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Scientists to Americans: We're Not Divided on Climate Change

The AAAS hammers the message home that 97 percent of climate scientists agree human-caused climate change is happening.

by Victoria Turk
Mar 18 2014, 12:15pm
Image: What We Know/Vimeo

The largest general scientific organisation in the US—and the world—usually stays out of policy debate, but there’s one issue they’ve decided they just can’t stay quiet on any more. Yup, it’s that overwhelmingly evident yet somehow still controversial scientific observation: human-caused climate change is a thing.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today launched a campaign with the aim of effectively shaking Americans awake to the reality that climate change exists, and that the country needs to act swiftly to avoid potential disaster in the not-so-distant future. Ahead of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next week, they’ve published a report, released a bunch of videos from climate experts, and kicked off outreach efforts under the title “What We Know,” to shout the message as loud as they can.

The main problem they highlight is not so much the scientific evidence for climate change—that’s been discussed enough and it still hasn’t convinced a lot of the population—but to set the record straight on one enduring misconception: that scientists are divided on climate change.

Video: What We Know/Vimeo

The report points to a 2013 Yale paper that found around a third of Americans thought that “there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about global warming.” Twenty percent said they didn’t know enough to say, and only 42 percent knew that “most scientists think global warming is happening.” The truth, the AAAS repeatedly states in its campaign, is that 97 percent of climate experts agree that climate change is happening.

“Based on well-established evidence, about 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening,” they state unequivocally. “This agreement is documented not just by a single study, but by a converging stream of evidence over the past two decades from surveys of scientists, content analyses of peer-reviewed studies, and public statements issued by virtually every membership organisation of experts in this field.”

Yet according to one recent survey, an unparalleled 23 percent of the general public still doesn’t get it.

Correcting the erroneous belief that the fundamental idea of human-caused climate change is under question is the key tenet of the campaign, which encourages people to spread the message by social media. They don’t go into why people might be so misinformed, but just want to set the record straight. The point is to move beyond a debate that barely exists in the first place, and focus on dealing with the reality. Above all, that means putting policies in place to reduce emissions.

Video: What We Know/Vimeo

That’s of course why the AAAS is targeting the public. It’s not enough for just experts in the field to know the reality of climate change, because any large-scale action would inevitably involve a lot of funding and a lot of politics. Until addressing climate change becomes a popular premise with voters, there’s a limit to what policymakers will be willing to do.

While the AAAS generally stays out of political squabbles, they state that one of their goals is to promote “the responsible use of science in public policy.” Science can be a powerful substance, after all.  

“As scientists, it is not our role to tell people what they should do or must believe about the rising threat of climate change,” they said in their report. “But we consider it to be our responsibility as professionals to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes, and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.”

It’s heartening to see a US body come out and state no-holds-barred that they recognise this global phenomenon, but whether it’ll make any difference seems doubtful; it’s not like there’s been a real lack of information out there for those actually interested in the prevailing scientific opinion. But at least it's one less excuse for deniers to hide behind.