About that climate change ‘consensus’

You’ve likely heard some variation of the argument that 97 percent of climate scientists agree with alarmists’ doom-and-gloom predictions. Steven Hayward sheds some light on that statistic for the Powerline blog.

TV watchers will recall the familiar advertising trope of yesteryear in which we were told “4 out of 5 dentists [or doctors] recommend” using fluoride toothpaste, aspirin for headaches, or some such. We were always left to wonder whether that fifth doctor was a moron or something, never pausing to consider that the fifth doctor might well recommend the same thing, but emphasize something else first (like flossing perhaps, or Tylenol instead of aspirin because of sensitive stomachs, etc). But Archie Bunker was coming back on the air in 30 seconds, so most of us didn’t follow up on these puzzles.

Likewise we ought to wonder about the favorite cliché of the Climatistas these days—that “97 percent of scientists ‘believe in’ climate change.” As I’ve written before, the only real surprise is that the number isn’t 100 percent. There is virtually no one who thinks the climate hasn’t changed or won’t change in the future, or that there is no human influence on the phenomenon. The leading so-called “skeptics”—like MIT’s Richard Lindzen or Cato’s Patrick Michaels or NASA’s John Christy or Roy Spencer—would be included in the 97 percent figure. I’m guessing the outlying 3 percent are actually just anomalies of an arbitrary classification scheme (more on this in a moment) that serve the same point as a magician’s misdirection—to get you to buy an illusion. In this case, the illusion is that the scientific community is nearly unanimous in thinking we’re on the brink of catastrophe unless we hand our car keys over to Al Gore.

No one can possibly keep up with the flood of scientific articles published on climate-related topics these days (we’re spending way too much on climate research right now, but that’s a topic for another day), so it is ridiculous to offer sweeping generalizations like this about the character of the scientific literature. I keep up with a fair amount of it in Nature, Science, and a couple of the other main journals, and what is quite obvious is that most climate-related articles are about specific aspects of climate, such as observed changes in localized ecosystems, measurement refinements (like ocean temperatures, etc), energy use and projections, and large data analysis. Many of these articles do not take a position on the magnitude of possible future warming, and fewer still embrace giving the car keys over to Al Gore. Only a handful deal with modeling of future climate change, and this is where the debate over climate sensitivity and the severe limitations of the models (especially as relates to clouds) is quite lively and—dare I say it—unsettled.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

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