A controversial new study that categorizes climate scientists as either “convinced” or “unconvinced” by the basic tenets of manmade global warming generated furious debate in the blogosphere last week, with some calling it a reaffirmation of scientific consensus and others calling it a “blacklist” of scientists in the latter group.
The paper found that 97 to 98 percent of “expert” climate scientists (i.e. those “most actively publishing in the field”) agree with “the primary conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for ‘most’ of the ‘unequivocal’ warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century.” It also found that “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of [anthropogenic global warming] are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”
The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has direct bearing on climate journalism. William Anderegg, the paper’s lead author and a doctoral candidate at Stanford University, told the BBC that his research team “felt that the state of the scientific debate was so far removed from the state of the public discourse and we felt that a good quantitative, rigorous comparison of this would put to rest the notion that the scientists ‘disagree’ about global warming.”
In fact, Anderegg’s study is only the latest effort to remedy this knowledge gap by attempting to quantify the scientific consensus on the fundamentals of climate science, following similar studies in 2009, 2008, and 2004. But to a seemingly greater degree than these earlier efforts, Anderegg et al. implicitly exhort journalists to use their data to exclude “non-experts” from their reporting:
Despite media tendencies to present both sides in [climate] debates, which can contribute to continued public misunderstanding regarding [anthropogenic climate change], not all climate researchers are equal in scientific credibility and expertise in the climate system. This extensive analysis of the mainstream versus skeptical/contrarian researchers suggests a strong role for considering expert credibility in the relative weight of and attention to these groups of researchers in future discussions in media, policy, and public forums regarding anthropogenic climate change.
Many climate campaigners applauded the study for “exposing the lack of credibility and expertise among climate skeptics.” But critics like Roger Pielke, Jr.—a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado who protested his inclusion on a list of climate skeptics drafted by Foreign Policy earlier this year—said the convinced-unconvinced labeling amounted to a “blacklist.”
“By putting scientists into two categories which do not reflect the subtleties of the debate, … this paper simply reinforces the pathological politicization of climate science in policy debate,” Pielke, Jr. told ScienceInsider, the news site of the journal Science:
His father, Roger Pielke Sr., for example, was among the most prominent and cited of the “unconvinced.” But in an e-mail to ScienceInsider, the elder Pielke says that although greenhouse gas emissions are important to consider, so are land-use changes, black carbon and aerosol pollution—a position perhaps more nuanced than the convinced/unconvinced dichotomy the paper postulates.
Regardless of such nuance, influential climate bloggers Joe Romm and Chris Mooney suggest, respectively, that the new study “could theoretically open the eyes of those in the status quo media…” and that “the results mean that journalists who have given a lot of weight to climate ‘skeptics’ have some ’splaining to do. Essentially, this paper seems to be suggesting that they got the wrong ‘experts.’”
Perhaps, but whether or not a journalist has chosen the wrong source depends entirely on which question he or she is trying to answer—be it the credibility of a specific temperature record (like tree-rings) or the modeling of future climate scenarios—and even a few scientists that readily accept the basic tenets of global warming have expressed doubts about the usefulness of Anderegg’s study in this regard.