Monday, May 19, 2014

Yes, ~97% of climate scientists are convinced humans are causing climate change

Sadly, there’s still much confusion among the public about climate change and whether we’re the cause of it. However, this isn’t the case among scientists, who now are as certain that humans are responsible for climate change as they are that smoking causes cancer. I thought I'd use this post to highlight several articles which survey the scientific community on the matter of global warming. If you're looking for a more concise and authoritative post, NASA's version is here.

First, here's an article by Naomi Oreskes, which was published in Science, one of the world’s top scientific journals, in 2004:
Policy-makers and the media, particularly in the United States, frequently assert that climate science is highly uncertain. Some have used this as an argument against adopting strong measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, while discussing a major U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report on the risks of climate change, then-EPA administrator Christine Whitman argued, “As [the report] went through review, there was less consensus on the science and conclusions on climate change” (1). Some corporations whose revenues might be adversely affected by controls on carbon dioxide emissions have also alleged major uncertainties in the science (2). Such statements suggest that there might be substantive disagreement in the scientific community about the reality of anthropogenic climate change. This is not the case.
The scientific consensus is clearly expressed in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Created in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Programme, IPCC's purpose is to evaluate the state of climate science as a basis for informed policy action, primarily on the basis of peer-reviewed and published scientific literature (3). In its most recent assessment, IPCC states unequivocally that the consensus of scientific opinion is that Earth's climate is being affected by human activities: “Human activities … are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy. … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations” [p. 21 in (4)].
IPCC is not alone in its conclusions. In recent years, all major scientific bodies in the United States whose members' expertise bears directly on the matter have issued similar statements. For example, the National Academy of Sciences report, Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, begins: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise” [p. 1 in (5)]. The report explicitly asks whether the IPCC assessment is a fair summary of professional scientific thinking, and answers yes: “The IPCC's conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue” [p. 3 in (5)].
Others agree. The American Meteorological Society (6), the American Geophysical Union (7), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) all have issued statements in recent years concluding that the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling (8).
The drafting of such reports and statements involves many opportunities for comment, criticism, and revision, and it is not likely that they would diverge greatly from the opinions of the societies' members. Nevertheless, they might downplay legitimate dissenting opinions. That hypothesis was tested by analyzing 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003, and listed in the ISI database with the keywords “climate change” (9).
The 928 papers were divided into six categories: explicit endorsement of the consensus position, evaluation of impacts, mitigation proposals, methods, paleoclimate analysis, and rejection of the consensus position. Of all the papers, 75% fell into the first three categories, either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.
Admittedly, authors evaluating impacts, developing methods, or studying paleoclimatic change might believe that current climate change is natural. However, none of these papers argued that point.
Peter Doran and Maggie Zimmerman also surveyed that state of climate science and published an article in EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, in 2009. This article invited 10,257 earth scientists to participate in a survey that was composed of the following questions:
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
The authors received 3,146 responses, and found the following:
Results show that overall, 90% of participants answered “risen” to question 1 and 82% answered yes to question 2. In general, as the level of active research and specialization in climate science increases, so does agreement with the two primary questions (Figure 1). In our survey, the most specialized and knowledgeable respondents (with regard to climate change) are those who listed climate science as their area of expertise and who also have published more than 50% of their recent peer-reviewed papers on the subject of climate change (79 individuals in total). Of these specialists, 96.2% (76 of 79) answered “risen” to question 1 and 97.4% (75 of 77) answered yes to question 2.
William Anderegg and colleagues, similarly surveyed the science of climate change, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2010. Here’s the abstract:
Although preliminary estimates from published literature and expert surveys suggest striking agreement among climate scientists on the tenets of anthropogenic climate change (ACC), the American public expresses substantial doubt about both the anthropogenic cause and the level of scientific agreement underpinning ACC. A broad analysis of the climate scientist community itself, the distribution of credibility of dissenting researchers relative to agreeing researchers, and the level of agreement among top climate experts has not been conducted and would inform future ACC discussions. Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.
Finally, John Cook and colleagues published a paper in 2013 in Environmental Research Letters (ERL). Here’s the abstract:
We analyze the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. In a second phase of this study, we invited authors to rate their own papers. Compared to abstract ratings, a smaller percentage of self-rated papers expressed no position on AGW (35.5%). Among self-rated papers expressing a position on AGW, 97.2% endorsed the consensus. For both abstract ratings and authors’ self-ratings, the percentage of endorsements among papers expressing a position on AGW marginally increased over time. Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.
While we probably can't know precisely what percentage of climate scientists believe humans are to blame for climate change, the 97% number looks reliable, as it's been confirmed by three independent studies. And certainly a consensus among scientists does not mean that the research related to climate change should stop. Far from it. But when ~97% of scientists are convinced of something, perhaps the rest of us should listen?

Note: in 2013 a group of prominent skeptics managed to get a paper published which claims to refute the 97% number found by Cook et al. 2013 (mentioned above). This paper, Legates et al. 2013, instead finds that 0.3% of climate scientists are convinced that humans are warming the planet. While anyone who's spent time around climate scientists knows the 0.3% number is absurd (and should probably just be ignored), a commenter from here best explains how Legates et al. went wrong:
The Cook et al paper rates agreement on a scale going from "explicit AGW greater than 50%"to "explicit AGW less than 50%" of the cause of recent warming. The Legates et al nonsense appears to be derived almost entirely from Monckton's claims that only the most explicit endorsement counts, and that all other studied papers are part of the numerator - utterly absurd, as the Cook et al paper quite clearly stated that 97% of the papers that expressed an opinion agreed with the consensus. And their data supports that conclusion. I would consider that a deliberate misinterpretation of the Cook et al study parameters on Legates et al's part.
For those who want to examine the Cook et al. 2013 data (and get a sense of typical climate research abstracts for themselves), it's right here.

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