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An accurately informed public is necessary for climate policy

Posted on 29 July 2013 by dana1981

Last week, the University of Nottingham Making Science Public blog published a guest post by Ben Pile, What’s behind the battle of received wisdoms?, which focused on Andrew Neil’s interview with Ed Davey on BBC Sunday Politics and my articles at The Guardian discussing the scientific errors Neil made on the show and in a subsequent BBC blog post.  This is a re-post of my guest post response.

Response to Professor Hulme’s Comments

Before addressing this post, I would like to respond to some comments made by Professor Mike Hulme regarding a paper I co-authored, Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature, which was one of the topics discussed on Sunday Politics and in Pile’s post.  Professor Hulme said,

“It seems to me that these people are still living (or wishing to live) in the pre-2009 world of climate change discourse. Haven’t they noticed that public understanding of the climate issue has moved on?”

With all due respect to Professor Hulme, his perception of the public understanding of climate science is not reflected in the polling data.  In fact, we discussed this in our paper (which is open access and free to download),

“…the perception of the US public is that the scientific community still disagrees over the fundamental cause of GW. From 1997 to 2007, public opinion polls have indicated around 60% of the US public believes there is significant disagreement among scientists about whether GW was happening (Nisbet and Myers 2007). Similarly, 57% of the US public either disagreed or were unaware that scientists agree that the earth is very likely warming due to human activity (Pew 2012).”

Polling data for the UK show a similar level of public misperceptions on climate change.  For example, a 2012 Guardian/ICM poll found that only 57% of British voters accept that human-caused climate change is happening.  In an April 2013 YouGov poll, 39% of the UK population agreed that “the planet is becoming warmer as a result of human activity,” and 53% agreed “the world’s climate is changing as a result of human activity.”  This public misperception on human-caused climate change and the associated scientific consensus was the reason we embarked on our study.  For this reason I would also respectfully disagree with Professor Hulme’s description of our paper as “irrelevant,”

“The irrelevance is because none of the most contentious policy responses to climate change are resolved *even if* we accept that 97.1% of climate scientists believe that ‘human activity is very likely causing most of the current GW’…”

Again quoting from our paper,

“An accurate perception of the degree of scientific consensus is an essential element to public support for climate policy (Ding et al 2011). Communicating the scientific consensus also increases people’s acceptance that climate change (CC) is happening (Lewandowsky et al 2012).”

Our co-author John Cook’s PhD research has similarly shown a strong correlation between public awareness of the scientific consensus and support for government climate policy across nearly the entire political spectrum.  Our paper is well suited for correcting the public’s misperception that humans are not causing global warming or that there is no scientific consensus on the subject, and hence it is a relevant and useful contribution.

Ben Pile’s Guest Post and Andrew Neil’s Errors

Regarding Ben Pile’s guest post on this blog, I would first like to say that I encourage healthy scientific skepticism, and also a healthy debate about what climate policy should entail.  I have no problem with Andrew Neil asking Ed Davey if the recently slowed global surface warming and/or some recent scientific papers should cause the UK government to revise its climate policy.  As I detailed in my second Guardian article on the subject, I think the answer is that it clearly shouldn’t, but there is certainly no problem with the question being asked.  However, as I noted, healthy skepticism and an informed climate policy discussion must accurately consider all available evidence, which Andrew Neil did not.  On that subject, Ben Pile wrote,

Dana Nuccitelli (who is not a climate scientist) compiled a list of what he thought were Neil’s mistakes.”

To be more precise, I provided evidence to illustrate why most of Neil’s climate comments were erroneous.  In his post, Pile did not dispute any of my characterizations of the many errors made by Neil, and I would encourage readers here to click the links to read my articles and the evidence I provided to support my assertions.  I think any open-minded reader will agree that Neil made a great many errors on the show and in his subsequent blog post.

“Skeptics” are Not Included in the 97% Consensus

Regarding our consensus paper, Ben Pile repeated claims made by Andrew Montford, Richard Betts, and Roy Spencer (Professor Hulme also made similar statements in the comments) suggesting that even climate “skeptics” would fall within our 97% consensus.  As I discussed in my second article referenced by Pile, these claims display a lack of understanding of the nuance in our study.

“The “skeptic” papers [in our study] 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.

Our survey also included categories for papers that quantified the human contribution to global warming. In the author self-ratings phase of our study, 237 papers fell into these categories. 96 percent of these said that humans are the primary cause of the observed global warming since 1950. The consensus on human-caused global warming is robust.”

To summarize, our study did not merely show that 97% of peer-reviewed studies taking a position on the issue agree that humans are causing global warming, although that conclusion was our main focus because of the public misperception on the subject.  The 97% also excluded papers that minimized the human influence on global warming (either implicitly or explicitly stating that humans are responsible for less than 50% of the observed warming since 1950).  And we also collected data on papers explicitly quantifying the human influence, among which 96% agreed that humans are the primary driver of global warming since 1950.

Job Well Done by Ed Davey

Our study should certainly not be used to suggest all climate science and policy questions are settled.  Ben Pile seemed to suggest Ed Davey did so on the BBC program,

“Yet the survey was cited by Davey himself in defence of the government’s climate policies in the face of changing science.”

I would encourage readers here to go back and watch the interview.  The entire discussion of the 97% consensus was limited to the first two minutes of the program.  It merely involved Davey pointing out that human-caused global warming has been established in the peer-reviewed literature, and now it’s time to move on and discuss the appropriate policy to address the issue (followed by Andrew Neil making false statements about our paper).  Throughout the interview Ed Davey pointed out that it’s important to retain healthy skepticism of the science, but that it’s also important to consider all the available evidence (which Andrew Neil refused to do throughout the show).  In fact, Ed Davey displayed a strong understanding of the basic science.  I think British citizens should be happy to have such a well informed Energy and Climate Change Secretary.

Pile’s Inaccurate Claims About Our Paper

Finally, Ben Pile made a number of factually inaccurate claims about our paper and its authors,

“Accordingly, rather than being a dispassionate study into scientific opinion, the 97% survey was a superficially academic exercise, intended to obfuscate the substance of the climate debate. Those who fell for it forget that its authors, aside from having their own — shock horror! — agendas, have no expertise in climate science, much less any interest in taking the sceptics’ arguments on.”

As noted above, the purpose of our study was to try and correct the widespread public misperception about human-caused global warming and the scientific consensus on the subject.  That was our “agenda” – as it always is – to communicate what the peer-reviewed literature says to the public.  Frankly Ben Pile’s comments about our “agendas” are offensive, as are his claims that we have no climate science expertise.

Aside from compiling a vast database summarizing peer-reviewed climate research, four of the co-authors on the Cook et al. (2013) consensus paper also co-authored Nuccitelli et al. (2012) – a climate paper about global heat accumulation, among our many other combined climate science publications.  John Cook co-authored a climate textbook, and several of our co-authors are graduate students researching climate science at various universities.  Not that our expertise should matter – Ben Pile’s comment on the subject is ad hominem – but for the record, it’s also factually inaccurate, as is much of his blog post.

Contrarianism is Not Skepticism

To summarize, contrary to the widespread public misperception on the subject, there is a consensus in the peer-reviewed literature that humans are causing climate change.  There is also a consensus that humans are the primary cause of the current global warming.  Correcting that misperception is critical in achieving public support for climate policy, and has been the goal of our discussions about our study.  I hope we would all agree that a misinformed public is not in our best interest – we cannot solve a problem without first understanding it.

There are of course remaining climate uncertainties and nuances that are not addressed in our consensus paper, and it’s certainly valid to ask if they should impact our climate policy.  However, the argument among “skeptics” seems to be that given remaining uncertainties, we should take a “wait and see” approach to climate change for the time being.  That argument is fundamentally flawed.  Uncertainty is not our friend in climate science – it simply means the problem could either be larger or smaller than we currently expect.  Meanwhile our current climate policy is woefully inadequate in addressing the problem, so even in a best-case scenario we’re not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Ultimately the most important thing to bear in mind is that true skepticism requires considering all available evidence.  Ben Pile claimed,

“Andrew Neil, in just one show, has done more to promote an active understanding of climate science and its controversies than has been done by the Carbon Brief blog…”

I could not disagree more, precisely because (aside from the many scientific errors he made) Neil refused to consider all the evidence (unlike Pile’s example of the Carbon Brief blog, which is an excellent resource that does consider all the scientific evidence).  That approach of only considering selective pieces evidence and ignoring the inconvenient data simply cannot promote an active understanding of climate science.  That is not skepticism; it’s contrarianism.

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Comments 51 to 67 out of 67:

  1. MA Rodger at 50,

    In referring to the recent Cook, et al paper:

    "97% of scientists agree that climate change is real and manmade" is an accurate statement.

    "97% of scientists agree that climate change is real, manmade and dangerous" is not an accurate statement.

    Yet, the President's tweet was promoted and never corrected.  There were (and still are) opportunities to correct it.  

    If the tweet had said, "97% of scientists agree that climate change is real, manmade and beneficial", you know as well as I do that it would have been corrected.  

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  2. Terranova @51.

    I can but assume that you have never read Cook et al 2013. It might be beneficial for you to do so as I can assure you Cook et al 2013 does not as you assert establish that "97% of scientists agree that climate change is real and manmade"  Of course, you could continue to ignore the paper and keep making silly comments, or not.

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  3. MA Rodger @ 51

    Thanks for your guidance, but I read the paper when it first came out.  In the conclusion it states: "Among papers expressing a position on AGW, an overwhelming percentage (97.2% based on self-ratings, 97.1% based on abstract ratings) endorses the scientific consensus on AGW."  

    I fully realize it is referring to the percentage of published papers taking a position on the cause of global warming, or to quote Dikran Marsupial "there is a broad consensus amongst scientists working on climate-related science that the majority of climate change is anthropogenic."

    In this article Mr. Cook had ample opporunity to clarify that the paper wasn't referring to "dangerous" AGW.  

    This is not about silliness, but about accuracy. 

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  4. Terranova @53.
    You tell us "This is not about silliness, but about accuracy." I find that difficult to accept as your insistence on accuracy is very selective. You complain that one thing is 'not accurate' and should be urgently corrected while other things that are also inaccurate need no correction, indeed you happily repeat a mistake, because you do not object to the error thus made. You are surely trying to have your cake and eat it.

    You are happy to accept an inference that "scientists" equals "peer-reviewed papers on climate change 1991-2011 whose abstract expressed a position on AGW"  thus providing the 97% result that you assert is "accurate" even though this introduces an obvious error.
    But you take exception to the use of the adjective "dangerous" within the same tweet because in your opinion that is not accurate reflection of the findings of Cook et al 2013, a paper that is not in fact mentioned within the tweet.

    @50 I suggested that a tweet is not a medium for incisive accuracy, a proposition you appear to disagree as you ignored that suggestion. Yet perhaps we can work round this ignorance of your. Do you disagree that "dangerous" can be inferred from the references used by that tweet? If so, perhaps you could suggest an alternative adjective that you would be more comfortable with?

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  5. MA Rodger at 54

    You are quibbling.  Let's stick to the point. I've already suggested that the tweet not use any adjective.  The study was about the consensus in scientific papers that stated a position on AGW.  The published paper did not make any inference to any effects caused by AGW (positive, negative or neutral).  

    However, the Obama tweet did add the adjective which was inaccurate.  In the article I referenced to you, Mr. Cook could have addressed that.  (Maybe he did and the writer did not print it.  I've been misquoted before).  Mr. Cook did gleefully accept the praise that his work generated, and rightfully so.  

    The tweet was repeated all over the internet and in print.  That becomes one of those "sticky" ideas that Mr. Cook referred to in his 1JULY13 post.  Not once have I seen any attempt to correct it.  

    Imagine a scenario where the folks over at WUWT had added the adjective beneficial.  I am certain, and you know it too, that it would have been addressed on this blog and over Twitter regardless of the limitiations that you think a tweet has.

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  6. Terranova,

    The scientific consensus is that AGW is happening and caused by humans.  It is a policy decision to determine if that is dangerous or not.  Obama gets to make whatever policy choices he wants to.  Since Obama has other sources of information, it is completely within reason for him to determine he thinks AGW is dangerous.  Politicians make these types of judgements all the time. 

    Why should scientists be responsible for what politicians say when the denier scientists lie all the time?  The denier politicians are even worse. 

    Have you gone to Spencers blog and asked him to correct his testimony in congress where he said he was part of the 97% when all his papers were part of the 3%?

    I am sick of deniers who say scientists must be perfect while the deniers are allowed to repeat the same old lies for decades.

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  7. Michael Sweet at 56

    I agree with you that politicians can make a judgment to term AGW dangerous based on other sources. But, the Tweet, whether intentional or not, makes it appear that it was the result of the Cook study.  That is inaccurate and was repeated in print and in electronic media all over the world and never addressed by Cook or anyone else at SkS. It would be a simple thing to address through this forum if nothing else.  

    So, we agree that the study neither said, nor implied, the dangerous part.  That was purposely or mistakenly added by the person responsible for the Tweet. The implication is that it came from the Cook study. Based on the number of articles generated about this subject, I am not the only one to think so.

    In your opinion is this an important issue or not?  Politicians aren't responsible for accuracy, but scientists are.  

    And, FWIW, I am not a denier and don't read Spencer's blog.  

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  8. Terranova @55.
    You appear to be offering the argument here that any who disagree with you are "quibbling" and therefore wrong.
    You evidently here are not able to find fault with AGW being described as being "real" but have a problem with AGW being described as being "dangerous." Now that is quite a bizarre position to defend.
    Indeed, can AGW be anything other than "dangerous" if it has the power to be "the primary cause of recent global warming"? While some may consider that climatology and climatologists should not decide what is dangerous or otherwise, the reaction of many climatologists to inaction in the political sphere suggests that many climatologists are not of that view.  AGW certainly could not be considered "beneficial" as you suggest denialists may term it because the "climate policy" for which a "scientific consensus is an essential element to gain public support" is entirely understood to be a policy to reduce the impacts of AGW, not to boost them.
    BarackObama's tweet makes no mention directly of Cook et al 2013 but called on readers to "read more," to read that "Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, hit 400 parts per million in the atmosphere last week, the highest in perhaps 3 million years. Governments have agreed to work out, by the end of 2015, a deal to slow climate change that a U.N. panel of experts says will cause more floods, droughts and rising sea levels." That all sounds a bit dangerous to me. Then again you may find such statements controversial and unfounded although I'm not sure I could accept such a view.
    And your inability to present an adjective to describe AGW that you would be comfortable with strongly suggests to me that in truth you are actually uncomfortable with AGW existing at all. And given the now established consensus, you are perhaps able to work out for yourself what such an opinion would result in the holder being. Or FWIW perhaps not.

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  9. MA Rodger @58, the tweet clearly indicates that 97% of climate scientists agree that gobal warming is real, that it is man made, and that it is dangerous.  That each proposition is true seperately does not make it true that 97% of climate scientists agree with each proposition.  It certainly does not make it true that Cook et al 2013 show them to have believed it.  In fact, Cook et al showed endorsement in the literature, in papers stating an opinion, not being restricted to climate scientists, of the idea that global warming was real and man made.

    Consequently it would not have been out of order for John Cook to have issued a correction on any of those inaccuracies in the tweet.  In particular, it would have been quite appropriate to issue a correction saying that the papers endorsed the concept that climate change was real and man made, but that even though it is dangerous, the study did not examine the endorsement of that view.  Ergo Terranova has a point, and is not quibbling.

    I am not convinced, however, that it was compulsory on Cook or any of his coauthors to issue a correction.  If it was, surely it was compulsory to issue the correction on every point of inaccuracy, yet Terranova only seems vexed by the term "dangerous".  Further, if it was compulsory to issue a correction on Obama's tweet, then surely it is compulsory to issue a correction for every misrepresentation of the study - which is absurd.  There are not enough hours in the day.

    So, if not compulsory, does it not then enter the realm of a judgement call as to whether the inaccuracies were sufficiently misleading require correction.  Claiming the 97% of scientists believe the changes to be beneficial would have a far greater demand on correction than Obama's tweet, for other surveys have established that .  Bray and von Storch's survey shows that 78.92% of climate scientists are convinced that climat change "... poses a very serious and dangerous threat to humanity", with only 1.162% "not at all convinced".  (There is, IMO, a problem with the wording of their survey question that will bias the response low.)  So, correcting terrranova's hypothetical alternative would be correcting a radical mistatement of the facts.  In contrast, correcting Obama's tweet would be correcting inaccuracies in details (though potentially significant details).

    So, yes it would have been nice of Cook corrected those details when acknowledging the tweet.  But not compulsory, and not dishonest to find better things to do with his time.

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  10. For what its worth, the Bray and von Storch survey show 83.51% of climate scientists to be convinced that most of "recent or near future climate change was, or will be, a result of anthropogenic causes", showing the concensus that GW is dangerous is almost as great as that it is anthropogenic. 

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  11.   (-snip-)

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Repetitive & sloganeering snipped.

  12. Barry Woods @61.

    (-snip-)?

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Apologies, but responses to Repetitive & Sloganeering snipped comments must also be snipped.  Barry's comment added nothing to this discussion and was necessarily treated accordingly.

  13. Terranova...  If human activities are responsible for >50% of warming, is that dangerous?

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  14. Tom Curtis @59

    Well said.

    Honeycutt @63

    It certainly could be dangerous. But, that is changing the subject from the point of view of the importance of accuracy. Do 97% of "climate scientists" think it is "dangerous"? There would have to be research done to determine that.  The study was not about whether AGW was dangerous, or not.  It was about endorsing the scientific consensus on AGW.

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  15. MA Rodger @58

    Now you obfuscate and make suppositions based on your misconceptions about my mindset.  Again, you are failing to recognize that I already supplied an answer - there doesn't have to be an adjective.  

    Let me make it clear for you.  Based on my educational background (B.Sc., M.Sc. and second M.Sc. in progress), and the research I have conducted: I firmly believe that AGW does exist and is having an effect on the global climate.  I cannot say it any more clearly than that.  

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] You have made your point. It has been responded to. Let's move on. 

  16. I find this entire line of objections rather absurd. If someone is informed about the scientific consensus on climate change to the extent that they understand 97% of scientists studying it agree on AGW, then they are likely informed enough as to the outlook for future warming (given current economics and policy decisions) and the consensus on consequences thereof (IPCC WG II"Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability") to consider those consequences dangerous. 

    I'll note that one of the major threads of denial is "It's not bad", and from the perspective of those denying AGW that's a frequent accompaniment. But understanding the consensus on the causes of global warming includes understanding the consequences, whether they were specfically addressed in the Cook et al 2013 paper or not. Because knowldge about causes leads to knowledge about effects. And from that standpoint the Obama tweet and other reportings on this issue are entirely reasonable. The objections raised on this thread and elsewhere require a schizophrenic separation between cause and effect, a selective blindnesss to consequences. That is entirely unreasonable, a piece of sophistic nonsense. 

    Just my personal point of view...

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] Let's move on to another topic. This one has been exhausted.

  17. Terranova @63...  The point of asking the question was to suggest that, at least on a certain level, Obama's statement of AGW being dangerous is inclusive of what is represented by the larger body of published research.

    Whether AGW is dangerous was not an explicit aspect of Cook13, but you could easily state that it is implied by the body of research.  Thus, Obama's tweet is not far from the mark, and therefore a justifiable inclusion.

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] We've beaten this horse to death. Let's move on to another topic. 

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