What do climate scientists think?

by Gavin and Eric.

… and why does it matter?

There is a lot of discussion this week about a new paper in PNAS (Anderegg et al, 2010) that tries to assess the credibility of scientists who have made public declarations about policy directions. This come from a long tradition of papers (and drafts) where people have tried to assess the state of the ‘scientific consensus’ (Oreskes, Brown et al, Bray and von Storch, Doran and Zimmerman etc.). What has bedevilled all these attempts is that since it is very difficult to get scientists to respond to direct questions (response rates for surveys are pitiful), proxy data of some sort or another are often used that may or may not be useful for the specifics of the ‘consensus’ being tested (which itself is often not clearly defined). Is the test based on agreeing with every word in the IPCC report? Or just the basic science elements? Does it mean adhering to a specific policy option? Or merely stating that ‘something’ should be done about emissions? Related issues arise from mis-specified or ambiguous survey questions, and from the obvious fact that opinions about climate in general are quite varied and sometimes can’t easily be placed in neatly labelled boxes.

Given these methodological issues (and there are others), why do people bother?

The answer lies squarely in the nature of the public ‘debate’ on climate. For decades, one of the main tools in the arsenal of those seeking to prevent actions to reduce emissions has been to declare the that the science is too uncertain to justify anything. To that end, folks like Fred Singer, Art Robinson, the Cato Institute and the ‘Friends’ of Science have periodically organised letters and petitions to indicate (or imply) that ‘very important scientists’ disagree with Kyoto, or the Earth Summit or Copenhagen or the IPCC etc. These are clearly attempts at ‘arguments from authority’, and like most such attempts, are fallacious and, indeed, misleading.

They are misleading because as anyone with any familiarity with the field knows, the basic consensus is almost universally accepted. That is, the planet is warming, that human activities are contributing to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (chiefly, but not exclusively CO2), that these changes are playing a big role in the current warming, and thus, further increases in the levels of GHGs in the atmosphere are very likely to cause further warming which could have serious impacts. You can go to any standard meeting or workshop, browse the abstracts, look at any assessment, ask any of the National Academies etc. and receive the same answer. There are certainly disputes about more detailed or specific issues (as there is in any scientific field), and lots of research continues to improve our quantitative understanding of the system, but the basic issues (as outlined above) are very widely (though not universally) accepted.

It is in response to these attempts to portray the scientific community as fractured and in disagreement, that many people have tried to find quantitative ways to assess the degree of consensus among scientists on the science and, as with this new paper, the degree of credibility and expertise among the signers of various letters advocating policies.

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