Climate change is a tricky subject to talk about: It's a large, complex scientific issue that's both difficult to grasp in full and extremely important for the public to understand. In our shorthand for making sense of it, one statistic is often thrown about: 97 percent of scientists agree that man-made climate change is happening. Yet a big, impressive-looking Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal asserts the number is a "myth." WSJ's claim is wrong, of course, but where its authors fail to debunk a popular meme, they also manage to make a much more insidious, and radical, argument.
First things first, we should be extremely skeptical of any argument this article is trying to make, even despite its appearance in the hallowed pages of the Journal. It's bylined, after all, by two prominent climate deniers: The first, Joseph Bast, is identified as the president of the Koch-affiliated Heartland Institute, a veritable machine of climate denial, with the implicit mission statement of sowing confusion and dissent about accepted science. (For another standout example of Bast's opinion writing, try this 1998 editorial asserting that smoking, in moderation, has "few, if any, adverse health effects.") The Op-Ed's other author is Roy Spencer, "a principal research scientist for the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer on NASA's Aqua satellite" and official Heartland expert. Spencer's academic credentials, a rarity among climate deniers, lend weight to his arguments despite the fact that both his work and financial motivations have been repeatedly called into question. Bast and Spencer are motivated to debunk the 97 percent "myth" because they have a vested interest, via their affiliation with Heartland, in getting the public to believe that the scientists are a lot less certain about the reality of man-made climate change than they actually are.
The 97 percent figure, as Bast and Spencer acknowledge, comes from a series of independent surveys aimed at quantifying the numbers of scientists who believe: a) that climate change is happening; and b) that human activity is to blame.
In 2004, as they correctly point out, Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes published an essay in Science magazine in which she examined the abstracts of 928 articles on the subject of "global climate change" published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and "found that 75% supported the view that human activities are responsible for most of the observed warming over the previous 50 years while none directly dissented."
They correctly identify, as well, a 2009 survey of 3,146 earth scientists that asked the question, "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?" Overall, 86 percent of the respondents answered in the affirmative, but the survey's authors arrived at the 97.5 percent figure after deciding to include only the responses of climatologists who actively publish research on climate change -- and those are the only ones whose scientific opinions are truly relevant to the matter at hand. Bast and Spencer leave out that first point and treat the second as a deficit: "Seventy-nine scientists," they write, "does not a consensus make."
That same argument of "not enough" comes up again when they detail a 2010 paper published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, which found that between 97 and 98 percent of climate scientists who have published prolifically on the topic support the scientific consensus on climate change. (About 200 were included in the survey.) They take most issue, however, with the 2013 survey -- conducted by the blog Skeptical Science -- that is most responsible for popularizing the 97 percent meme. Skeptical Science's results comes from a review of more than 12,000 peer-reviewed climate science papers. While most of those papers (66 percent) didn't take a stance on whether global warming is man-made, 97 percent of those that did agreed that we are, in fact, causing climate change.
The problems any of these individual surveys can and do present are minuscule compared to the laughable counterpoints Bast and Spencer throw at them: a 2012 survey, for example, which found a strong showing of climate denial among members of the American Meteorological Society, and a petition, signed by 31,000 scientists asserting that "there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of ... carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate." Meteorologists, while weather experts, are not climate experts -- and the survey also found that those who published the least peer-reviewed research were the most likely to be climate skeptics. As Chris Mooney pointed out at the time, the survey actually serves to strengthen the scientific consensus on climate change "by defining who's a relevant expert in the first place." And the Petition Project, while boasting an impressive number of signatories, actually represents just 0.3 percent of all U.S. science graduates. (A bachelor's degree or higher in general science was all that was needed to qualify to sign.)
Meanwhile, Bast and Spencer leave out the extremely long list of scientific organizations -- including the Academies of Science from 19 different countries -- that publicly endorse the scientific consensus on climate change: again, that it's happening and that greenhouse gas emissions are to blame.
Bast and Spencer's beef, however, isn't with the scientific consensus on whether man-made climate change is happening (although you'd be forgiven for thinking so, being that a favorite tactic of those who oppose action on climate change is to simply deny, deny, deny). Instead, they've moved past that unwinnable argument to one that contends that, hey, even if climate change is happening, that doesn't mean it's a bad thing. Going through the aforementioned surveys one by one, they point out how each has nothing to say about how potentially dangerous climate change is.
They're right, of course: The "97 percent" statistic was never meant to establish a consensus on the dangers of climate change. (They're right, too, that in it's decontextualized state, it's sometimes used to mean more than it should. When President Obama tweeted "Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: #climate change is real, man-made and dangerous," that last clause wasn't technically accurate.)
Writing in the Washington Post, Jason Samenow said as much last year:
What the consensus study does not address is the level of concern about the human role of climate change expressed in the studies surveyed or by the studies’ authors. Nor does it provide a sense of what the studies say about how severe climate change will be, and the consequences.
Many of the effects of climate change are already being felt; the more serious effects, however, are still a way's off. There is no one consensus on just how soon they'll occur, and how bad they'll be, because science, not being in the business of making prophecies, is not able to say with absolute certainty just what's going to happen in the future. What science can do, however, is identify patterns that may lead to future risks, and then help us understand just how urgently we need to be thinking about mitigating those risks. The American Association for the Advancement of Science acknowledged this brilliantly earlier this year, releasing an 18-page report consisting of "just the facts," which confirmed that the world is at growing risk of “abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes” due to climate change. The report endorsed the 97 percent consensus, but, as the New York Times reiterated, "That is not the same as claiming that all questions about climate change have been answered. In fact, enormous questions remain, and the science of global warming entails a robust, evolving discussion."
This is the discussion that now needs to be had. The position of the AAAS is that spending money now to mitigate the risks is akin to the tens of billions of dollars we've put into seat belts and airbags: We're preparing for the worst. “What’s extremely clear is that there’s a risk, a very significant risk,” said Mario Molina, who spearheaded the committee behind the report. “You don’t need 100 percent certainty for society to act.” Our understanding of those risks, of course, has been advanced by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Bast and Spencer attempt to "debunk" only one chapter of the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report -- the one that comments on the role of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, again arguing that the 41 authors and experts named as authors are too few to be considered a consensus. Of the rest of it -- both its stark depiction of global warming's threats and its contention that “responding to climate-related risks involves making decisions and taking actions in the face of continuing uncertainty about the extent of climate change and the severity of impacts in a changing world” -- they remain mum. And not one mention is made, surprisingly enough, of the recently released National Climate Assessment, a landmark U.S. report detailing the far-ranging ways in which we're already experiencing the effects of climate change.
Bast and Spencer take the extreme oppositional view: that any regulations or funding aimed at mitigation are unacceptable. Yet throughout their entire editorial, they never come out and say that. Instead, they operate using the usual tactics: by confusing these two separate issues and, in so doing, seeking to undermine our faith in science. What they're really trying to do is keep us from moving on to the actual debate, which is no longer about whether scientists agree that climate change is happening: it's about whether the world should continue to barrel down the highway at breakneck speeds without the benefit of seat belts. Bast and Spencer believe we should. No wonder they don't want to make that argument -- it's hard to imagine how they could even begin to defend it.