The end of the climate "consensus"?

Joseph Romm of the Climate Progress blog makes a case this week in Salon for the retirement of the term "consensus" when it comes to discussion the science of the imminent climate crisis. It's an Interesting proposition, and although I suspect it's ultimately doomed to fail, worth examining.

Romm's central thesis is wrapped up in the observation that the official reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seriously underestimate the severity of climate change. This is not a particularly new or even remarkable idea. The IPCC cut off submissions of science for consideration in the spring of 2006, in order to give its reviewers time to do their job thoroughly. Since then, however, a fair bit of new science points to much more dramatic changes in store than the IPCC "consensus" would suggest. Sea level rise, for one, may be underestimated by a factor of 5 of even 10 in the IPCC projections.

More importantly, though, says Romm, the term "consensus" implies to a majority opinion to most lay people, not unanimity. And because the IPCC consensus represents a watered-down agreement on out of date science, it's actually a minority opinion. So, he says, let's ditch "consensus," although he doesn't suggest any alternative phraseology.

Romm's points are well taken and his essay is well worth the time, regardless. It seems to me, however, that he's placing too much emphasis on the disconnect between the IPCC reports and the current understanding of climatology. Yes, the IPCC consensus is not particularly useful to those hoping to draw attention to the actual severity of the problem, but it's still useful in drawing attention to the existence of a consensus, which is very real.

Here's a couple of quotes from respected folks who have embraced the idea of a climate consensus;

Consensus as strong as the one that has developed around this topic is rare in science. -- Donald Kennedy, Editor, Science magazine.

There's a better scientific consensus on this than on any issue I know, except maybe Newton's second law of dynamics. -- James Baker, NOAA administrator

The consensus to which each is referring is the causal relationship between observed warming of the Earth and rising fossil-fuel emissions. Anthropogenic global warming, in other words.

The incontrovertible and annoying reality is that there are still plenty of otherwise intelligent people out there who refuse to accept even that much, let alone the specifics of the seriousness of the situation.

I wrote a rebuttal essay to a column in a local newspaper a couple of weeks back for this very reason. The author of the column continued to parrot the nonsensical notion that climate change is either not real, or not our fault. I drew on four facts that most if not all climatologists would consider integral to the "consensus."

First, our atmosphere and oceans have been warming at an unusual rate since about 1850, when we started burning fossil fuels in large quantities. We know this thanks to analyses of air bubbles trapped in glaciers and ice sheets for as long as 800,000 years, among other lines of evidence.

Second, the concentration of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere has been rising, too. Because each source of carbon has a unique atomic "signature," we know the additional carbon dioxide comes from the burning of coal, oil and gas, not natural biological cycles.

Third, the laws of nature tell us to expect that the world will warm if we add heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. The tendency of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases to do exactly that was worked out more than a hundred years ago,

Fourth, increasingly sophisticated computer models that have successfully "backcasted" global air and ocean temperatures of the past now predict that both will continue to rise in the future.

Maybe Romm is right, and the phrase "consensus on global warming" no longer accurately describes the science, as it's understood by climatologists, in the minds of non-climatologists. But I'm not ready to abandon it just yet.


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There's an ad in today's NYT for an "International Conference on Climate Change" in NYC. It seems to be a contrarian conference with the usual suspects (Benny Peiser, Fred Singer, and a whole bunch more), sponsored by the Heartland, and other, conservative think-tanks.

The conference is called Global Warming: Truth or Swindle?

Quote: "This event proves there is no scientific consensus on the causes or likely consequences of global warming."

Clearly, the irrefutable evidence that global warming is taking place is now being admitted even by the contrarians. However, they dispute the causes (man-made) and consequences (they'll probably say that GW is good for us!)

Does anyone know any more about this and the personalities/organizations involved?

Nice post, and I like the four-point summary.

I work for the British Antarctic Survey, so I come across members of the public criticizing our findings daily. What strikes me is that people like you in this blog are framing it as a scientific debate, and doing that won't get through to this minority.

Their position is more akin to a religious belief, and so you can throw all the logic at it you want and nothing will stick. Any facts that contradict their version will be discarded, and their opponents dismissed as spokesmen for this vast make-believe conspiracy that they believe pervades all of science.

And because the IPCC consensus represents a watered-down agreement on out of date science, it's actually a minority opinion.

I'm just a lay observer here, but from my reading, I had thought that the consensus was that "it's this bad or worse."

In other words, some might argue that it's likely to be a little worse, some that it's likely to be a lot worse, but few would argue that it won't be as severe as the "threshold" represented. ("Some" of course refers to those who are knowledgeable enough to have a worthwhile opinion.)

Or am I misinterpreting what I'm reading?

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 27 Feb 2008 #permalink

I can just imagine what would happen if the term "consensus" were to fade from use. The global-warming deniers would simply start yelling, "See, we told you so. There is no scientific consensus".

James: Thanks, I missed that RC post. Most interesting.

Well, I think "consensus" is good enough. Though, if you press me, I'll probably go for some circumlocution like "best known science as of writing"...

But I thought by now we should be talking about how to stop global warming, instead of quibbling over the exact term to use for the concept. (And denialists sure have a boatload of terms to describe the concept of Doing Nothing... :-| )

I think it's amusing that there are three separate groups (with some overlap, perhaps)calling for the discontinuation of the use of "consensus" to describe this agreement: (1) those who think it's too weak because it implies a majority opinion (to lay people) rather than unanimity; (2) those who think it's too strong because it ignores thousands of scientists whose findings and writings don't confrom to the majority; and (3) those who think "consensus" simply shouldn't be used in science because science cannot be done by consensus, but rather only by method, which is correct even if 99% of the scientists do it wrong.

By cureholder (not verified) on 29 Feb 2008 #permalink

In my town, both deniers and reasonable people have been furiously writing letters to the local paper. Martin's comment about the religion of denial and bi's comment about moving on are both very pertinent here.

I wrote two letters and, I thought, made a lot of pretty undeniable points, as did others. But the old deniers kept repeating the same idiocy, and new ones chimed in. Meanwhile, the paper's editors still think they need to treat the issue with the same kind of balance as election coverage.

My attitude now is to ignore the deniers and hope they don't do too much damage. Few people are paying attention to them anymore anyway.

By Jason Wise (not verified) on 01 Mar 2008 #permalink