The scientific consensus behind man-made global warming is overwhelming: multiple studies have noted a 97 percent consensus among climate scientists that the Earth is warming and human activities are primarily responsible. Scientists are as sure that global warming is real — and driven by human activity — as they are that smoking cigarettes leads to lung cancer.
But what if all of those scientists are wrong? What if the tiny sliver of scientists that don’t believe global warming is happening, or that human activities are causing it — that two to three percent of climate contrarians — are right?
That’s the hypothetical question that a new study, authored by Rasmus Benestad, Dana Nuccitelli, Stephan Lewandowsky, Katharine Hayhoe, Hans Olav Hygen, Rob van Dorland, and John Cook, sought to answer. Published last week in the journal Theoretical and Applied Climatology, the study examined 38 recent examples of contrarian climate research — published research that takes a position on anthropogenic climate change but doesn’t attribute it to human activity — and tried to replicate the results of those studies. The studies weren’t selected randomly — according to lead author Rasmus Benestad, the studies selected were highly visible contrarian studies that had all arrived at a different conclusion than consensus climate studies. The question the researchers wanted to know was — why?
“Our selection suited this purpose as it would be harder to spot flaws in papers following the mainstream ideas. The chance of finding errors among the outliers is higher than from more mainstream papers,” Benestad wrote at RealClimate. “Our hypothesis was that the chosen contrarian paper was valid, and our approach was to try to falsify this hypothesis by repeating the work with a critical eye.”
It didn’t go well for the contrarian studies.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) uses a snowball to disprove global warming. Screenshot: Slate/CSPAN
One of the most significant obstacles to addressing climate change is the fact that huge numbers of US politicians reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet. Why does the situation persist? How can a senator who (literally) holds up a snowball as evidence that global warming is a hoax keep winning re-election? How can someone who declares himself a climate “skeptic” be a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination? As newly released research from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication makes painfully clear, GOP climate deniers actually hold views that are quite similar to those of the voters who elect them.
The Yale research is based on data from more than 13,000 survey responses since 2008. It estimates that nationwide, just 48 percent of people agree with the scientific consensus that global warming is caused “mostly” by humans. While other recent polls have found a somewhat higher percentage who say they believe humans are causing the planet to warm, Yale’s numbers are not a good sign for those—like billionaire activist Tom Steyer—who are trying to turn climate change denial into a disqualifying political position.
Things look even more discouraging when you use the researchers’ snazzy interactive maps to break down the estimates by congressional district. The blue districts on the map below are places where the researchers’ statistical model predicts that fewer than half of respondents believe that humans are primarily responsible for climate change. Yellow/orange districts are places where at least half of respondents accept the scientific consensus. As you can see, there’s an awful lot of blue—according to the data, 58 percent of US congressional districts have majorities that don’t accept the climate science.