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The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

When do 97% of people agree on anything, even ice cream? In scientific circles, consensus is a rare trophy, held to famously exacting standards. When a scientific consensus is finally reached — e.g., the Earth orbits the sun; water freezes at 32°F, 0°C; blood is red — a new fact joins the foundations of human discovery.

Under normal circumstances, a 97% consensus of the world’s leading scientists on anything would establish it as fact and compel action if needed. But our circumstances are not normal. Only 12% of Americans realize that that the scientific consensus on climate change is greater than 90%. Even among people who are Alarmed or Concerned about climate change, the consensus is somewhat unknown. Of the Alarmed, 84% understand the scientific consensus on climate change (16% do not); and 73% of the Concerned (27%).

This is a great opportunity for climate communicators.


In 2004, Naomi Oreskes published The Scientific Consensus on Climate Changein which she established the substantive “scientific consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change.” The paper was widely cited, including in the Academy-award winning movie An Inconvenient Truth.

Several years went by. CO2 emissions continued their upward trend.

A team of scientists led by John Cook decided to revisit Oreskes’s findings and provide an update. After examining 21 years of published papers and over 12,000 abstracts, in 2013 Cook et al. published Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. The conclusion: 97% of scientists agree.

Cook’s paper went viral, in the manner of an academic paper with nine authors and twenty-three references; as I write, it has been downloaded 862,789 times. An advertising director named Matt Birdoff, of SJI in New York, proposed a pro-bono social-media campaign: The Consensus Project. “Matt’s website was terrific, and it was helpful in raising awareness of the paper.” Cook says. “An AP journalist wrote about it, and President Obama tweeted a link to the article. I’m thinking, that’s a big deal!”

But then, the 97% Consensus balloon popped.

In the world of climate solutions, which is populated with world-class heroes and also villains, you’re onto something powerful when the trolls come out and the deniers kick in. And so it went for Cook: “’The Lie of the Century!’ read one especially virulent headline. Cook decided to refute the noisy (and unfounded) claims. “I got together six of the other consensus people, my heroes [Oreskes, Ed Maibach, and four others], and we co-authored a rebuttal to say, We agree with each other.” “The Consensus on the Consensus” was published in 2016:

“We examine the available studies and conclude that the finding of 97% consensus in published climate research is robust and consistent with other surveys of climate scientists and peer-reviewed studies.”

The other 2 or 3%? As HBO’s John Oliver says, Who cares? This is a fact, not an opinion! The science is settled. A consensus has been identified, confirmed ¾ and re-confirmed. Danger is upon us. Now the question is what to do about it.

Giants of contemporary communicators have seized on the 97% consensus: John Oliver is one. Jimmy Kimmel (“The planet is going out of business!) is another. David Fenton is a third.

Fenton’s advertising firm has created a quick, brilliant video called The Dentists.

Opening scene: a dentist peers into his patient’s mouth and shakes his head before giving the bad news. Voiceover: “If 97% of dentists told you a tooth couldn’t be saved, you’d pull that tooth.” Cue the dreaded whirring sound of a dentist’s drill.

Next: zoom into two construction engineers in hard hats. “And if 97 percent of all engineers told you your house was unstable, you’d move.” Cut to a nice house crashing to smithereens as the cliff below it crumbles.

Third scene: airline employees advising passengers not to board the plane.

The Dentists did really well,” Fenton told me. “Off the charts.” Pause. “Even with skeptics.” The Dentists was funded by The Partnership for Responsible Growth, a seasoned, bi-partisan group advocating for a price on carbon and focused on Capitol Hill policy-makers.

Like the Consensus Project campaign, The Dentists utilizes best practices of climate communications:

  1. the power of Scientific Consensus to build Social Consensus (source TK) And,
  2. it exemplifies another another potent principle: the effectiveness of the Trusted Messenger.  People like your dentist, a building engineer, or your airline personnel.

Sadly, the ad was aired for only one week, and in only one market (Washington, D.C.).

Ed Maibach is the founding director of the George Mason University Climate Communications Center, a Six Americas collaborator, and a Trusted Messenger expert. His communications mantra: “simple clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources.”  The corollary: “make the behaviors we are promoting easy, fun and popular.”

The Dentists satisfies these requirements. It’s a simple message, repeated in a fun way by three sets of trusted sources. It’s easy to watch, and it’s short. Is it popular? It will be when more people see it! According to Maibach, it will be more effective as it is repeated. Which is exactly what a 30-second spot is designed to do on television. “Message repetition works best when many different messengers repeat the same set of messages, consistently, over time.”

Here’s an idea: Create a partnership with the TV networks, Netflix, Google, HBO, Facebook,, and/or other screen channels. Target the shows and sporting events that the 51% of Concerned and Alarmed people are likely to watch. Schedule The Dentists to air in major markets on a strategic, repetitive schedule, for at least one month and preferably three or until it achieves the desired effect.

How do we pay for this? Let’s figure it out. Maybe the Dentists becomes a PSA endorsed by Oprah Winfrey or Bruce Springsteen. Maybe the CEOs of NBC, CNN, Netflix, Google, HBO, Facebook, and The New York Times decide to offer a discounted rate or other practical arrangement.

The film, so easy, persuasive, and fun, will increase people’s self-confidence about having a climate conversation. It provides an amusing way to communicate their personal alarm or concern about global warming without being preachy or long-winded. It’s convenient and easy to use: simply key it up on your smart phone. Show it to a friend at an opportune moment. Post it on Facebook. Show it to your book club, your dinner companion, the guy sitting next to you on a bus.

In this way, the 51 Percent become Trusted Messengers themselves. Equipped to share a bedrock fact via the clever Fenton interpretation, they may find it much easier to chat about the realities of climate change, and thereby bend the stultifying climate spiral of silence.

Stay tuned.

Sarah Finnie Robinson's picture

Thank Sarah Finnie for the Post!

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Jeff Watts's picture
Jeff Watts on November 29, 2018

"A team of scientists led by John Cook decided to revisit Oreskes’s findings and provide an update. After examining 21 years of published papers and over 12,000 abstracts, in 2013 Cook et al. published Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. The conclusion: 97% of scientists agree."


When are people going to stop repeating this Fake News. If you want to be taken seriously you can't make up facts and then keep repeating it and assume nobody will double check. You certainly shouldn't link to the actual study where someone can see that it's a bogus point.


Directly from the abstract:

"examining 11 944 climate abstracts from 1991–2011 matching the topics ‘global climate change’ or ‘global warming’. We find that 66.4% of abstracts expressed no position on AGW, 32.6% endorsed AGW, 0.7% rejected AGW and 0.3% were uncertain"

Then the paper states this: "Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming"


You'll note that abstracts aren't scientists. Many of the abstracts that supported AGW were written by the same people. And in any case 66.4% of the abstracts expressed no opinion.


Your logo says 97% of climate paper support AGW. That's clearly wrong. And it's been repeated enough that at this point it's just a lie. 

The correct figure is 32.6%.



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