My first bit of culture shock outside the scientific world was brushes with creationists and those who didn’t believe evolution was true. As someone immersed in science, this seemed bizarre to me and to this day I follow the debate over evolution in the classroom. Later, as I became increasingly interested in climate change (a phenomena that has particular impact on my beloved field of ecology), I was stunned. If in American public discourse, discussing evolution in the classroom is like kicking a hornet’s nest, discussing climate change is like jumping into a recently chummed shark tank. This has frustrated me, and I am not alone. The International Panel on Climate Change has reported recently that they are officially certain that climate change is caused by humans.
(From the Summary for Policymakers Released by the IPCC)
The fifth assessment by the IPCC is the first to claim with absolute certainty that climate change is caused by humans. Based on current research, warming to date between now and 1880 is .85 degrees celsius. This has been confirmed through multiple independent data sets. The ocean has been a recent major talking point, and appears to have absorbed 90% of the additional energy over the last 30 years. It is virtually certain that the ocean itself has warmed. The ocean has absorbed roughly 30% of emitted anthropogenic carbon dioxide and thus has been acidifying. It is more than likely that the average global temperature will be over 2 degrees celsius by the end of the century.
(Changes in Temperature in different regions of the planet from the policymaker summary)
As Americans, we value democracy. We mostly believe that democracy can lead us to the best outcomes of any system. For democracy to effectively function, we all know there must be a well-informed electorate to vote. Recently the American Geophysical Union (AGU) put out a two-page report stating explicitly stating that climate change is real and it is caused by humans. The AGU represents approximately 60,000 scientists, and as a professional organization based around studying earth science, would be the best qualified to have an opinion on the topic. This isn’t the first such push from a major scientific institution on this matter.
Looking beyond the usual suspects such as the Union for Concerned Scientists, every single major national academy of science worldwide agrees on this matter. There is not a single dissenter amongst these institutions. Every single major scientific society in fields related to the study of global warming agrees that climate change is happening and it is influenced by humans. While there are occasional dissenters amongst individual scientists (they are very few and very far between), the vast majority of the scientific community — including those who are the most qualified in the world — agree on this point. If anthropogenic climate change was a political candidate in the scientific community, it’d win by margins that would make any other politician drool, with the most well-informed electorate possible to boot.
America has a long history of science influenced policy. The implementation of vaccination requirements has helped to decrease childhood mortality and the spread of dangerous diseases. The clean air and water acts have saved many lives, and billions of dollars. Unfortunately, the U.S. also has a history of industry funded denial. Work by Naomi Oreskes has detailed this occurrence in the book Merchants of Doubt, which should be on the reading list of everyone with a strong interest in this topic. This video sums up the situation quite well. Combined with the effort to spread doubt on the science, is the substantial lobbying efforts by the oil industry which far exceeds any lobbying efforts by environmental groups or the alternative energy sector.
More than that, due to this issue having become partisan in the public’s view (political ideology has had little to no impact in the scientific world on this issue, as there are notable climate scientists throughout the political spectrum who agree on the science) worldview and ideology may play a role as well. Stephan Lewandowsky has investigated the phenomenon of motivated reasoning in science denial — particularly correlations between support for conspiracy theories and climate change denial. Lewandowsky believes based on his research that the overwhelming factor that determined whether or not people rejected climate science is their world view or ideology. In fact, confirmation bias plays a very serious role here. For example, the recent claims regarding Arctic sea ice being a sign that there is no climate change occurring have been relatively inaccurate. In fact, the claim they had recovered by 60% is a complete lie.
(From the summary for policymakers)
Regardless of whether it is motivated reasoning, confusion due to industry funded climate change denial, or any other of a myriad of reasons, there remains a gap in what scientists know and what a substantial size of the American public believes to be true on climate change.
This is unfortunate for everyone involved. The science is clearer now than it has ever been. This information is not simply one side of the story, it is dispatches from the front lines of climate science. This is what the climate science community has to say, and those who disagree with them in the public sphere should have their motives questioned.