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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.

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