Menus Subscribe Search

Scientists, Public Drift Apart on Climate Change

• January 23, 2009 • 7:49 PM

 

A new study finds a strong scientific consensus that climate change is real and human activity is at least partly to blame, even as a survey reports the public is becoming more skeptical on both points.

The two documents suggest President Obama was right to speak of the dangers of global warming in his inaugural address, but he and his administration have a serious sales job ahead of them to convince the public to take action. That effort commences on Wednesday, when former Vice President Al Gore, who has been studying and discussing climate change since the 1980s, will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The survey of earth scientists, just published in the American Geophysical Union journal Eos Transactions, was conducted by Peter Doran, an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Late last year, he sent an e-mail to 10,257 geoscientists and received 3,146 responses.

The two key questions he asked was: “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen or remained relatively constant?” and “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

The results were overwhelming: 90 percent of respondents expressed the view temperatures have risen, and 82 percent said human activity is indeed a significant factor in the phenomenon.

Of climate specialists — who made up 5 percent of the survey — the consensus was nearly unanimous, with more than 97 percent answering yes to the second question.

The earth scientists surveyed had a wide variety of specialties, ranging from geochemistry to oceanography. Of those subgroups, petroleum geologists were the most skeptical of global warming, with 47 percent asserting human activity is a significant factor. Meteorologists — some of whom come into contact with the public on a daily basis, via TV weather reports —were also relatively skeptical, with 64 percent agreeing that humans are at least partially to blame.

They are far ahead of the public, however, according to a Rasmussen Reports public opinion survey released Jan. 19. It found that while 64 percent of American voters consider climate change a serious problem, they are split over its cause. Forty-four percent blame “long-term planetary trends” while only 41 percent attribute the problem to human activity.

Even more problematic, skepticism of the scientists’ findings seems to be growing. In a July 2006 survey, 46 percent of voters said global warming is caused primarily by human activities, while 35 percent reported it is due to long-term planetary trends.

This suggests that the attempt on the part of some industries to place doubt in the public’s mind about climate change is having an effect, particularly with Republicans. Rasmussen reports that among GOP voters, 67 percent blame long-term planetary trends for climate change. In contrast, 59 percent of Democrats cite human activity.

Doran concludes his survey of scientists by noting that “the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes. The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.