Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Closing the Consensus Gap

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a prestigious journal, established in 1945 to warn the public about the consequences of using nuclear weapons. They've published the writings of Hans Bethe, Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Mikhail Gorbachev, among others. The Bulletin is closely followed in Washington, DC, and other world capitals and uses its iconic Doomsday Clock to draw international attention to global risks and solutions. It links the work of researchers and experts with policymaking entities, with the goal of influencing public policy to protect the Earth and its inhabitants. Thus I was honoured to be invited to submit an article, Closing the consensus gap: Public support for climate policy. In this article, I discuss our paper Quantifying the Consensus and why there was a need for it - because of the two-decade long misinformation campaign against the consensus. Here's an excerpt:

Since the late 1980s, governments and policy makers have worked to develop policy to mitigate climate change. At the same time, opponents have worked to delay and prevent climate action—not just by attacking policy solutions, but also by attacking climate science. A key focus in this decades-long campaign has been to cast doubt on the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming.

Why attack the consensus? In recent years, social scientists have started to put the pieces together. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2011, replicated by a 2013 study published in the journal Climatic Change, found that public perceptions about scientific agreement are linked to support for policy to mitigate climate change. When people think that scientists are still debating about what’s causing climate change, they’re less likely to support climate action.

Social scientists were not the first to come to this realization. Political consultant Frank Luntz advised Republicansin the 2000 presidential election to cast doubt on the consensus, arguing “should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.” More than a decade before social scientists observed the link between perceived consensus and support for climate policy, opponents of climate action understood this link and implemented communication strategies designed to erode public support for climate policy.

In fact, attacks on the consensus date back to the early 1990s. In 1991, the Western Fuels Association spent more than $500,000 on a campaign to “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” More recently, an analysis of conservative columns published from 2007 to 2010 found that the most repeated climate myth was “there is no scientific consensus.”

These strategies have been effective. To this day, there is a significant “consensus gap” between public perception and the actual scientific consensus. A 2012 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found 43 percent of Americans thought climate scientists were still in disagreement about whether the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity.

I recommend you go read the full article (it gets a bit more up-beat further on :-)

Posted by John Cook on Tuesday, 20 August, 2013

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