Scientific Consensus is Not an Effective Argument for Climate Action

By Uday Kumar

The U.S. Supreme Court has been doing the Arab tango with the EPA’s plan for reining in emissions, a big piece of the American pie offered to the world at the climate summit in Paris. Australia just shredded its climate research effort. And the WTO smacked India on its head for expressing interest in deploying indigenous resources to massively expand its solar program.

Fresh off the much-heralded COP21 jamboree where earnest-eyed world leaders promised to kill the climate change beast, it appears that political realities point to much dithering and do-si-doing about acting on promises made. How many times do people need to be reminded that 97 percent of climate scientists believe in human-caused climate change? Seems like nobody is impressed with that scientific consensus argument. Personally, I am just a little tired of that 97 percent factoid.

“Scientific consensus” is not a convincing argument for getting people to be serious about climate change and the need for action. First, claiming 97 percent of scientists “believe” in human-caused climate change makes climate change a “belief” thing, which then makes opposing beliefs seem like valid counter-arguments. Measured changes in global temperatures are not something one believes in, like the tooth fairy or the Yeti. You can or cannot believe in the Yeti, but there is no such thing as not believing in aerodynamics or genetics or atmospheric chemistry or hats.

The consensus argument also makes scientists seem like people who live in communes on remote mountaintops, descending on occasion as a rag-tag, white-coated army to announce whatever it is they have a consensus on, only to retreat swiftly to their Greek-symbol filled blackboards like annoying cuckoos emerging out of clocks to announce that it is late and everyone should go back home from the fossil-fuel party. Who wants to hear that? Gas prices are abysmally low; the U.S. is the world leader in oilSUVs are back; the economy is ambling along. For most people, climate change is far away and lumbering and about as threatening as a herd of bulls in Pamplona.

Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. But there is not a trace of doubt in my mind that human activity has damaged the climate and indeed other vital Earth systems in unprecedented and potentially dangerous ways. But whether as an educator and energy researcher I am talking to people in remote tribal villages in India, or to the environmentally-active 100 Grannies in Iowa, or to students in Hong Kong, creating the fear of climate Armageddon or citing the authority of “scientists” seldom leaves them energized. The responses at the end of my “climate change is here, let’s do something” sermon are: “We are all doomed, aren’t we?” or “What can we do, it’s the government’s fault” or “But I read on this blog that a lot of scientists don’t believe in climate change” or most often “How am I going to solve this big a problem?”

Trying to stir the public into engaging on the climate fight at the urging of 97 percent or whatever other proportion of remote, unfamiliar authorities is neither an effective tactic nor a strategy.

For folks not directly involved in science or the way the construction of scientific ideas work, it is not clear how scientists arrive at such consensuses. Do they meet up at their esoteric conferences and vote on stuff that becomes consensus? What role does peer pressure, funding pressure, publish-or-perish pressure play in this consensus-building process? Can the layperson, completely unfamiliar with the practice and technique of science, be blamed for being thoroughly befuddled by these reasonable questions?

Consensus is a poorly defined term. How long should consensuses last before they gain gravitas? The climate change consensus is barely decades old. It is not difficult for “regular folks” (who may believe that billionaire politicians are one of them, thus revealing an extraordinary talent for cognitive dissonance) to attack scientific consensus as fallible. It doesn’t take genius to hold up the counter-example of the putative centuries-old consensus on the totally incorrect Ptolemaic universe to impugn consensus of such short time spans. And what of those remaining 3 percent of non-believing scientists? Can they not be cast as the Galileos of our times, battling courageously against group-think?

It is a huge challenge for the beleaguered, often misrepresented and politically maneuvered climate scientist to find an effective way to communicate the climate problem and its urgency without coming off as a crazed Jeremiah. Taking refuge in the consensus (97 percent) is clearly not working. What to do? Attacking the windmills of public “opinion” (or even worse “belief”) with quixotic persistence is too much work for little gain. It seems to me that the most effective way is to jettison our lances and paint pictures instead. Not of an uncertain, hostile, dark future, with images of wild hurricanes, crippling drought, devouring seas and nary a polar bear.

Let’s talk more about what we will accomplish; a world of abundance that will at once be clean, healthy, safe, just, good to the Earth and everything living on it. And by ridding ourselves of our reliance on fossil fuels to fight climate change in this century we are building a collective Ark, powered by the sun and the wind, and yes, some waves too, that will be a vast improvement on the messy, greasy, grimy, bloody, noisy, and leaky ship we are on today. Who would not want to be on board with that? I bet 97 percent of us would.

Image via Skeptical Science under Creative Commons license

Uday Kumar, PhD, is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Iowa. He teaches courses  on Energy and Sustainability at Iowa and in the summer in universities in Hong Kong. He also works with NGOs on issues related to energy use in rural India and Africa.