Global warming–consensus is the wrong issue

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BeijingIn an op-ed last month in the Wall Street Journal, John S. Gordon dismisses the idea that the science concerning climate change is settled. But we’ve been hearing that “97 percent of scientists agree” climate change is caused by man. What’s going on?

Scientific America provides the answer. In 2011, Sarah Greene, a chemistry professor at Michigan Technological University, and John Cook, a research fellow at the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia, joined forces with ten other scientists who blog under the name Skeptical Science. They reviewed 4,014 abstracts on climate change and found that 97.2 percent of the abstracts assumed that humans had a role in global warming. This quickly morphed to 97 percent of scientists believe that climate change is caused by man, and the fight about consensus was on.

Cook thought that by demonstrating there was a consensus, he could promote change, but the effort backfired. The word consensus became a hot button. Discussion about climate change now reveals more about a person’s ideology than his knowledge about scientific consensus. An experiment conduced by Dan Kahan, a psychology professor at Yale, illustrates this point.

Kahan tested both Democrats and Republicans on their knowledge of global warming. The overwhelming majority knew that scientists believe that CO2 causes global temperatures to rise and that man-made global warming leads to coastal flooding and other problems. Still, when questioned directly about it, Kahan found that even highly educated Republicans underestimated the scientific consensus on climate change.

This brings us back to Gordon, who maintains that science is never settled. Richard Tol, an economics professor at the University of Sussex, similarly finds the idea of scientific consensus to be repugnant. What’s interesting is that Gordon thinks politicians push global warming out of self-interest. “It would be a heaven-sent opportunity for the left to vastly increase government control over the economy and the personal lives of citizens.” Conspiracy theory, anyone?

In 2014, Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, and Roy Spencer, a research scientist at the University of Alabama, published an op-ed piece in the WSJ, “The Myth of the Climate Change 97%.”  They assert that the 97% figure is “fiction” and refer to four other scientists who reviewed the same 4,014 abstracts reviewed by Cook and his colleagues but found that only one percent of the abstracts concluded that human activity is causing most of the current warming. Bast and Spencer cite several other examples of flawed attempts to find consensus on the subject.

You would think two groups of scientists could review the same 4,014 abstracts and reach the same conclusions, but no.

How does the average non-scientist citizen make sense of all this? By looking at things on a simpler level. For me, that means looking at sources I feel are credible. I respect NASA, and NASA tells us that a large number of scientists has concluded “there’s a more than 90 percent probability that human activities over the past 250 years have warmed our planet.”

Let’s also look at the problem at an intuitive level. The picture at the top of this article is from the July 2013 edition of National Geographic. Back in the day, Pittsburgh probably looked much the same. In January 2013, Beijing’s air pollution level, when measuring various pollutants and suspended particulates, reached a level of 700 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA’s health-based national air quality standard is 50 micrograms per cubic meter for particulate matter of 10 micrometers or less.

If the air is filled with pollutants and particulates that obscure buildings just a few hundred yards away, wouldn’t those pollutants and particulates and CO2 create a layer of insulation that prevents heat from escaping into the atmosphere?

Perhaps we don’t appreciate the problem because we don’t see the dirty air that hovers over Beijing. I saw the pollution in Shanghai, and it was unsettling.

Global warming itself is largely invisible and that’s what makes it insidious. In an op-ed piece recently published in the New York Times, Aatish Taseer hit on this point when writing about pollution: “Pollution, like poverty, is one of those concepts whose meaning is lost in the abstract; television gives it a concrete reality.”

Let’s dispense with the phrase, “scientific consensus,” and focus on credible scientific findings. Whether or not there is a consensus, the phrase sparks emotion and gets us nowhere and, because of it, the debate over global warming is overshadowed by argument about whether there’s consensus as to its cause.

What bothers me about the debate is that those who argue there is no consensus don’t seem to be concerned about whether global warming is caused by man. Part of the problem is human nature. We will avoid acknowledging a threat until we can no longer do so. Why? Because if you acknowledge the problem, you have to take action and make changes. Who wants to do that? It’s easier to just argue whether there’s a consensus.


Jack D’Aurora writes for


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  1. TPG55  August 25, 2015

    The reason scientist cant agree is because they don’t truly know if man has an impact given the other astronomical factors. Below is a website published by the State of Utah that explains weather cycles very well.

  2. Al Yannon  August 25, 2015

    The devil and hell are always depicted as red hot. Maybe our bad morals are taking us closer there and heating us and science has it all wrong. Or maybe our planet is getting closer to the sun.


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