The Science of Climate Change Isn’t So Muddy After All

Two interesting studies related to scientific consensus on climate change recently came out. Alone, each has interesting implications. Together, they give some insight into why the causes and effects of climate change are still up for debate in the eyes of the American public.

The first study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers from Stanford and the University of Toronto examined a dataset of 1372 published climate researchers, of which 908 were selected for analysis because they had more than 20 publications. The study then looked at number of publications and number of citations for each scientist to assess expertise and credibility.

Their findings indicate that scientists who believe in the credibility of the evidence are more widely published and cited. Of the top 50 climate researchers ranked by number of publications, only 2% were unconvinced by the evidence of anthropogenic climate change. The numbers were similar for the group as a whole. The study notes:

“…not all climate researchers are equal in scientific credibility and expertise in the climate system. This extensive credibility of the mainstream versus skeptical/contrarian researchers suggests a strong role for considering expert credibility…in future discussion in media, policy, and public forums regarding anthropogenic climate change.” (emphasis added)

The second study was released by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. It looked at the most prominent face of science information on television: news meteorologists. The results stand in stark contrast to the study of climate researchers. Whereas around 2% of climate researchers remain unconvinced by the evidence, 27% of broadcast meteorologists don’t believe in evidence of human-induced climate change.

Why the discrepancy? The main issue is the difference between weather and climate. Weathercasters look at localized, short-term information. They also come from a variety of educational backgrounds whereas climate researchers generally all have PhDs. As a result, as Jim Gandy, a weathercaster in Columbia, South Carolina notes,

“I wish the public knew how difficult it is to have knowledge of climate science. Simply being a meteorologist is not enough, and this is a mistake that some television meteorologists make.” (emphasis added)

Interestingly, two other studies recently done by Stanford and George Mason University show that around 75% of the US public believes in the causes of climate change. While it’s impossible to draw a correlation across studies, it offers an juxtaposition of the beliefs of climate researchers, weathercasters, and the general public.

Together, these studies show in part why the American public remains misinformed about the nature of climate change. First, though weathercasters are a trusted source to explain climate science, they don’t grasp the full complexity of the causes of climate change. With a substantial number of weathercasters skeptical of the evidence of climate change, the full picture gets blurred quickly to the detriment of public knowledge.

Further, the media insists on giving both sides of an issue equal time without discrimination. Unfortunately, this gives a small but vocal minority of skeptical climate scientists the same amount of airtime as researchers with more expertise and credibility on climate change. As a result, the public is further misled about the consensus around human-caused climate change.

Finally, though there’s a striking scientific consensus on the causes of anthropogenic climate change, there is a shocking communication gap between the experts and the public. How is it possible that 98% of the leading climate scientists are convinced by the evidence of causes of climate change while only 75% of the American public are? The only answer is researchers aren’t effectively communicating their findings about climate change.

All these factors contribute to creating an atmosphere where the clear scientific consensus on climate change is being buried. In this atmosphere, a strange paradox has arisen. Usually, policy precedes science. Yet a consensus around the science of climate change has built and no policy action has been taken.

While debate is healthy, the knowledge is there now to take actions to deal with climate change. It’s time to turn down (but not silence) the skeptics and focus on how to put the solid research on the causes and effects of climate change into action. It’s also time for researchers to ramp up their communication skills so that the public fully understands the threat of climate change and why actions need to happen sooner than later.

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