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Behind the Climate Change Consensus Numbers

If the debates about climate change between scientists and pundits are essentially useless, what about the debate between scientists? The figure cited by everyone from comedians like John Oliver to the President of the United States,  is that “97 percent of scientists” not only agree with the idea of global warming but that it is most likely man-made. Still, if the opposition to climate change reform is so much rhetoric, what about these statistics?

It’s a definitive number, 97 percent. Yet, one has to wonder: How do they know? Who are the 3 percent against it and why? What about those on the other side who suggest that the 97 percent figure is false?

The 97 percent figure comes from a study of studies published by IOP Publishing (originally the Institute of Physics Publishing) which examined “11,944 climate change abstracts from 1991-2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming.’”

Of those papers, more than half did not take a position on human-caused climate change, and they were excluded from the analysis. Of those that did take a position, only one percent were either uncertain about it or rejected it outright while slightly less than 33 percent of abstracts examined did attribute climate change to humanity.

Thus of the papers that took a position on the issue, 97.1 percent “endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.” This was backed up when 1189 authors self-rated 2142 of their papers, with 97.2 percent endorsing man-made climate change.

Yet what of articles like the one in Forbes that cites another peer-reviewed study from 2012 examining this topic that found the consensus was not so overwhelming? Well, for that we should look at the study originally published in Organization Studies.

Unlike the IOP study, this one relied solely on survey responses of less than 1100 “professional engineers and geoscientists,” and focuses not so much on the consensus about climate change but “the framings of the issue and knowledge claims to position themselves within their organizational and their professional institutions.”

Put another way, they are examining not so much the results of specific scientists’ research, but how they use that research to advance their careers. Something we will examine more detail in the next post.

Yet, even this study acknowledges “there is a broad consensus among climate scientists” and any “drop in endorsement [of man-made climate change] may be a manifestation of taken-for-grantedness…” Essentially, that there are fewer papers being published which directly attribute climate change to humanity, it is not because that fact is in doubt, but because it’s practically a certainty.


Photo by Pascal via Flickr Creative Commons

About the author

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. Along with news and current events, he writes about parenting, art, and personal stories. His serial fiction story "The Prophet Hustle" is available at JukePop.com and a forthcoming independent ebook about the cam-modeling industry "Dirty Little Windows" will be available later this summer.