Earth Talk:

Do most scientists believe in climate change?

By Roddy Scheer
Most scientists believe climate change is caused by humans.
Most scientists believe climate change is caused by humans.
Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is the “myth of the climate change 97 percent” mentioned by Sen. James Inhofe during recent confirmation hearings for President Donald Trump’s Cabinet post nominations?

                                                                                    -- Rosemary R., Clifton, N.J.


     The so-called “myth of the climate change 97 percent” refers to the argument made by climate skeptics who dispute the notion that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is occurring and is caused by human activities. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, a climate skeptic, referred to this “myth” in recent confirmation hearings for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice for administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Inhofe, who has stated that only God can affect the climate, is one of the most outspoken voices in Congress for turning our backs on the Obama administration’s climate progress.
    No one knows for sure, but the 97 percent figure likely first cropped up in 2013 from a study by Australian researcher John Cook, who surveyed more than 11,000 climate science reports published between 1991 and 2011 in a search for attribution of blame regarding the cause of global warming.
     According to Cook, two-thirds of the reports surveyed by his team at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute made no mention of whether global warming was occurring. But 97.1 percent of the remaining 4,000 reports that did acknowledge the occurrence of climate change "endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.”
    Furthermore, Cook followed up by asking a sample of 1,200 report authors to determine whether their research confirmed that global warming is human-caused, with 97.2 percent of those respondents concurring.
     But critics attacked Cook’s findings almost as soon as they were published. Richard Tol, a Dutch economist at England’s University of Sussex, first publicly articulated doubts about the percentage in 2014, when he claimed his colleagues were too alarmist.
     Tol stated that he believes climate change to be real and likely human-caused but felt that Cook’s research methodology was flawed and that the 97 percent findings were “essentially pulled from thin air [and] not based on any credible research whatsoever." Tol then orchestrated a “re-analysis” of Cook’s data set and concluded that 91 percent of climate scientists think global warming is human-caused.
     Tol, who subsequently joined the advisory board of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a think tank that greens consider the U.K.’s most prominent source of climate change denial, isn’t the only climate skeptic to pile on against the 97 percent claim. In a 2014 Wall Street Journal commentary piece, Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast and former NASA climatologist Roy Spencer claim that the “so-called consensus comes from a handful of surveys and abstract-counting exercises that have been contradicted by more reliable research.”
    But despite this quibbling, it’s clear that the vast majority of climate scientists agree that human activity is behind our current climate woes. Whether 91 percent constitutes consensus is a matter of semantics, and vocal minorities on the topic (like Inhofe) will always speak up to defend their point of view.



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