The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change

by Sarah Finnie Robinson

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.

Background:

In 2004, Naomi Oreskes published The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, in 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  and re-confirmed. Danger is upon us. Now the question is what to do about it.

Giants of contemporary communications 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, nytimes.com, 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.

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Sarah Finnie Robinson is an investor in large-scale climate solutions and founding partner of WeSpire, a Boston tech firm that powers sustainability programs at F500 corporations. She is active on the Climate Task Force for Boston Harbor Now. She serves as a judge for MIT’s Climate CoLab “Shifting Behaviors & Attitudes” track; advises the Metcalf Institute for Environmental Reporting at the University of Rhode Island; and supports Ceres and the Environmental Defense Fund. She is a Climate Reality Leader and mentor, and she advises Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Robinson also serves on the board of the Princeton78 Foundation, whose endowment fuels undergraduate service projects in the United States and around the world. She holds a B.A. from Princeton, an M.A. from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, and she graduated with the inaugural class of Seth Godin’s altMBA in 2015.

Robinson began her career at The New Yorker and continued at The Atlantic and at iVillage, where she was the launch content director. She blogs on HuffPost, Medium, and mindbodygreen. Her current project is a curated digital showcase to identify and share standout communications to engage and accelerate broad public support for the global clean-energy transition now underway.

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