The overwhelming majority of climate scientists — some 97 percent — have concluded that humans are the primary cause of climate change, as many studies have shown. And every major nation in the world accepted that scientific conclusion back in 2013.
Yet the public has the impression there is considerable scientific debate on a subject where there isn’t, as polling has found:
The multi-decade disinformation campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry is certainly a key source of their confusion. And that confusion is amplified whenever the media disproportionately favors scientists who reject the basic scientific consensus on climate change. A 2014 study makes clear this false balance remains commonplace.
But there is another more insidious source of confusion for the public, and that’s when the media’s language on climate science is itself ridiculously watered-down.
A good (which is to say bad) example is the Reuters piece on Donald Trump’s dangerous gibberish on the Paris climate agreement, which I deciphered and debunked on Wednesday. One of the paragraphs was widely cited on the internet:
Trump said he did not believe China, the world’s top emitter of the carbon dioxide gas that many scientists believe is contributing to global climate change, would adhere to its pledge under the Paris deal.
Reuters has watered down our scientific understanding with not one, not two, but three different hedges (and other media outlets, like Forbes, also routinely do this).
First, it isn’t merely “many scientists” — it is virtually all of the ones who publish in the field. Second, it isn’t merely something they “believe” — it is something they have proven and confirmed using the scientific method, and then subjected to review by the world’s leading scientists, and then subjected to review by all of the world’s major governments. Third, CO2 does a whole lot more than “contribute” to climate change — it is the primary cause.
The fact is, as I noted at the start, that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists — some 97 percent — have concluded humans are the primary cause of climate change. Indeed it would be difficult to find any legitimate scientist — let alone one that had published on some aspect of climate change — who believed humans are not “contributing” to climate change.
Because it’s 2016, and well-respected media outlets are still getting this wrong, let me very briefly run through our scientific understanding again. Every five or six years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — hundreds of the world’s leading scientists and other experts on climate change — review the state of the scientific literature and summarize their findings for policymakers in a series of reports.
In 2013, the IPCC’s summary of the science — which is notoriously conservative in part because it requires line-by-line approval by every major country in the world — concluded, “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
The IPCC defines “extremely likely” as 95 to 100 percent certainty. That is comparable to the confidence the medical and public health community have that cigarettes are dangerous to your health.
Significantly, the IPCC immediately states:
The best estimate of the human-induced contribution to warming is similar to the observed warming over this period.
That is, the best estimate by scientists is that humans are responsible for all of the warming we have suffered since 1950. Again, every major government in the world signed off on this finding — and yet the public, as well as media and opinion makers, remain equally uninformed about this fact.
The media still needs to do a better job reporting on this purely preventable existential threat to modern civilization.