Opinion: Is America Ready to Listen?

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, climate scientists should make their consensus about climate change known to all who care to listen.

By Ashley A. Anderson, Edward W. Maibach, and Anthony Leiserowitz | December 12, 2012

Flickr, jez.atkinson

When scientists communicate with the public, they can make a difference. This is particularly true for scientific issues that have significant societal implications and which have become polarized––such as climate change.

Despite the near-consensus among scientists that the climate is rapidly changing, and that human-generated carbon dioxide is a major cause, a majority of the American public remains largely disengaged. Moreover, among the minority who are actively engaged in the issue—i.e. those people who consider and discuss the problem—approximately half have reached conclusions consistent with climate science, while the other half have reached the opposite conclusion, choosing to believe that climate change is not occurring. Given the importance of managing the risks associated with climate change, there is an urgent need for heightened public engagement so that collectively our communities, states and nation can determine how to respond.

Fundamentally, the American public trusts scientists, with nearly three-quarters of adults in the U.S. reporting that they would take the word of climate scientists more than any other source for information on this issue. However, most can’t name a single living scientist, much less a climate scientist. Without that name recognition and exposure, these researchers are not achieving their potential as public educators. Americans want to be informed by experts about the risks and realities of global warming, so they can make up their own minds about the proper course of action, consistent with their values.

One a major roadblock is that the public remains unconvinced that researchers agree about climate change, which impedes any sense of urgency about the issue. Social science research has shown that four key facts influence Americans’ sense that as individuals, and as a nation, we should be doing more. The first is that climate change is happening; second, that is it’s mostly human-caused; third, that it is harmful to humans as well as nature; and fourth, that the problem is solvable.

However, our research has shown that Americans are more likely to accept these facts when they realize that the large majority of scientists also subscribe to them. (Other groups have shown this to be true among Australians as well.) Alternatively, people who incorrectly believe there is considerable disagreement among scientists are much less likely to accept these four key facts. Furthermore, nearly half of all Americans said they would be more concerned about global warming if 90 percent of climate scientists were to agree and state publicly that global warming is happening. Moreover, a recent paper in Nature Climate Change reveals that, when presented with information about the widespread scientific consensus about climate change, people become more likely to accept the facts about human-induced climate change.

Yet, as of May 2011, only 13 percent of Americans correctly understood that the vast majority of climate scientists have no doubt that global warming is occurring and is caused by human actions. A number of studies have shown the rate of consensus among climate scientists about human-caused climate to be 95 percent or higher. The conclusion is also endorsed by virtually every relevant scientific society in the United States, including the National Academies, the US Global Change Research Program, and the National Climate Assessment.

So, if nearly half of Americans said they would believe in climate change if they thought that 90 percent of researchers agreed it was happening, and we know that nearly 95 percent actually do agree, why are so many Americans still skeptical? The implications of this disconnect are clear: the single most important fact that America’s climate scientists can share with the American people is that they have reached near-unanimous agreement—the climate is changing and human activity is the main cause. News events including extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, create an opportunity for every climate scientist to make this important point during news media interviews, letters to the editor of their local newspaper, and calls to local TV and radio news and talk shows.

We encourage you, your professional societies, and your funding agencies to prioritize the debunking of this myth by creating simple clear messages about the scientific consensus, that get repeated often, by a variety of trusted voices including those of individual climate scientists in communities across America. This is a time-tested method of enhancing public engagement in important societal issues. Debunking the myth that there is a lot of disagreement about climate change among climate scientists can promote greater public engagement in climate science and solutions.

Ashley Anderson and Edward Maibach are at the George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication; Anthony Leiserowitz is at the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

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Avatar of: Dick Gordon

Dick Gordon

Posts: 3

December 12, 2012

Yep, and at least 5% of researchers don't agree:

Financial Post. (2012). Open Climate Letter to UN Secretary-General: Current scientific knowledge does not substantiate Ban Ki-Moon assertions on weather and climate, say 125-plus scientists.  http://opinion.financialpost.com/2012/11/29/open-climate-letter-to-un-secretary-general-current-scientific-knowledge-does-not-substantiate-ban-ki-moon-assertions-on-weather-and-climate-say-125-scientists/

So we are to believe that 5% of scientists believe in myths? The majority of scientists at one time or another believed in the truth of phlogiston, Newtonian mechanics, stones did not fall from the sky, etc. Argument by authority does not wash in science.

Avatar of: kpetrak


Posts: 14

December 12, 2012


The correlation between the Earth temperature and carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere is well known and unquestionable. Over at least the last 650,000 years, temperatures and carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased and decreased in a cyclical pattern, as evidenced for example by the analyses of the Vostok ice core from Antarctica. The past increases in CO2 content were not caused by humans. Global warming can also be caused by natural events that are entirely beyond our control, such as solar activity, volcanic eruptions, etc.  So the question is not "Is global warming happening?" but "Can we do anything about it?" My answer to the second question is: "Not very likely!"

Historically, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere stayed between 200 and 300 ppm. Today it is close to 400 ppm, and still rising. The global annual output of CO2 is currently some 30 MM tonnes, with three geographic areas, China, USA, and the EU contributing more than one half (~7, 5.5, and 4.2 MM, respectively).  The awareness of global warming is not new. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was created to protect and restore the ozone layer. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, more than one hundred international leaders signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Some 20 years on, the “debate” goes on.

There is not much point to complain that the American public is skeptical. I think that I, as a member of this community, have an unquestionable right to be skeptical. Given the historic correlation between CO2 levels and global temperature, what is the evidence? I understand that “…the vast majority of climate scientists have no doubt that global warming is occurring and is caused by human actions”?  Contributing, no doubt, but caused? It is not enough that America’s climate scientists have reached near-unanimous agreement that the climate is changing and human activity is the main cause. In order to convince the public and the elected representatives, lucid arguments supported by data need to be made and effectively communicated. If you cannot explain your arguments to others, is it their fault?  America’s climate scientists should focus on convincing the leaders of the USA, the EU and mainly of China that it is imperative to cut CO2 emission! I would argue further that this is not enough! The scientist should present an evidence-based “blue print” on how much the current trend needs to be reversed to “save the planet”. From what I deduce from the arguments presented by climate scientists, we should reverse the trend of CO2 emission since “cutting back” will still lead to CO2 build up. I really do not see that science has as yet offered a likely effective, plausible solution to global warming.


Avatar of: LV


Posts: 5

December 12, 2012

The consensus was  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change)

that the Earth's climate system is unequivocally warming, and it is more than 90% certain that humans are causing it through activities that increase concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels

So it seens that 10%, not 5% of experts on the panel disagreed in 2007 about  humans causing the warming. Since there was no global warming (which supposed to be irreversible, unstoppable, and accelerating) since 2008,  the "unequivocally" part in the consensus  is also questinable.

Avatar of: rfhirsch


Posts: 1

December 12, 2012

This is an unfortunate column that is inconsistent with the science. Right at the start, the subtitle is wrong. Sandy was NOT a hurricane when it hit the northeastern U.S. coast. It was a post-tropical cyclone, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. Second, the strength of its storm surge had nothing to do with climate change. It was because it made landfall at high tide under a full moon. If it had hit a few hours earlier or later or a few days earlier or later, the impact would have been much less.

The authors are also wrong in claiming that "the climate is rapidly changing". Temperatures have been level worldwide for 15 years.There has been no increase in extreme weather events worldwide. The number of major tornados in the U.S. has not increased for 60 years. Many more severe tropical cyclones and hurricanes were recorded in past centuries; indeed we are now in the longest stretch without a major hurricane hitting the U.S. mainland since records started after the Civil War. Worldwide a peak in major destrucive storms was reached in the decade 1985 to 1995, and the number has been decreasing since then.

And there is no model of climate as yet that explains why it was as warm worldwide during the Medieval Warm Period  and warmer during the Roman and Minoan Warm Periods. Many important factors are not adequately understood, including the roles of solar cycles, cosmic rays, clouds, aerosols, and the oceans.

Stories like this one that seek to scare people with unscientific claims about climate, as was done with Sandy and has been done repeatedly for every unusual weather event, do serious harm to science. The public is right to doubt the validity of claims, such as those made in this column, that are not based on the facts and do not explain the large uncertainties that currently exist in climate science.

Quite frankly the authors of this piece need to learn about climate science before they try to communicate about it.

Avatar of: LV


Posts: 5

December 13, 2012

Actually, the trend in the global surface temperature is negative since 1998 in spite of increase in CO2 emission by humans. There are several explanations why unstoppable global warming stopped.  One is burning too much coal by China. Recall that the  global cooling in 1970s was blamed on burning too much coal by USA.

Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 97

December 14, 2012

Yes! America is ready to listen, but not to act in the right direction.

However, are the scientists ready to listen the new theory about the human soul and his action? (Mitochondrial Adam mtDNA data transmission theory)

This is not mythology! Is the transfer of the body information to the nature trough bio magnetic communication.

Yes! Climate changes, but it changes in accordance with human attitude over the Creation Law.

Yin the female part of the soul, called "living soul" by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.45 or "soul" in Hebrews 4.12, coupled with the body trough Eve mtDNA bio magnetic sensors, is returned in the Creation (see the religious reincarnation concept and also the Legend of Manole and Ana - http://www.rounite.com/2008/06/28/arges-monastery/)

I do not speak now about Yang the paternal part of the soul, called "life-giving spirit" by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15.45 or "spirit" in Hebrews 4.12, which is coupled with the only one Adam mtDNA bio magnetic sensor existed in sternum (xiphoid process) combined with his designated wife Eve mtDNA.

In the past, the individual microbiome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microbiome) was in majority harmonized with the traditional attitude.

However, starting with America foundation, the liberty of individual was a priority.

No problem! The liberty is a sense of the human dignity. "The liberty is the divine part of human." (Petre Tutea, Romanian philosopher, sees also Paul, 1 Corinthians 6.12

"Can we do anything about it?" (kpetrak)

Yes, we can!

We can reoriented our attitude in the divine direction only reactivating our internal bio-GPS called Adam mtDNA bio magnetic sensor trough the true believe, giving the real reference to the brain.

The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the single handed defiance of the world.” (Eric Hoffer, The True Believer)

Avatar of: Cheaptrx


Posts: 47

December 17, 2012

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