Most scientists agree that current climate change is mainly caused by human activity. That has been repeatedly demonstrated on the basis of surveys of the scientific opinion as well as surveys of the scientific literature. In an article published today in the journal Environmental Research Letters (ERL) we provide a review of these different studies, which all arrive at a very similar conclusion using different methods. This shows the robustness of the scientific consensus on climate change.
This meta-study also shows that the level of agreement that the current warming is caused by human activity is greatest among researchers with the most expertise and/or the most publications in climate science. That explains why literature surveys generally find higher levels of consensus than opinion surveys. After all, experienced scientists who have published a lot about climate change have, generally speaking, a good understanding of the anthropogenic causes of global warming, and they often have more peer-reviewed publications than their contrarian colleagues.
Figure: Level of consensus on human-induced climate change versus expertise in climate science. Black circles are data based on studies of the past 10 years. Green line is a fit through the data.
The initial reason for this review article was a specific comment by Richard Tol on John Cook’s literature survey as published in ERL in 2013. Cook found a 97% consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature on climate change. This article has both been vilified and praised. Tol argued that Cook’s study is an outlier, but he did so by misrepresenting most other consensus studies, including the survey I undertook while at the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL). To get a gist of the discussion with Tol see e.g. this storify I made based on my twitter exchanges with him (warning: for climate nerds only). Suffice to say the authors of these other consensus studies were likewise not impressed by Tol’s caricature of their work. This is how the broad author team for the current meta-analysis arose, which shows that Cook’s literature survey fits well within the spectrum of other studies.
The video below provides a great overview of the context and conclusions of this study:
Surveys show that among the broad group of scientists who work on the topic of climate change the level of consensus is roughly between 83 and 97% (e.g. Doran, Anderegg, Verheggen, Rosenberg, Carlton, Bray, Stenhouse, Pew, Lichter, Vision Prize). If you zoom in on the subset of most actively publishing climate scientists you find a consensus of 97% (Doran, Anderegg). Analyses of the literature also indicate a level of consensus of 97% (Cook) or even 100% (Oreskes). The strength of literature surveys lies in the fact that they sample the prime locus of scientific evidence and thus they provide the most direct measure of the consilience of evidence. On the other hand, opinion surveys can achieve much more specificity about what exactly is agreed upon. The latter aspect – what exactly is agreed upon and how does that compare to the IPCC report- is something we investigated in detail in our ES&T article based on the PBL survey.
As evidenced by the many –unfounded- criticisms on consensus studies, this is still a hot topic in the public debate, despite the fact that study after study has confirmed that there is broad agreement among scientists about the big picture: our planet is getting warmer and that is (largely) due to human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. A substantial fraction of the general public however is still confused even about the big picture. In politics, schools and media climate change is often not communicated in accordance with the current scientific understanding, even though the situation here in the Netherlands is not as extreme as e.g. in the US.
Whereas the presence of widespread agreement is obviously not proof of a theory being correct, it can’t be dismissed as irrelevant either: As the evidence accumulates and keeps pointing in the same general direction, the experts’ opinion will logically converge to reflect that, i.e. a consensus emerges. Typically, a theory either rises to the level of consensus or it is abandoned, though it may take considerable time for the scientific community to accept a theory, and even longer for the public at large.
Although science can never provide absolute certainty, it is the best method we have to understand complex systems and risks, such as climate change. If you value science it is wise not to brush aside broadly accepted scientific insights too easily, lest you have very good arguments for doing so (“extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”). I think it is important for proper democratic decision making that the public is well informed about what is scientifically known about important issues such as climate change.