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The climate misinformation nation

Jayni Foley Hein, former director, Center for Law, Energy & the Environment | May 16, 2012

Scientists are more confident than ever that climate change is happening and is largely caused by human activities.  Yet, according to a recent poll, the American public is less likely to believe that climate change is caused by humans than they were even last year. When it comes to climate science, are we a misinformation nation?

A new report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication finds that since November 2011, public belief that global warming is happening increased by 3 percentage points, to 66 percent overall.  However, public belief that global warming is caused mostly by human activities decreased four percentage points, to 46 percent.

Even more striking:  Since November, there has been a 6 point decrease (to 35%) in the proportion of Americans who believe that most scientists think global warming is happening, with a 2 point increase (to 41%) in those who believe there is substantial disagreement among scientists.

What the science says

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made pronouncements on anthropogenic climate change dating back to 2001 and further strengthened in its Fourth Assessment report.   The IPCC stated in 2007: “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG concentrations.”  This statement is worth far more weight than a single dissenting view; more than 800 scientists and experts from all over the world contribute to the preparation of IPCC reports as authors, contributors, and expert reviewers.

A 2009 survey of 3,146 earth scientists posed the question “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?” (Doran 2009).  The study found that 97.5% of climatologists who actively publish research on climate change responded “yes.”

Clouding the air

Why then does the climate change “debate” continue?  There seem to be a few factors at play: 

  • The intense polarization of our political parties, with environmentalism tagged as a Democratic issue, even when a healthy number of Republicans support clean energy;
  • Mainstream media’s bias towards the debate format, which lends disproportionate air time to climate change deniers.
  • Lack of clear information and reporting on the scientific consensus that climate change is real and that humans are a major contributor.
  • Prioritization of economic issues over environmental issues and the public perception that environmental regulation hurts job growth.
  • In the digital age, easy access to authorship, strong trends towards personalization in media consumption, and instantaneous dissemination of information – whether accurate or not.

These factors – among others – have contributed to our current state: The public is simply not aware of, or not convinced by, the degree of scientific agreement on anthropogenic climate change.  The challenge, therefore, is how to cut through the haze and effectively communicate this scientific consensus.

Show and tell

Perhaps visualizing the weight of scientific opinion on anthropogenic climate change will advance understanding:

This chart summarizes the results of eight different reviews of scientific literature examining anthropogenic climate change. Visualizing information is just one tool at the disposal of scientists and the media alike.  We can all recall the graphs and charts that Al Gore famously pointed to in An Inconvenient Truth.  Tacky?  Maybe.  But he made his point.  Re-visualizing scientific information may prove useful as a way of demonstrating the true weight of scientific opinion.

Regardless of personal opinion, there is a clear need for more information on the current views of scientists, their research methods, and the true level of dissent among scientific experts concerning climate change.

Cross-posted from Legal Planet.

Comments to “The climate misinformation nation

  1. Why are these findings surprising? Americans have an illustrious history of dismissing widely-accepted scientific findings (e.g., age of the Earth, theory of evolution). Much of this behavior is rooted in dogmatic and intransigent religious beliefs. It is not without reason that many enlightened societies in the world find us a scientific laughing stock!

  2. Do your job as a scientist. Forget the PR scat. Don’t worry the politics. Remember Galileo made it thru old age and even published.

  3. More proof that the world’s universities are not producing leaders.

    Our educational, political, economic, social, moral and environmental systems are failing faster than we can repair them.

  4. So, in the 1970’s it was all Nuclear Winter. Now it’s Global Warming. Will you alarmist hanyocks make up your minds. It all sounds like the sky is falling to me.

    • Nuclear winter referred to what would happen if we had a global nuclear war, effectively filling the sky with ash and smoke and blocking out the Sun. It is still a potential problem, but with a lot of discussion and careful reasoning, it has become less of an immediate threat. We have direct control over that problem and we have pictures of nuclear blasts to remind people of the danger.

      Global warming refers to the trapping of energy in our ocean and atmosphere. Since water has such a high heat capacity, our oceans absorb energy constantly without showing an increase in temperature. So a seemingly minor change in air global average air temperature means that the energy that was absorbed in the ocean has now spilled over into the atmosphere. Remember, 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. I think a lot of scientists forget to make that point as we are all under the false impression everyone remembers their high school chemistry.

      Well, the main issue is the acceleration of the warming process by humans and creating a climate that most people, not all, would find difficult to live in and subsequently perish. It is probably too late to do anything about it as an increased world population and demand for energy has made the problem uncontrollable. I believe that the most we can do now is to try minimize the effect, if possible.

  5. Propoganda rules… seems that this simple but always very effective means of effecting public opinion to “believe” is poorly used by the IPCC, Gov’t, Universities, etc. It’s not really about the truth or facts, but about the perception of “truth” and fact.

  6. It amazes me that an article like this can avoid mentioning the major PR efforts of industry to deny global warming the same way industry denied the harms of cigarette smoking, lead, asbestos, mercury, DDT, acid rain and numerous other pollutants. The difference is that all the fossil fuel industries and industries based on them have this common interest in denialism.

    These sorts of well-funded PR strategies have been documented for many years now.

  7. You make some great observations the best of which IMO is regarding dissemination of information. There are just too many resources available for direct scientific information that refutes the consensus portrayed in the medai. For people like me who have a science background and who have taken advantage of access to near-realtime data from oceans and satellite, there is direct knowledge, unfiltered and uncontaminated, of a growing disconnect between the physics used for Earths radiation budget and the measured data. I speak to physicists and climatologists and at the moment there is no satisfactory explanation for the disconnect. In fact the problem has just been made more evident by the most comprehensive data collection of ocean heat content which was just released in a peer reviewed study this week by Levitus etal. Heat accumulation in the oceans is occurring at a pace that is far less than the physics model of Earth’s radiation budget. There are millions like me who understand the physics, maths, statistics, etc., and download climate data for ourselves to verify the physics and projections. There is no way to prevent knowledgeable people from discussing and disseminating the problematic aspects of the current climate science.

    The other dissemination issue is the growing number of scientific people stepping back from their previous alarmist approach to the climate issue, most recently James Lovelock, who is one of the most influencial people in the environmental movement. His admission of exaggerating the dangers will most certainly reduce the fear level of many people who he originally put fear into.

    Lastly you would be interested to know that when I reviewed the survey that you cite for the 97% consensus, I too would fall into the 97% category. Surveys often are not flexible nor do they allow for further drill down of scientific nuances. There are other surveys one for example designed by climate scientists that do dig deeper into aspects such as the scientists view of the size of the human fingerprint, attribution and the degree of impact, and this is where consensus ends. In the end those with a scientific background are swayed by data and not survey results.

    In the short term, 10 to 50 years, we will have the technology to:

    1) stop the warming of the planet in a very inexpensive manner if we need to.
    2) produce unlimited cheap energy cleanly (Moore’s Law). I am already aware of some brilliant PHD guys working on this.

    There is really no reason for alarm from a scientific standpoint and I feel that the alarmism being created in social media is based purely on politically driven ideology.

  8. Commentaries like this one miss the principal underlying cause of the misinformation. Acceptance of anthropogenic climate change would place key aspects of industrial policy in the hands of elected representatives of the people. If you were a S&P 500 CEO / Board Chairman, would you want ordinary people who don’t understand climate models or, say, the heat absorption characteristics of a nitrogen atmosphere with increasing levels of CO2 electing those who make industrial policy? BTW, the same holds true for financial services policy and the electorate who don’t have ‘knowledge of money’, etc. The well funded campaign against government climate policy is exquisitely tuned for maximum emothional appeal to commonly held beliefs about ‘big government’, the rights of people to maximize their material well-being and belief that more technology will always be available to fix any problem. Rational arguments like Hein’s have virtually no public impact.


  9. The public sees the obvious. Climate science is a crippled appendage of the scientific profession. It is riddled with sloppy thinking, sloppy data, sloppy review, politicized research, propagandizing, and a misinformed media wagonload of ad hominem fallacies.

    The public needs and wants to be able to have a high level of trust in science. It obviously has withdrawn respect for climate science. A similar problem has occurred in FDA pharmaceutical science. For some reason, the general profession of science has a hard time mustering the will to make the self-policing reforms necessary to correct the problem.

    That leaves the public with two choices. Either (1) simply continue to hold the findings of climate science in low esteem, or (2) impose politically evolved government standards and reporting requirements. The latter alternative adds to an existing disturbing trend that threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Therefore, as long as it can the public will continue to simply hold climate science in low regard, hoping the profession will eventually fix itself.

    You gotta have faith …

  10. You can’t possibly be serious. If I were trying to convince an audience, any audience, that the theory of AGW is worth consideration, replaying anything that the discredited IPCC has published would be a poor start. It’s likely that a good portion of the growing numbers of us deniers have in fact explored the issue thoroughly and thru the plethora of very convincing climate denier blogs have concluded that the science is anything but settled. Regurgitating IPCC pap just doesn’t cut it any more.

    One example: Donna LaFramboise has published a short book which details the very sorry state of affairs within the IPCC. It sounds like the Mafia. Now Donna may have it all wrong but I haven’t seen any rebuttal from the IPCC, Real Climate or any other of the alarmist blogs. That is troubling. Could it be that Donna has nailed it? Read it yourself and you may just want to reconsider what you’ve written.

    • Randizzle sounds like one of the people who sometimes finds their way into LeConte and starts telling everyone about how Einstein was wrong.

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