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Climate change is good science

First Pillar of Denial: by Josh Rosenau for NCSE, 2012

The first pillar of climate change denial — that climate change is bad science — attacks various aspects of the scientific consensus about climate change. As discussed in Climate Change 101, the scientific community’s consensus, based on over a century of research, is that the Earth’s climate is changing significantly, that human activity is significantly responsible for the change, that the change will have a significant effect on the world and our society, and that humans are able to take significant actions to reduce and mitigate its impact.

Accordingly, there are climate change deniers:

  • who deny that significant climate change is occurring
  • who acknowledge that significant climate change is occurring, but deny that human activity is significantly responsible
  • who acknowledge that significant climate change is occurring and that human activity is significantly responsible, but deny the scientific evidence about its significant effects on the world and our society
  • who acknowledge that significant climate change is occurring, that human activity is significantly responsible, and that it will have a significant effect on the world and our society, but who deny that humans can take significant actions to reduce or mitigate its impact

Of these varieties of climate change denial, the most visible are the first and the second: denial that significant climate change is occurring and denial that human activity is significantly responsible. But all at least partly contradict the scientific community’s consensus on the answers to the central questions of climate change.

Because the scientific community’s consensus is the best standard available for judging what is good science, the primary way to counter the first pillar is to refer to the consensus — as displayed, for example, in authoritative statements from scientific organizations or systematic reviews of the scientific research literature.

Reference to the scientific community’s consensus surrounding climate change, however, is not likely to be sufficient. Climate change deniers have developed techniques for responding, by:

  • denying that there is such a consensus,
  • acknowledging that there is such a consensus, but denying that the evidence on which it is based is genuine, or
  • acknowledging that there is such a consensus and that the evidence on which it is based is genuine, but denying that the evidence supports the consensus

None of these responses is convincing, however.

Attacks on the existence of the consensus are often supported by the citation of a number of people, or of a handful of distinguished scientists, who deny climate change. But consensus is not the same as unanimity. Likewise, such attacks are often supported by the citation of unanswered questions of data and theory in climate science. But such is the normal state of any vibrant area of contemporary science. The existence of a genuine and robust consensus among climate scientists on the basic points of climate change is clear.

Attacks on the legitimacy of the evidence sometimes allege that it is fraudulent or the product of a conspiracy. Such claims are sensationalistic and absurd: outright fraud is rare in science, and the idea of fraud on the scale that would be necessary to account for the scientific community’s consensus on climate change is ridiculous. Attacks on the evidence that claim that it is not fraudulent but nevertheless systematically mistaken are properly claims within climate science; as such, they need to be presented to and evaluated by the relevant scientific community.

Attacks on the validity of the consensus — claims, that is, that the evidence fails to support the basic points — are also properly claims within climate science. As such, they need to be presented to and evaluated by the relevant scientific community through the normal scientific process, including publication in the peer-reviewed scientific research literature. So far, all such claims have failed to convince the appropriate experts in climate science that the consensus is mistaken.

It is impossible to provide a complete guide to countering every claim advanced to support the idea that climate change is bad science, of course. But the discussion above, as well as the detailed debunkings provided by Skeptical Science, ought to provide a good start for countering the first pillar of climate change denial.

The links below and the discussion in Climate Change 101 provide more detail on why, despite the claims of deniers, climate change is good science. To learn more about the second pillar and how to respond to it, continue to Acceptance of climate change isn’t about ideology.

Further reading:

Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis is a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This international body is charged with producing policy-neutral documents to inform policymakers about the current state of climate change science. The reports are written by climate scientists from around the world, through an open and peer-reviewed process. It summarizes the consensus of scientists: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal. … Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

“The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” is a 2005 paper by Naomi Oreskes, published in the journal Science. Oreskes examined 928 scientific papers published between 1993 and 2003 and using the phrase “climate change,” and found that none of those papers disputed the scientific consensus identified by the IPCC. Oreskes concludes: “there is a scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Climate scientists have repeatedly tried to make this clear. It is time for the rest of us to listen.”

“Expert Credibility in Climate Change” is a 2010 study by William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors examined papers published by 1,372 climate scientists, and found that 97-98% of the most-published and most-cited researchers had endorsed the IPCC consensus, while only 2-3% of these prominent researchers had dissented from the IPCC consensus.

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media, a 2009 survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press, compared how scientists view climate change with the views of the general public. Most of the scientists surveyed were not climate scientists, and 5 in 6 (84%) endorsed the consensus view that humans are causing climate change, with only 1 in 20 (4%) claiming that the earth was not warming at all. Among the general public, 1 in 10 (11%) held that no climate change was happening, and less than half (49%) said that climate change was caused by humans. Nine in 10 scientists (92%) regarded climate change as a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem, compared to three quarters of the public.

“Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature” is a 2013 article by John Cook, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A. Green, Mark Richardson, Bärbel Winkler, Rob Painting, Robert Way, Peter Jacobs, and Andrew Skuce. They examined almost twelve thousand abstracts of scientific articles published between 1991 and 2011 on the topics “global climate change” or “global warming,” and found that “66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.”