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The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

Posted on 19 November 2018 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy by Sarah Finnie Robinson

When do 97% of people agree on anything, even ice cream? In scientific circles, consensus is a rare trophy, held to famously exacting standards. When a scientific consensus is finally reached — e.g., the Earth orbits the sun; water freezes at 32°F, 0°C; blood is red — a new fact joins the foundations of human discovery.

Under normal circumstances, a 97% consensus of the world’s leading scientists on anything would establish it as fact and compel action if needed. But our circumstances are not normal. Only 12% of Americans realize that that the scientific consensus on climate change is greater than 90%. Even among people who are Alarmed or Concerned about climate change, the consensus is somewhat unknown. Of the Alarmed, 84% understand the scientific consensus on climate change (16% do not); and 73% of the Concerned (27%).

This is a great opportunity for climate communicators.


In 2004, Naomi Oreskes published The Scientific Consensus on Climate Changein which she established the substantive “scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change.” The paper was widely cited, including in the Academy-award winning movie An Inconvenient Truth.

Several years went by. CO2 emissions continued their upward trend.

A team of scientists led by John Cook decided to revisit Oreskes’s findings and provide an update. After examining 21 years of published papers and over 12,000 abstracts, in 2013 Cook et al. published Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. The conclusion: 97% of scientists agree.

Cook’s paper went viral, in the manner of an academic paper with nine authors and twenty-three references; as I write, it has been downloaded 862,789 times. An advertising director named Matt Birdoff, of SJI in New York, proposed a pro-bono social-media campaign: The Consensus Project. “Matt’s website was terrific, and it was helpful in raising awareness of the paper.” Cook says. “An AP journalist wrote about it, and President Obama tweeted a link to the article. I’m thinking, that’s a big deal!”

But then, the 97% Consensus balloon popped.

In the world of climate solutions, which is populated with world-class heroes and also villains, you’re onto something powerful when the trolls come out and the deniers kick in. And so it went for Cook: “’The Lie of the Century!’ read one especially virulent headline. Cook decided to refute the noisy (and unfounded) claims. “I got together six of the other consensus people, my heroes [Oreskes, Ed Maibach, and four others], and we co-authored a rebuttal to say, We agree with each other.” “The Consensus on the Consensus” was published in 2016:

“We examine the available studies and conclude that the finding of 97% consensus in published climate research is robust and consistent with other surveys of climate scientists and peer-reviewed studies.”

The other 2 or 3%? As HBO’s John Oliver says, Who cares? This is a fact, not an opinion! The science is settled. A consensus has been identified, confirmed ¾ and re-confirmed. Danger is upon us. Now the question is what to do about it.

Giants of contemporary communicators have seized on the 97% consensus: John Oliver is one. Jimmy Kimmel (“The planet is going out of business!) is another. David Fenton is a third.

Fenton’s advertising firm has created a quick, brilliant video called The Dentists.

Opening scene: a dentist peers into his patient’s mouth and shakes his head before giving the bad news. Voiceover: “If 97% of dentists told you a tooth couldn’t be saved, you’d pull that tooth.” Cue the dreaded whirring sound of a dentist’s drill.

Next: zoom into two construction engineers in hard hats. “And if 97 percent of all engineers told you your house was unstable, you’d move.” Cut to a nice house crashing to smithereens as the cliff below it crumbles.

Third scene: airline employees advising passengers not to board the plane.

The Dentists did really well,” Fenton told me. “Off the charts.” Pause. “Even with skeptics.” The Dentists was funded by The Partnership for Responsible Growth, a seasoned, bi-partisan group advocating for a price on carbon and focused on Capitol Hill policy-makers.

Like the Consensus Project campaign, The Dentists utilizes best practices of climate communications:

  1. the power of Scientific Consensus to build Social Consensus (source TK) And,
  2. it exemplifies another another potent principle: the effectiveness of the Trusted Messenger.  People like your dentist, a building engineer, or your airline personnel.

Sadly, the ad was aired for only one week, and in only one market (Washington, D.C.).

Ed Maibach is the founding director of the George Mason University Climate Communications Center, a Six Americas collaborator, and a Trusted Messenger expert. His communications mantra: “simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.”  The corollary: “make the behaviors we are promoting easy, fun and popular.”

The Dentists satisfies these requirements. It’s a simple message, repeated in a fun way by three sets of trusted sources. It’s easy to watch, and it’s short. Is it popular? It will be when more people see it! According to Maibach, it will be more effective as it is repeated. Which is exactly what a 30-second spot is designed to do on television. “Message repetition works best when many different messengers repeat the same set of messages, consistently, over time.”

Here’s an idea: Create a partnership with the TV networks, Netflix, Google, HBO, Facebook,, and/or other screen channels. Target the shows and sporting events that the 51% of Concerned and Alarmed people are likely to watch. Schedule The Dentists to air in major markets on a strategic, repetitive schedule, for at least one month and preferably three or until it achieves the desired effect.

How do we pay for this? Let’s figure it out. Maybe the Dentists becomes a PSA endorsed by Oprah Winfrey or Bruce Springsteen. Maybe the CEOs of NBC, CNN, Netflix, Google, HBO, Facebook, and The New York Times decide to offer a discounted rate or other practical arrangement.

The film, so easy, persuasive, and fun, will increase people’s self-confidence about having a climate conversation. It provides an amusing way to communicate their personal alarm or concern about global warming without being preachy or long-winded. It’s convenient and easy to use: simply key it up on your smart phone. Show it to a friend at an opportune moment. Post it on Facebook. Show it to your book club, your dinner companion, the guy sitting next to you on a bus.

In this way, the 51 Percent become Trusted Messengers themselves. Equipped to share a bedrock fact via the clever Fenton interpretation, they may find it much easier to chat about the realities of climate change, and thereby bend the stultifying climate spiral of silence.

Stay tuned.

Sarah Finnie Robinson is an investor in large-scale climate solutions and founding partner of WeSpire, a Boston tech firm that powers sustainability programs at F500 corporations. She is active on the Climate Task Force for Boston Harbor Now. She serves as a judge for MIT’s Climate CoLab “Shifting Behaviors & Attitudes” track; advises the Metcalf Institute for Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island; and supports Ceres and the Environmental Defense Fund. She is a Climate Reality Leader and mentor, and she advises Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Robinson also serves on the board of the Princeton78 Foundation, whose endowment fuels undergraduate service projects in the United States and around the world. She holds a B.A. from Princeton, an M.A. from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, and she graduated with the inaugural class of Seth Godin’s altMBA in 2015.

Robinson began her career at The New Yorker and continued at The Atlantic and at iVillage, where she was the launch content director. She blogs on HuffPost, Medium, and mindbodygreen. Her current project is a curated digital showcase to identify and share standout communications to engage and accelerate broad public support for the global clean-energy transition now underway.

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Comments 1 to 21:

  1. The reason the public largely aren't aware of the consensus on climate science is because they mainly get their science information from the mainstream general media like newspapers and television, and the media don't report the consenus much from what I have seen (admittedly a bit anecdotal).

    I suspect the reasons are threefold. Firstly its more of a good news piece, and the media largely only report bad news and celebrity gossip. Secondly the media's advertisers include business and fossil fuel interests who probably don't want a consensus given publicity for obvious self interested reasons.

    Thirdly a consensus ends most of the debate on climate change and the media like controversy because it keeps people reading. This is also probably why they publish a 50 / 50 split of opinions from warmists and sceptics even although it doesn,t represent the true proportionality of views.

    Trump is half right. The media are useless and fake, its just not in the way Trump thinks.

    Not good enough. The media need to do the right thing and keep the public constantly informed of important things like scientific consensus on major issues like climate change.

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  2. 97% is understating the real scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming.

    The Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming Matters

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  3. *The Addiction Ghost of Ideology* 25 min by Gabor Maté *[ Ideology as addiction ]* top 10% earners = 50% emissions, if taxed to middle income equivalent, emissions will decline 33%. If we tax the top 30% of earners to a middle income, emissions will decline 999% faster than any thing else we tried so far. We have 10yrs to reduce emissions 50%, and 20yrs to reduce emissions 100%. 100% private carbon credits will unite the left and right and stop an ideological race/sex war. After taxing the rich to pay for education and health, you add a 100% private carbon tax which will act as a Basic Income currency worldwide. I'm getting sick of talking to the wind. All America has to do to fix their county is cut the Pentagon budget 50%. These are the kind of actions needed to save mankind, worrying about your identity is for pub nights.Let's pretend you agree with everything I said above, but now I'm going to call you a cunty twat dick head, are you still with me?The young left say that there’s no difference between men and woman, and that sex and race are just social constructs, and white males are to blame. So, I’m being oppressed by 2 social constructs? White and male. Are you kidding? Would my oppressors be NPCs? Is life really a video game? Am I oppressing genetic transhuman Jews? Who knows? I guess, maybe. I hate white guys and love change as much as anyone, but that shit’s whacked. This is what I define as evil, social constructs. I’m liberal that way. It’s killing me.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Inflammatory/off-topic snipped.  Please keep it clean.

  4. @BeezelyBillyBub, the US could easily cut 50% from its military budget, but only when other countries start paying their fair share for their own defense.

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  5. This article sparked a clarification of understanding for me.

    A logical extension of the Dentist, House, and Airline examples is to consider what the future would be for an Association or Society of Dentists, Home Builders, or Airlines that allows harmful misunderstanding to remain uncorrected. It is obvious that they would be replaced by groups that base their actions on more correct understanding.

    And the logical extension of that understanding is that any socioeconomic-political system that fails to curtail the marketing of misunderstanding has no future, is destined to fail.

    Tragically, a lot of harm can be done before that failure is undeniably realized. And tragically, the failing system may be damaged beyond correction.

    Humanity has successfully developed the understanding of the need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals which include the key Goal of Climate Action (key because achieving it to a higher degree and achieving it more rapidly makes it easier to achieve and improve on the other SDGs)
    Any perceptions of success that are not consistent with achieving and improving on the SDGs are destined to be corrected.

    In order to survive and thrive an institution/society/system/game must be able to effectively identify and correct misunderstandings that could lead to unsustainable or harmful developments, regardless of the temporary regional popularity or profitability of a misunderstanding that is harmful to others (especially to the future of humanity). The quicker an institution/society/system/game identifies and corrects those misunderstandings, the more rapidly it will improve its chances for a better future. And any institution/society/system/game that struggles to correct misunderstandings can easily be understood to be headed towards failure, no matter what perceptions of prosperity or superiority relative to others it has developed.

    The case of climate science has exposed that free-market democratic capitalism is headed for failure. Free-market democratic capitalist competition that is restricted to truly sustainable activities would be a brilliant system/game to help advance humanity. It would be a tragedy if free-market democratic capitalism continues to progress so far down the incorrect path of marketing misunderstanding that the thought of it is crippled beyond easy repair and recovery.

    Anyone who sees value in free-market democratic capitalism should be extremely concerned about the damage being done to the reputation of free-market democratic capitalism by the popularity and profitability of marketing misunderstanding related to climate science (and similar damaging actions related to all of the other SDGs).

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  6. I my view I think the public needs a more specific persentation of just what the 97% consensus is.  It is not an opinion or poll of what scientists think about climate change, it is what 97% of the published professional scientific research addressing climate change shows.  Note that I said "professional" rather than "peer reviewed".  I think that is important because the public doesn't have any idea what the peer review process is and the denial side is quite happy misrepresenting it as a buddy system.

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  7. Rickg,

    What could possibly be more detailed than the IPCC report?  The 97% consensus is that scientists agree with the IPCC report.

    The IPCC report was set up to be very conservative.  The consensus position is always reported as the consensus of the minimum risk, not the consensus of the maximum risk.  That means sea level rise is reported as several feet when the high end of estimates is several meters.

    All the nations of the world, including the Trump administration,  have accepted the IPCC reports.  What more detail do you think is necessary?

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  8. It should be noted too that Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen et al, are all painted as skeptics or "deniers", but are in fact members of the 97% consensus.  

    Perhaps a more valuable statistic would be one that indicated a percentage of (climate) scientists who hold the view that it's a serious threat requiring urgent, universal remedial action.  

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  9. Art Vandelay@8,

    A more important measure than 'grudging acceptance of climate science to a limited degree' is how helpful a person is to improving the more correct awareness and understanding of climate science in the general population and among leadership.

    By that measure Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen are dismal damaging failures.

    As a case in point, I frequently visit Roy Spencer's site (just for the amusement, but in case he actually presents a meaningfully insightful point).

    Roy Spencer spends almost all of his time making up stories to refute the need for the burning of fossil fuels to be curtailed. The lack of validity of his story-telling is consistent. He also spends a significant amount of time creating creative ways to intrerpret satellite data in an attempt to refute that unacceptable warming and climate change is happening (he has been forced to partially correct his misinterpretations of the satellite data many times).

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  10. One Planet Only Forever @ 9. I take your points but I'm not convinced that any of those forementioned scientists have too much impact on the public's perception of climate change.  Very few people I speak to have heard of Roy Spencer, even if they're aware of satellite based temperature measurements, so I would be suprised if his blog is widely read and influential to any significant extent. Most people's attitudes to climate change are derived from their media channels of choice, which to a large extent is determined by their political leanings. 

    But still, it's anomalous that Spencer is probably included in the 97% along with several other scientists with profiles in the faculties of climate research, which is why I would personally like to see a more detailed analysis of climate scientist opinion. 

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  11. Art Vandelay @10 , it would be interesting to hear your reasons for wishing to see a more detailed analysis of climate scientist opinion.

    Yes, that is a rather separate matter from the perceptions (of the AGW issue) held by politicians and the man in the street.

    But we already know the high-90's consensus opinion of mainsteam scientists.  The Cook-et-al 97% figure is already more than a decade behind the times [the study published 2013 but based on cumulative figures from early 1990's onwards].  And we know from human nature, that however thoroughly conclusive the scientific evidence is, there will always be a small percentage of scientists & scientifically-literate people who will continue to "deny" the physical realities (for their own reasons of psychological perversity and/or political extremism).  So why analyse the last few percent of these?  They won't change.  Personally, I think Spencer, Curry, Lindzen & similar, do not qualify to be counted in the so-called 97% majority, because their position(s) are not scientifically logical.

    What matters is A/  the science itself, which is revealed in the scientific papers published (and you will have noted how "contrarian" papers are becoming rarer and rarer ~ getting close to zero% ~ and far more importantly, the contrarian papers are entirely lacking in valid counterpoints against the mainstream scientific assessment)

    . . . and B/  the education of and opinions held by politicians & the general voters.

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  12. Eclectic @10, "it would be interesting to hear your reasons for wishing to see a more detailed analysis of climate scientist opinion."

    Just curiosity really, because (in my view) the 97% consensus isn't necessarily meaningful if it includes persons with all levels of concern, including almost no concern at all - as is the case with Lindzen & Spencer. 

    What would be nice to see is a breakdown on level of concern, so that it's immediately apparent what percentage of scientists are: very concerned, reasonably concerned, slightly concerned, etc.. 

    Understanding of course that such a breakdown would probably require some sort of formal survey to be undertaken.

    Also of interest would be similar analysis of the opinion of scientists from related disciplines, which could include some earth sciences, physics and mathematics. 

    Lastly, there does appear to be a correlation with age, with older persons tending to be less concerned about the impacts of climate change, and this appears to hold within the science community too. The implication of this should be an increasing level of consensus over time, even without considering other factors. This of course assumes that a person's level of concern is unlikely to fall with increasing age if it's been established during formative years. 

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  13. As I recall, there has been a longstanding disconnect between what Roy Spencer's reseach results show and the opinions he communicates to mass media. One can say that his own research does not really support his opinions. Perhaps that's why he figures as part of the consensus. The consensus is one of results more than opinions. AFAIK, Spencer's peer- reviewed papers do not show anything that deviates significantly from the all the rest of the science.

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  14. Philippe, you make a good point about the "disconnect" of Spencer, and his ilk, in respect of their public opinions and their actual scientific work.

    If Dr Spencer contributes to the scientific body of knowledge . . . yet he also sacrifices newborn babies to the god Aeolus [god of climate?] . . . then do we classify him as a mainstream [consensus] scientist, or classify him as an anti-scientist [=denialist] ?

    IMO, one needs to have both feet in the scientific camp, to qualify as a 97-percenter.

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  15. Spencer's papers put him in the 3% that do not agree with the consensus. Regarding Spencer:

    "This statement is wrong because it misses the nuance in our study. The "skeptic" papers included those that rejected human-caused global warming and those that minimized the human influence. Since we made all of our data available to the public, you can see our ratings of Spencer's abstracts here. Five of his papers were captured in our literature search; we categorized four as 'no opinion' on the cause of global warming, and one as implicitly minimizing the human influence.

    Thus, contrary to his testimony, Spencer was not included in the 97 percent consensus. In fact his research was included in the fewer than 3 percent of papers that either rejected or minimized the human contribution to global warming." source my emphasis

    Spencer claims to be part of the 97% since no-one would listen to him is he admitted that he is not part of the consensus.   Spencer is not part of the consensus.

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  16. Art Vandelay,

    Richaed Lindzen cannot be considered part of the 97%.  He has widely criticized the IPCC.  The IPCC report is the basis of the 97% claim.  He probably also claims to be part of the consensus to muddy the waters when he speaks.

    Many deniers now claim to be part of the 97% to muddy the waters.  The mainstream press allows themn to get away with it.

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  17. There appears to be confusion due to incorrect conflating of:

    • Scientific consensus of understanding (development of an emergent truth that is open to correction if substantive new evidence is contrary to the developing understanding).
    • An individual's helpfulness in efforts to improve awareness and understanding: in the field of understanding, among leaders in society, among the general population.

    Individuals are not 'part of the 97% or 3%'. The consensus measure is regarding how much of the 'literature that is a legitimate part of the effort to improve the understanding of an area/field of understanding' is aligned with a developing understanding. As the degree of alignment increases it can be understood that an emergent truth is being established (an understanding that is unlikely to be significantly altered by new investigation in that field of learning).

    An evaluation of all of an individual's actions is the basis for determining how helpful they are to the improvement of the understanding and to the increased 'correct' awareness and understanding among leaders and the general population.

    While the likes of Judith Curry, Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen may have their names on a specific piece of literature that is included in the 97% side of the climate science consensus evaluation regarding the understanding that human activity is significantly impacting the global climate, that does not make them 'a part of the 97% side'.

    Individual merit would be determined by their collective actions regarding the understanding. That evaluation would undeniably indicate that the likes of Judith Curry, Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen are very unhelpful (harmful) to the improvement of awareness and understanding the understanding that human activity is significantly (and negatively) impacting the global climate that future generations will suffer the consequences of and the challenge of trying to maintain perceptions of prosperity that are the result of a portion of humanity getting away with benefiting from the damaging unsustainable burning of fossil fuels (benefiting in ways that do not develop sustainable improvements for the future of humanity - like perceptions of reduction of poverty that cannot be sustained if the damaging impact creation of fossil fuels is significantly and rapidly curtailed like it has to be in order to minimize the damage done to the future generations of humanity).

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  18. I may not be be too popular for this, but I like getting to the bottom of things. The John Cook study found that "97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are contributing to global warming" which could be interpreted to mean humans are causing all or just some of the recent warming. It was really asking people whether they think the greenhouse effect is real and that we are adding to it. I mean its a valid and useful study but rather too general for me.

    Powell 2013, Orekses 2014, and Doran et al 2009 and Stats 2009 asked much the same question about whether humans were a contributory factor, and found a similar result to Cook. Farnsworth and Lichter found a lesser result with 84% believing humans contributed to climate change. So overall all studies do find theres a good consensus that humans at least cause global warming. Anything over 80% seems powerful to me and most studies are well over 90%.

    But I think the more important question is whether humans are causing the 'majority' of recent climate change. The study by Verheggen, 2014 finds that 90% of climate scientists agree that greenhouse gases are the main cause of warming. Anderegg et al 2011 also found well over 90% of climate scientists endoresed the IPCC position (which finds humans are the main cause of the recent warming period)

    Lefsfrud and Meyer 2012 found no consensus that humans are the main cause of warming, but their study comprised "petroleum geologists" so they have a vested interest in fossil fuel producers.

    I think the Verheggen study asked the key question. For me 90% of climate researches concluding humans are the main cause of the recent warming period is a strong finding. Given the fossil fuel industry funds some research and some scientists are just contrarians by nature, or have subconscious biases in a small number of cases, its of no surprise to me that 10% would question how much humans are contributing and could think its largely natural ( a position I personally disagree with). I would have guessed it would be around this number and I recall seeing a list of recent research papers taking contrarian position like climate change is mostly caused by adiabatic processes etc (all very dubious material)

    I think what really matters is to get the message across to the public that 1)several studies find over 90% of climate scientists thinks we are the dominant cause of climate change and 2) the contrarian studies are fringe science with a similar range of methodological flaws. The problem is the public believe theres more of a 50 / 50 split. They need correcting on this, but probably won't care so much whether its 90% 0r 92.256% or 97%. If it was less than 80% I think the consensus would be classified as weak.

    The bottom line is numerous published and peer reviewed studies do show a strong consensus regarding climate change.

    Wikipedia article on all the consensus studies.

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  19. Interestingly, the 4h National Climate Assessment, Volume 2, was released today.  Among many interesting findings, this was prominent:

    "Scientists have understood the fundamental physics of climate change for almost 200 years. In the 1850s, researchers demonstrated that carbon dioxide and other naturally occurring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere prevent some of the heat radiating from Earth’s surface from escaping to space: this is known as the greenhouse effect.

    This natural greenhouse effect warms the planet’s surface about 60°F above what it would be otherwise, creating a habitat suitable for life. Since the late 19th century, however, humans have released an increasing amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, deforestation and land-use change. As a result, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to human-caused warming, has increased by about 40% over the industrial era.

    This change has intensified the natural greenhouse effect, driving an increase in global surface temperatures and other widespread changes in Earth’s climate that are unprecedented in the history of modern civilization.

    Global climate is also influenced by natural factors that determine how much of the sun’s energy enters and leaves Earth’s atmosphere and by natural climate cycles that affect temperatures and weather patterns in the short term, especially regionally.

    However, the unambiguous long-term warming trend in global average temperature over the last century cannot be explained by natural factors alone.

    Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the only factors that can account for the observed warming over the last century; there are no credible alternative human or natural explanations supported by the observational evidence.

    Without human activities, the influence of natural factors alone would actually have had a slight cooling effect on global climate over the last 50 years."

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  20. nigelj @18 - regarding: "It was really asking people whether they think the greenhouse effect is real and that we are adding to it. I mean its a valid and useful study but rather too general for me"

    For one in Cook et al. we didn't ask people what they think but instead interpreted the abstracts of peer-reviewed studies according to defined guidelines for rating abstracts. And, a careful reading of esp. the definitions for the rejection criteria should make it clear that any minimising (< 50%) of human-causation, wouldn't have been counted towards the consensus. Which, to me, makes it quite clear that our paper did in fact restrict the consensus to "mostly human-caused". But then, I'm obviously biased!

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  21. BaerbelW @20, yes I realise the Cook study interpreted abstracts, I was just using a bit of short hand or paraphrasing. Don't have all day to write an essay!

    Thank's for the guidlines. This clarifies things, and makes it clear the consensus finding is limited to papers that explicitly or implictly state humans are the main cause of the recent climate change. Your categories on how you categorised papers on this look convincing. The 97% result is a huge, powerful consensus, especially given the nature of the contrarian papers.

    It just seemed to me the wording that humans 'contributed' was not specific enough. Maybe I'm nit picking.

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