Gran/My Turn: The science/public gap

A recent Global Trends 2014 survey of 20 countries by Ipsos MORI indicates that only 54 percent of Americans agree with the statement that “The climate change we are currently seeing is largely the result of human activity.”

This is the lowest percentage of the 20 countries surveyed, which average 76 percent agreement. Even this average agreement is well below the 97 percent agreement among climate scientists (www.climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consenses). Why is there such a gap between the understanding of climate scientists (the scientific consensus) and the understanding of the U.S. public?

First, what is the “scientific consensus” on global warming? A 2009 letter to the U.S. Senate on climate change from 18 scientific associations states it well. “Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.”

The letter was signed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Meteorological Society, American Society of Agronomy, American Society of Plant Biologists, American Statistical Association, Association of Ecosystem Research Centers, Botanical Society of America, Crop Science Society of America, Ecological Society of America, Natural Science Collections Alliance, Organization of Biological Field Stations, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, Society of Systematic Biologists, Soil Science Society of America, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. In addition, the American Astronomical Society, the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society have endorsed the scientific consensus.

The views in this letter reflect the scientific consensus represented by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The IPCC states: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.” “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human caused) greenhouse gas concentrations.” IPCC defines ‘very likely’ as greater than 90 percent probability of occurrence.”

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, consisting of 13 U.S. government departments and agencies, stated in 2009 “The global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases. Human ‘fingerprints’ also have been identified in many other aspects of the climate system, including changes in ocean heat content, precipitation, atmospheric moisture, and Arctic sea ice.”

Globally, the Academies of Science of 80 countries have endorsed the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming. The following is part of a joint statement of 11 of these international science academies, including the U.S.: “Climate change is real. There will always be uncertainty in understanding a system as complex as the world’s climate. However there is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring. The evidence comes from direct measurements of rising surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures and from phenomena such as increases in average global sea levels, retreating glaciers, and changes to many physical and biological systems. It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities.”

In addition, there are nearly 200 global scientific organizations that endorse the scientific consensus that we are the primary cause of global warming.

All of the above indicate an extraordinary scientific consensus on human caused global warming. Yet we are unconvinced. Why? A major part of the answer is that the fossil fuel industries — particularly coal and oil — have mounted an unprecedented disinformation campaign intended to keep the U.S. public confused and frightened. This disinformation campaign is modeled after similar campaigns to discredit the science linking tobacco and cancer, burning of high sulfur coal and acid rain, use of chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion, all of which were successful — until they weren’t. The American public finally realized we were being had, and we acted!

The same will happen this time! But will it be too late?

William Gran is a Greenfield Community College adjunct instructor on global warming and climate change. He lives in Heath

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