511-518.

Myers, T. A., Maibach, E., Peters, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2015). Simple Messages Help Set the Record Straight about Scientific Agreement on Human-Caused Climate Change: The Results of Two Experiments. PloS One, 10(3), e0120985-e0120985.

Rinscheid, A., & Wüstenhagen, R. (2019). Germany’s decision to phase out coal by 2038 lags behind citizens’ timing preferences. Nature EnergyVol. 4, pp. 856–863, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41560-019-0460-9

Rolfe-Redding, J., Maibach, E. W., Feldman, L., & Leiserowitz, A. (2011). Republicans and climate change: An audience analysis of predictors for belief and policy preferences. Available at SSRN 2026002. [accessed 6 Feb 2019]. http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2026002

Schuldt, J. P., & Pearson, A. R. (2016). The role of race and ethnicity in climate change polarization: evidence from a US national survey experiment. Climatic Change, 136(3-4), 495-505.

Sloane, J. D., & Wiles, J. R. (2020). Communicating the consensus on climate change to college biology majors: The importance of preaching to the choir. Ecology and Evolution.

Tom, J. C. (2018). Social Origins of Scientific Deviance: Examining Creationism and Global Warming Skepticism. Sociological Perspectives, 0731121417710459.

van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W. (2014). How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: plain facts, pie charts or metaphors? Climatic Change, 126(1-2), 255-262.

van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., & Maibach, E. W. (2015). The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: Experimental evidence. PLoS One, 10(2), e0118489.

van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., Rosenthal, S., & Maibach, E. (2017a). Inoculating the public against misinformation about climate change. Global Challenges, 1(2), 1600008.

van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2018b). Perceptions of scientific consensus predict later beliefs about the reality of climate change using cross-lagged panel analysis: A response to Kerr and Wilson (2018). Journal of Environmental Psychology, 60, 110-111.

van der Linden, S., Leiserowitz, A., & Maibach, E. (2019a). The gateway belief model: A large-scale replication. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 62, 49-58.

van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (2019b). Exposure to Scientific Consensus Does Not Cause Psychological Reactance. Environmental Communication, 1-8.

Zhang, B., van der Linden, S., Mildenberger, M., Marlon, J. R., Howe, P. D., & Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Experimental effects of climate messages vary geographically. Nature Climate Change8(5), 370.

UPDATE 10 Sep 2019: Added a new study Goldberg et al. (2019b), finding support for the Gateway Belief Model using consensus messages in video form.

UPDATE 21 Sep 2019: Added a new study Rinscheid & Wüstenhagen (2019), finding that the closer people's perceived consensus is to the true level of scientific consensus, the stronger their preference for an earlier phase-out of coal-based energy.

UPDATE 8 Oct 2019: Added a new study Clarke, Klas, Stevenson, & Kothe (2019). The conclusions of this paper are ambivalent so I categorized this paper as neutral.

UPDATE 9 Jan 2020: Added a new study Sloane & Wiles (2020), finding that consensus messaging increased worry about climate change and confidence to communicate about the scientific consensus.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 12:

  1. The fact that research shows that communicating consensus studies to the public has a positive effect should come as no surprise. Just look at the deniers tactics, and they have years of experience delaying action on tobacco etc, so they know what works without needing research on the matter:

    "Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming with 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, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.” (Frank Luntz)

    watchingthedeniers.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/cascading-doubt-shaping-the-publics-perception-of-science/

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  2. For those of you who'd like to read any of the studies in the list, please hover your cursor over the author name(s) shown in the table. We've added all of the references to our glossary and while doing that found most of the full papers either on the journal website or a freely available PDF elsewhere.

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  3. So let’s end this Crisis and have a public debate on the subject and once and for all shut up all the Deniers.  In fact I don’t think there has ever been any debate, let alone a public one, between the Global Warming Scientists and the Denier Scientists so maybe the public should actually get to see both sides of the Debate.  And let’s be specific and not try to muddy the waters, “How Much Does Increased CO2 Levels In The Atmosphere Contribute To Global Warming”.  And let’s make it clear that “THE DEBATE” that has been supposedly over forever, only ever happened within the Global Warming camp and the new Debate will actually present BOTH sides to the argument.  

    Skeptical Science asks that you review the comments policy. Thank you.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] The vast majority of what you wrote is better-suited for other posts on this forum, not this one.  Should any wish to respond, please respond on one of those more appropriate posts with a redirect here.  Thanks.

    Please note that posting comments here at SkS is a privilege, not a right.  This privilege can and will be rescinded if the posting individual continues to treat adherence to the Comments Policy as optional, rather than the mandatory condition of participating in this online forum.

    Moderating this site is a tiresome chore, particularly when commentators repeatedly submit offensive or off-topic posts. We really appreciate people's cooperation in abiding by the Comments Policy, which is largely responsible for the quality of this site. 
     
    Finally, please understand that moderation policies are not open for discussion.  If you find yourself incapable of abiding by these common set of rules that everyone else observes, then a change of venues is in the offing.

    Please take the time to review the policy and ensure future comments are in full compliance with it.  Thanks for your understanding and compliance in this matter.

    Off-topic snipped.

  4. BaerbelW, hovering the cursor over the authors names doesn't do anything.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB]  Were you perhaps looking in the References section?  Hovering over the names in the table produces the stated effect, at least for me.

    [BW] Do you have the Glossary active for "Beginner level" definitions as explained in the blog post I link to? If yes, you should see dotted underlines for the author name(s) and many other terms throughout the blog posts and rebuttals. If not, try to refresh the page and if they still don't show up, please send us an email to let us know your particular browser & OS-combination. We'll then try to replicate it.

  5. Good summary. That's why The Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming Matters ...

    The Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming Matters

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  6. My efforts to constantly improve my awareness and understanding of what is going on have developed a personal understanding (open to improvement by the presentation of Good Reason to change it) that, to limit the amount of harm done by pursuits of status (power, popularity or profit), the acceptability, merit, or value of actions must be based on the helpfulness of the actions to the development of sustainable improvements (benefits for the future of humanity including benefiting those yet unborn in the distant future). The Sustainable Development Goals are a robust basis for determining the proper value or merit of actions. They include Climate Action Goals which are directly associated with the IPCC actions and the Paris Agreement and their constant improvement.

    Of course, improving awareness and understanding of the climate science consensus is not the only required helpful action. However, it is undeniably a helpful action (no scientific investigation basis required to confirm that it is helpful). And it is not harmful to the achievement of the required corrections of developed human activity. But it undeniably will face unjustified resistance from people who deserve to lose perceptions of status that have been obtained through harmful unsustainable actions.

    Similarly, putting a significant surcharge onto CO2 emissions from fossil fuels is not the only helpful corrective action. And all of the Sustainable Development Goals need to be achieved not just the Climate Action Goal.

    There is undeniably a diversity of resistance to correction of many aspects of the developed status quo, particularly resistance to correcting incorrectly developed perceptions of 'status' and the related 'stories made-up, and made popular, to defend the status quo from being questioned and corrected'.

    Attempts to argue against efforts to improve awareness and understanding of the consensus of understanding regarding climate science and the related impacts of human activities beg an explanation. A well reasoned consideration of the issue, without a rigorous science investigation basis (abductive reasoning applied to best explain what is observed to be going on), should conclude that such an action is helpful, not harmful, to efforts to increase the rate of correction of developed human beliefs and related harmful unsustainable activities. That leads to fairly obvious questions:

    • What is the reason for criticism of efforts to helpfully improve awareness and understanding?
    • Are the critics attempting to limit the rate of improvement of awareness and understanding of the required corrections of developed popular and profitable, but undeniably unsustainable and harmful, human activity?
    • Are the critics trying to defend unjustified perceptions of status obtained by some members of current day humanity via harmful unsustainable actions?

    Undeniably, undeserving wealthy powerful people have many ways to effectively influence the stories that get told, how they are told, and how prominently they are promoted. The Propaganda Model (PM) developed by Edward S. Herman and presented in “Manufacturing Consent” in 1988 (with assistance from Noam Chomsky), predicts that powerful interests are able to significantly influence the people who tell stories to the population - manufacturing the stories that become common beliefs or understandings. It predicts that part of the attack on the climate science identification of corrective actions would be restricting the opportunity for reward or positive recognition of any promoter of the improved understanding, including unjust attacks on the character of such promoters. That type of pressure, or the awareness of its potential to be applied, could make very smart people question the merit or value of promoting the climate science consensus.

    The PM also predicts that the resistance to the efforts to improve awareness and understanding that is contrary to the interests of the powerful in the developed status quo in Free Market Capitalism driven cultures would include claiming that the corrective actions are Socialist plots (or communist or terrorist or any other developed label that can be successfully unjustifiably applied in efforts to maintain or prolong stories, beliefs and perceptions that are actually undeniably unsustainable because they are harmful to the future of humanity).

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  7. BaerbelW, yes I was looking at the list of references, not the table. Working now. Sorry about that.

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  8. OPOF @6, if I had to reduce the climate issue down to its essence, the basic issue is the world is addicted to oil. It varies of course person to person, country to country, organisation to organisation, and some are more in denial about it than others. But  you take the sum total of all the complexity of the issue, the resistance to change and the motivations to hold onto status, I think it boils down to an addiction. It sure has the characteristics of an addition, and the addicts go into denial and justification like any addicts. Not saying I'm entirely immune, but I have always been able to step back and see things for what they are.

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  9. nigelj @8,

    I agree with considering that a large portion of the global population is seriously addicted to fossil fuels (and many other unsustainable harmful popular and profitable developments). The 1972 Stockholm Conference and efforts since then that have produced many things, most recently the Sustainable Development Goals and the related IPCC reports, have strengthened the understanding that many of the developed socioeconomic-political systems have been making unsustainable and harmful activity popularity and profitability, and making correcting the problem more challenging as more people become more addicted, with more undeserved perceptions of status to lose.

    And the interventions required to help break any addiction require a person to admit they have failed to protect themselves from becoming harmfully addicted.

    The real trouble-makers are the Pushers, the people who continue to try to keep people harmfully addicted, try to delay the improvement of awareness and understanding because it would be contrary to their interest in maintaining their undeserved status. The Pushers are among the wealthiest and most powerful. Not all wealthy and powerful people are Harmful Pushers of unsustainable addictions, but the nastiest of the wealthy and powerful have many ways to get other people to 'admire and excuse them and tell nice but totally made-up stories about them' (and attack anyone who tries to correct that desired perception).

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  10. In Australia the reason that, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming with the scientific community” (Nigelj) is that no Australian scientist has ever persisted in telling them otherwise. As a retired biological scientist with 10 years of activism in BREAZE (Ballarat Renewable Energy & Zero Emissions) I am in a state of despair. Parts of Australia are in the worst drought in history; the Barrier Reef and the Murray Darling basin are in terminal decline; our Prime Minister fondled a lump of coal in parliament and told us not to be afraid; and neither of the main political parties opposed the giant Adani mine. Virulent attacks on young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and school strikers here confirm how terrified those on the hard right of politics and media are of the youthful threat but they’re nowhere near terrified enough yet. As the life support systems of all creatures face extinction, though, comment by Australia’s climate scientists continues to be so subdued as to be ineffectual.
    Scientists have one last chance of redemption. It doesn't involve the safe pathway of publishing ever more articles in prestigious journals to fine-tune what we already know. Instead, we are suggesting that climate scientist show leadership and join students to form an alliance that cannot be silenced. If we are to avoid the catastrophe of a 2 degree temperature rise we need activism on the scale of the Vietnam era protests, with kids in every school screaming for action and screaming for their parents to support it, and we need to have kids supported by loud and hard evidence from fearless scientists. Now is the time for action and hope.

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  11. Loz73 @10

    In Germany, Austria and Switzerland we have Scientists for Future (S4F) who do exactly what you'd like to see in Australia: it started as an organised effort to collect signatures for a statement in support of the Fridays for Future (FfF) movement, corroborating their demands. They managed to get 26,800 signatures within a couple of weeks from a wide variety of scientists and have been visible and vocal in the regular strikes and other activities organised by FfF. They also held a big press conference (in German) to publish their statement which in turn got a lot of press. Currently, S4F helps FfF  - if asked - with material for presentations or provides speakers at strikes and other events - it's an impressive if still fledgling effort. Please feel free to touch base via our contact form if you'd like to know more (I'm involved with S4F in Germany).

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  12. I think we all need to push hard to try to get the consensus studies mentioned more in the daily newspaper media and the like. The media might resist this, because it suggests the scientific debate is really largely over, and the media prefer to keep controversies going because it gets people buying their product, but try anyway.

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