THE SCIENCE IS SETTLED

The world’s top scientists agree that climate change is real, happening now, caused by human activity.

However, only 20% of Americans understand that this consensus exists. Even among the concerned and alarmed, the 97% consensus is grossly underestimated: 73% of concerned Americans realize the scientific consensus, and only 84% of the “alarmed.”

This lack of awareness, even among those who are worried about global warming, helps to explain the lack of urgent, unilateral, organized progress to address global warming.

Why is the consensus hidden? Nefarious obfuscation explains a lot, but here’s another reason that’s more easily solved: People aren’t aware of the scientific consensus on climate change because they simply have not heard about it yet. When they do, enthusiasm for policy and other solutions is likely to follow.

Expert climate researchers say the consensus awareness gap is a great opportunity for communicators, because reasonable people learn to respect an expert consensus. (Read an excellent précis on the value of concensus here.) Effectively delivered to people who are already concerned about global warming, this gem can activate them.

Climate communications authority Dr. Ed Maibach has a mantra: “Simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.” He has found that a simple sentence like this one can do the trick:

"Based on the evidence, 97% of climate scientists have concluded human-caused global warming is happening."

If you’re asked about the other 2 or 3%, as HBO’s John Oliver says, Who cares? This is a fact, not an opinion! Or, point out that the dissenters have been summarily debunked.*

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“In sum, even many people who understand climate change as the serious threat that it is currently misperceive the extent of the scientific consensus by a large margin. However, this presents an opportunity for climate change communicators – because existing pro-climate beliefs and attitudes can likely be strengthened and solidified with simple messages about the scientific consensus.”

Abel Gustafson & Matthew Goldberg, YPCCC CLIMATE NOTE · Oct 18, 2018

Interestingly, the Maibach et al research indicates that the consensus can also be effective for people who have been disengaged or even dismissive of climate change, and regardless of political beliefs:

“Perceived scientific consensus predicts changes in private attitudes and demand for climate action, especially among conservatives.” Their work develops the Gateway Belief Model to demonstrate “that improving people’s estimates of the scientific consensus can have cascading effects on their beliefs that climate change is happening and human caused, which then increases their sense of worry, and in turn increases their support for climate policy.”


Examples of consensus messaging:

Giants of contemporary communications with millions of viewers have seized on the 97% consensus: John Oliver is one. Jimmy Kimmel (“The planet is going out of business!) is another.

David Fenton’s advertising firm has created a 30-second video called The Dentists that has worked in Beltway audiences.

* Debunked:

Benestad, R. E., Nuccitelli, D., Lewandowsky, S., Hayhoe, K., Hygen, H. O., van Dorland, R., & Cook, J. (2015). Learning from mistakes in climate researchTheoretical and Applied Climatology, 1-5.

Abraham, J. P., Cook, J., Fasullo, J. T., Jacobs, P. H., Mandia, S. A. & Nuccitelli, D. A. (2014). Review of the Consensus and Asymmetric Quality of Research on Human-Induced Climate ChangeCosmopolis2014-1, 3-18.

Sarah Finnie Robinson