A few weeks ago, the Bulletin ran a story referring to how Frank Luntz—the GOP message master who convinced party politicians to use the phrase “climate change” instead of “global warming” because the former sounded “less frightening”—is now offering his services to the cause of climate action. The idea that someone who had once crafted talking points defending some of the world’s worst carbon polluters had changed his tune to now advocate for “cleaner, safer, healthier” energy alternatives seemed to signal the dawn of a new era, right?
Not so fast.
In July, the Exxon- and Koch- funded Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) issued a formal complaint, asking NASA to “correct” a statement on the space agency’s website that said that “Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” In its complaint about NASA’s accurate statement, CEI cited 5-year-old disproved blog posts with titles like “1.6%, Not 97%, Agree that Humans are the Main Cause of Global Warming.” (It also cited conservative media outlets like Forbes, National Review, and the Daily Caller.)
So, what is the real percentage of climate researchers who agree that climate change is largely man-made? And what is the origin of the widely held perception among the American public that the science is still unsettled?
The numbers. By coincidence, also in July, a 2013 paper that I co-authored with my colleagues at Skeptical Science on the expert consensus about human-caused climate change in peer-reviewed literature was downloaded for the millionth time. In that study, our team examined the abstracts of nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science studies published between 1991 and 2011, and categorized each one based on its position on the causes of global warming. In a second phase of our analysis we e-mailed the authors of each study and asked them to categorize their own papers using the same criteria, receiving 1,200 responses. Our team’s review of the abstracts yielded a 97.1 percent consensus that humans are primarily responsible for recent global warming; the author self-ratings yielded a 97.2 percent consensus.
Our analysis built upon a previous study published by Naomi Oreskes in the peer-reviewed journal Science in 2004. In her paper, which also just surpassed 1 million downloads, Oreskes examined the abstracts of 928 peer-reviewed climate papers published between 1993 and 2003. In her review, none of the abstracts disputed human-caused global warming. Not a single one out of 928. In 2016, our two groups teamed with the authors of five other climate consensus studies to publish a paper documenting the ‘consensus on consensus,’ in which we demonstrated that between 90 and 100 percent of climate scientists and their peer-reviewed research agree that humans are the main cause of recent global warming.
There has been a fairly steady increase in American public perception that most scientists agree on global warming, recently rising to record levels. Yet only 1-in-5 Americans realize that over 90 percent of climate scientists have concluded human-caused global warming is happening. Even Americans “alarmed” about climate change only think that 80 percent of climate scientists have reached this conclusion, which illustrates how widespread the public underestimation of the expert climate consensus remains to this day.
Origins. That so-called “consensus gap” between public perception and the reality of expert agreement is largely due to a sustained misinformation campaign. “There is no consensus” has been one of the most popular climate myths and can be traced back to a memo authored circa 2001 by that same Republican political strategist, Frank Luntz, who wrote then: “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” (To be fair, Luntz recently testified before the House Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, acknowledging, “I’m here before you to say that I was wrong in 2001 … Just stop using something that I wrote 18 years ago, because it’s not accurate today.”)
Fossil fuel-funded think tanks have apparently not heeded Luntz’s pleas; the formal complaint issued to NASA argued that our study excluded papers that did not take a position on the cause of global warming—which is akin to arguing that there’s no consensus as to whether the Earth is round or flat: Scientists publishing relevant research in a peer-reviewed journal don’t waste precious space stating a position on topics that have been settled.
It is in the fossil fuel industry’s best short-term self-interest to spread doubt on this issue. As our 97 percent consensus study lead author and cognitive scientist John Cook has documented, social science research shows that accepting the presence of expert climate consensus is a ‘Gateway Belief.’ This means that when people are aware of the consensus of the experts when it comes to climate change, they are more likely to accept the science and support climate policies that would reduce fossil fuel industry profitability.
While public awareness of the expert consensus and support for climate policies is growing, especially among the younger generations, we still have a long way to go. One million downloads hasn’t been enough to overcome the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the fossil fuel industry on its climate misinformation campaign. But Millennials and Gen-Z have only known a world full of record heat and extreme weather. That’s why there’s a climate change generation gap, and why as they come of age, American adults are finally making progress in accepting the expert consensus, scientific realities, and need for serious climate policies.
The question is whether they will do so fast enough—and whether the GOP will jettison its stance of being the only climate-denying major conservative political party in the world before it’s demolished by the climate electoral time bomb.