We'll never tackle climate change if academics keep the focus on consensus


Media and political attention is being wasted on boosting the public’s notion of scientific consensus, crowding out more important discussion and action

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Climate change placards at protest against Trump’s cabinet picks, New York, USA - 09 Jan 2017

Climate change placards at a protest against Trump’s cabinet picks in New York, January 2017.
Photograph: ddp USA/REX/Shutterstock

We’ll never tackle climate change if academics keep the focus on consensus

Media and political attention is being wasted on boosting the public’s notion of scientific consensus, crowding out more important discussion and action

In a democracy, we hope that science helps to inform the public about its problems. In the case of climate change, believe it or not, the evidence suggests this is going relatively well.

Climate science is a vast, sprawling field of knowledge that has achieved great success in occupying the public consciousness. According to Yale University’s Climate Change in the American Mind project, six in ten Americans are worried about global warming, seven in ten think global warming is happening and eight in ten think humans have the ability to reduce global warming. These figures have fluctuated very little since 2012, suggesting that the US public is relatively well informed about the risk, reality and policy potential of climate change, even in the face of well-documented attacks by climate sceptics.

Despite this evidence that the public knows enough about climate change to regard it as a problem, some climate communication researchers continue to claim that the public remain misinformed. Some have focused their attention on the proportion of the public that know the level of consensus within climate science. In 2013, a group of researchers launched the Consensus Project, publishing a claim that 97.1% of journal articles expressing a position on anthropogenic global warming either explicitly state or imply that humans cause warming. The claim made a huge media splash, became a key part of the Obama administration’s climate change messaging, and even gave birth to a new Guardian blog. The Yale report has found that only one in ten Americans could correctly identify the approximate level of scientific consensus. It is argued that perceptions of the degree of consensus play a “pivotal role” in “acceptance of science” and that awareness of scientific consensus is a “gateway belief” towards increasing public concern about climate change.

The debate around these perceptions and their significance is going on within a relatively small pool of researchers, and the argument over effects is intense. Put this in the context of broader debates in psychology about replication and the usefulness of laboratory studies and we get a picture of a young field of study that is yet to reach a “consensus on consensus”.

Nonetheless, we are left with a puzzle: if so few Americans appear to know the exact level of scientific consensus, why do so many of them think climate change is real and worrisome? The simplest explanation is that the public have already heard enough about the scientific evidence to make up their mind, without being fed increasingly esoteric information about levels of scientific agreement. The real question is not whether the US public think climate change is a problem (most of them do), but what should be done about it. Here it is the crucial non-scientific issues around climate change that should take centre stage. Instead, valuable media and political attention has been expended on boosting the 97% meme, crowding out deeper conversations about policy framing, coalition building, public values and morality which do not lend themselves to headline numbers.

I was one of a team of social scientists making this point in an article published in the journal Environmental Communication last week. Summarising several decades of social science research on the politics of science and technology, we argue that numbers cannot help to tie people together in the absence of other social connections, that policy progress does not necessarily rise or fall on the basis of scientific consensus, and that drives for consensus-seeking are part of a more troubling trend towards depoliticising key policy issues. Our commentary prompted a tetchy reaction in a newsletter from Climate Nexus, a climate communication organisation dedicated to “a constructive search for solutions”. Rather than engaging with the arguments or providing counter-evidence, they described us as “fluffheads”, “no men in no man’s land between reality and denial” (half of us are women), and said that our arguments should not be publicised in the media.

Matthew C. Nisbet

.@ClimateNexus outrageously labels new #EnvComm commentary as “Denier Roundup,” proving authors points abt efforts to close off debate. pic.twitter.com/4varP1J1Is

July 24, 2017

Climate activists are clearly pained by the glacial progress being made on climate policy, as am I. However, there is as yet no convincing evidence that consensus quantification plays a significant role in building the public’s understanding of climate change. Attempts by climate communicators to shut down this argument is quite the opposite of “constructive” and smacks of the same cavalier attitude to evidence displayed by many climate sceptics over the years. More importantly, consensus messaging is an attempt to win political arguments with scientific numbers and risks a further politicisation of science that the US can ill-afford. It is less about informing democracy and more about reducing engagement to the level of a trivia quiz.

Warren Pearce is a Research Fellow (iHuman) at the University of Sheffield.