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Establishing consensus is vital for climate action

Posted on 7 February 2014 by Stephan Lewandowsky, John Cook

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

What’s the best way to reduce the roughly half a million annual deaths from smoking in the US alone? Nearly half a million lives cut short, often with untold suffering, by a commercial product that has been known to kill its consumers for more than half a century.

We can raise the price of cigarettes through taxes, which is known to reduce demand, especially among young people who are the industry’s reservoir of future addicts to their legal product.

We can introduce plain packaging, which replaces the glamourous, glittery gold of Benson & Hedges with the graphic image of a lung destroyed by cancer. Or we can put warning labels on packs, in bus shelters, on TV. The possibilities are almost endless.

Many policy options exist, and research has shown that they work. Tobacco control policies save lives. They also save addicts the money they no longer pour into tobacco industry coffers.

No wonder, then, that the tobacco industry spent decades undermining the pervasive scientific consensus on the adverse health effects of tobacco.

The seminal book Golden Holocaust by Robert Proctor, whose publication the tobacco industry infamously sought to suppress, provides a chilling analysis of the industry’s ruthlessness. These efforts to undermine the science continue to this date.

So why are tobacco control measures now in place in many countries around the world? Why has the rate of smoking in California declined from 44% to less than 10% over the last few decades? Why can we now debate the policy options for a further reduction in public harm, such as plain packaging or tax increases?

It is because the public demanded action. This happened once the public realised that there was a scientific consensus that tobacco was harmful to health. The public wants action when they perceive that there is a widespread scientific agreement.

Those who wish to maintain a status quo, whether it involves tobacco or fossil fuels, have long understood this principle. In 2002, Republican strategist Frank Luntz advised politicians to undermine the scientific consensus on global warming, in order to influence their views on climate change. And the tobacco industry infamously stated that “doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public."

A scientific consensus is necessary to understand and address problems that have a scientific origin and require a scientific solution. The public’s perception of that scientific consensus is necessary to stimulate political debate about solutions. When the public comes to understand the overwhelming agreement among climate scientists on human-caused global warming, acceptance of the science and support for climate action increase.

Consequently, one of the principal strategies of people who reject the scientific evidence on climate has been to try to maintain the consensus gap by creating the appearance of a scientific debate where there is none.

That is why among newspaper opinion pieces from 2007 to 2010, the most common myth promoted by syndicated conservative columnists was that “there is no scientific consensus about global warming”.

We should be talking about policy

There is clear evidence that closing the gap between the scientific consensus and the perception of it by the public is key to stimulating the constructive policy debate we should be having.

In a recent article, Mike Hulme argued that the debate “needs to become more political, and less scientific”. We agree, because the scientific debate has moved on from the fundamentals – there is no scientific debate about the fact that the globe is warming from human greenhouse gas emissions. So we need to hammer out political solutions rather than “debating” well-established scientific facts.

Hulme also suggested that, in reference to a paper by John Cook, “merely enumerating the strength of consensus around the fact that humans cause climate change is largely irrelevant to the more important business of deciding what to do about it.”

The data we have just reviewed show otherwise: there is strong evidence that the public’s perception of an overwhelming scientific consensus is key to stimulating the constructive policy debate we should be having.

Underscoring the consensus is therefore essential to counter the pseudo-scientific myths that are injected into the public debate by what scholarly evidence has recently revealed to be a nearly US$1 billion-a-year effort of political and vested interests in the US alone.

The infamy of those lobbying efforts is evident to anyone who understands the extent of the scientific consensus.

When Hulme queries the value of consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed literature, he has it backwards in two important ways.

Closing the consensus gap is an important step towards the public debate about climate policy which he rightly calls for. The problem is the attack on climate science and the overwhelming consensus, not the research supporting it.

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

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Comments 1 to 8:

  1. Good point, in my quest, if often confront deniers with that objective. Although I am weak in detailed technical knowledge relative to that found here, I am very effective. I know I have made a point when the worker's comment thread is removed from the discussion. I can also tell by the careless twists and turns in their arguments that they don't care about the point of discussion but only offering doubt. When the political issue is addressed, with simple brushing away doubt on the basis of scinetific consensus, they often change tactic, or wipe out their own conversation in order to remove mine.

    A genuinely convinced person does not twist like that, they just get mad, and will  not comment anymore. In case you are not familiar with my quest, I want people to consider the real solution, which Pluvinergy offers. Most sites do not see my work spam. Becasue, most conversations are dichotomous; there is nothing that climate change will not affect.

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  2. "Political debate" is not the solution, it's the problem.  Political debate is polarizing.  In political debate, facts are not checked, wins are by popularity and/or mudslinging contest, "balance" and equivalence is awarded any opinion that can afford to speak.

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  3. Excellent! It is my firm belief that DENIAL denial and it's inertia is causing the entire human race to sit on the train.....heading for the cliff. Environmentalists have moved to the back.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH} The use of all caps is prohibited by the SkS Comments Policy. Please read and adhere to the policy in future posts. 

  4. The only way we are going to get consensus is if we are bludgeoned into it by a series of events that make Sandy and Katrina look like summer breezes.  A failure of Northern Hemisphere crops for a year might do it.

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  5. Consensus has been proven in so many ways, but if its so important perhaps one more demonstration is needed (but it'll be expensive).  Go to every Climatologist, employed AS a Climatologist, in a particular nation (say, the U.S.), and ask them.  

    Ask three questions

    1) Do you think Global Warming is happening, leading to Climate Change?

    2) Do you think humans are primarily responsible for warming in the last century?

    3) Do you think humans are solely responsible for warming in the last century?

    Get everybody on record, no ifs, ands, or buts.

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  6. ubrew12,

    Part of the issue is that (1) nobody has the title "Climatologist, and (2) scientists don't look at things in such oversimplified terms.

    Dr. Daniel Nepstad studies the Amazon, and the extreme droughts that have threatened that region in the past decade.

    Dr. Jennifer Francis studies Arctic sea ice and environs.

    Dr. Andrew Dessler studies atmospheric water vapor.

    The list goes on and on.  They're not, individually, "climatologists," but they variously study different facets of climate change.  The point is not that if they all get together, they'll all agree on statement X about climate change.  The point is that Dr. Nepstad says something like "whoa, look down here at the Amazon, this is unusual and bad," while Dr. Francis says something like "hey, hold it, look up here in the Arctic, this is really bad," and Dr. Dessler says "yikes, look here in the atmosphere, this looks like everything else is going to get even worse."

    The consensus is not some simplistic agreement with a simple statement of fact.  The consensus is a culmination of thousands of investigations into thousands of branches of science, from measurements and observations of impacts to attributions of cause to the physics that both explains what we see and tries to predict what we will see.

    In the end, the consensus is neither (IMO) served by nor able to be represented by some simple statement and a poll as to its veracity.  The consensus is far more nuanced, multidimensional and deeper than that.

    And that is what people really need to understand, and is perhaps the real value of The Consensus Project.  Dismissives want to express everything as an either/or, and whittle it down to numbers they can argue about.  What TCP really shows is that the consensus permeates every field of modern science which even tangentially crosses into climate science.

    The consensus is so pervasive and complete that it is, at this point, irrefutable.

    As the original post says, we shouldn't even be discussing it.  It's there.  Arguing about how to clarify its existence is of tantamount importance in getting the debate to move from "if" to "what's next" and "what to do," but I don't think there's a much better way to do it than the methods which have already been tried.

    The results are in.  There are just a lot of people who refuse to accept them, and that's what needs to be changed.

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  7. Widespread agreement that the problem is serious and deserves community wide effort is a kind of prerequisite. I think we have seen a kind of 'commerce and business grass roots' opposition to action on climate because businesses weigh things up in terms of cost, competitiveness and profitability, not on the validity of the science.

     Because commerce and industry is the part of society that does stuff, it quite rightly deserves to have it's concerns taken seriously and , however PR, lobbying and tankthink are considered stock in trade means to influence public opinion as well as government policy, and these do not come with an innate ethical requirement for truth or balance; on the contrary they are about changing opinions in ways that are most beneficial in terms of costs, competitiveness and profitability.

    The problem is not necessarily the innate amorality of commerce and industry when it comes to promoting it's/their interests - that should be taken as given; minimising costs in order to maximise profits is normal and necessary. They will - even if reluctantly - operate within the regulatory framework that goverments set, even as they use the tools they have to influence the formulation of that framework. It's at governement level, in that formulation process, where the broader ethical decisions reach the branching decision point. It breaks down with those elected and appointed to positions of trust and responsibility to the community/polity as a whole, who duck and dodge that responsibility and give precedence to the obligations and agreements to those who support and vote for them over things like science based information and advice.

    To what extent political parties successfully 'frame' the climate issue and become part of the PR, tankthink process that changes public opinion, and to what extent they simply reflect the opinion that exists is always a question, but in this case I think we are seeing too much willingness within the political system to put those obligations to their 'partners' and backers and the stance they find most advantageous ahead of the greater obligation to be well informed, cognizant of the bigger picture for the broader constituency they act on behalf of.

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  8. Yes, "clarifying the existence" of the consensus is the problem and goal.  This was easier to do with the consensus over the harmful effects of tobacco smoke, since almost everyone knew someone who was a habitual smoker and got sick / died from it.  Really drove home the point.  No means quite so pointed and personal of underscoring the existence of consensus over AGW.  Not as simple, of course, to attribute suffering and death from extreme weather events to global warming than it is to attribute cancer / heart disease to smoking. 

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