Thursday, August 21, 2014

Humour: Addressing false equivalence in the climate debate

John Oliver's show Last Week Tonight has provided at last an accurate balance on debating the issue of climate change on television. For too long media shows have presented it as a debate between two equal sides - but this is false equivalance.

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that climate change is occurring, impacts are happening now, and we need to rapidly reduce emissions to avoid dangerous climate impacts.

John Cook and colleagues from Skeptical Science reviewed the published literature from 1991 to 2011 on climate change and quantified this that 97 per cent of papers endorsed the consensus that anthropogenic climate change was occurring. The study - Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature - was published in April 2013 in Environmental Research letters. You can read the writeup at Skeptical Science.

The Abstract for the study says:

We analyze the evolution of the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, 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 about the cause of global warming. Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming. In a second phase of this study, we invited authors to rate their own papers. Compared to abstract ratings, a smaller percentage of self-rated papers expressed no position on AGW (35.5%). Among self-rated papers expressing a position on AGW, 97.2% endorsed the consensus. For both abstract ratings and authors' self-ratings, the percentage of endorsements among papers expressing a position on AGW marginally increased over time. Our analysis indicates that the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.

The full study is open access. You can investigate further at the Consensus project website.

As John Oliver states, we shouldn't be even having this debate. Instead we should be reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and rapidly transitioning to renewable energy and more sustainable behavior and lifestyle. There are enough debates in how to transition, and how to adapt to the global warming impacts in the pipeline to keep us busy without being distracted by a false debate.

Images from Skeptical Science