Study: Scientists outside climate change field agree with climate change consensus

September 24, 2015

By Cindie Powell

The Healthy Coastal Ecosystems and Social Science Specialist at Texas A&M University’s Texas Sea Grant College Program led a team that has found that the consensus on human-caused climate change appears to extend beyond climate scientists to the broader scientific community.

While conducting post-doctoral research at Purdue University, Texas Sea Grant’s Dr. Stuart Carlton worked with Dr. Linda Prokopy and Dr. Rebecca Perry-Hill of Purdue University’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and Dr. Matthew Huber of the University of New Hampshire’s Department of Earth Sciences to design and implement a study in 2014 of nearly 700 scientists from all disciplines at Big Ten universities. The responses showed that more than 90 percent believe that average global temperatures are higher than pre-1800s levels and that human activity has significantly contributed to the rise.

While cultural values did not appear to influence scientists as much as previous studies have shown they influence the general public on a variety of issues, including climate change, the survey indicated that "when it comes to climate change, scientists are people, too," Carlton said.

“While our study shows that a large majority of scientists believe in human-caused climate change, it also shows that their beliefs were influenced by the same types of things that influence the beliefs of everyone else: cultural values, political ideologies, and so on,” he said. “Scientific knowledge is only one piece of the complicated climate puzzle — belief in climate change is not just a reflection of knowledge, it is a reflection of how people’s values and identity interact with their knowledge.”

Previous studies have shown that about 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists believe in human-caused climate change, and a review of the scientific literature on the existence of climate change indicated that about 97 percent of studies affirm climate change is happening. However, no direct surveys had assessed whether the general agreement on the impact of human activities on Earth’s climate extended to scientists in other disciplines.

Of 698 respondents, about 94 percent said they believe average global temperatures have “generally risen” compared with pre-1800 levels, and 92 percent said they believe “human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures.”

Nearly 79 percent said they “strongly agree” and about 15 percent “moderately agree” that climate science is credible. About 64 percent said climate science is a mature science compared with their own field, and about 63 percent rated climate science as “about equally trustworthy” compared to their discipline.

While previous studies showed that many of the prominent climate science skeptics were physicists, Carlton said this survey did not show similar evidence. “The proportion of physicists and chemists who believed in climate change was right around average.”

Among the 10 scientific disciplines surveyed, natural resource scientists showed the highest amount of skepticism that global temperatures have risen. Respondents across disciplines had similar response rates with respect to climate science’s credibility, but views on its maturity and trustworthiness compared with their own discipline varied. For example, although they rated climate science as a highly credible discipline, physicists and chemists gave it lower marks in trustworthiness and overall maturity compared with their own fields, which are among the oldest, most established scientific disciplines.

Carlton noted that scientists who believe in climate change were significantly more certain in their beliefs than scientists who did not. Nearly 60 percent of those who believe in climate change said they were “extremely sure” and about 31 percent said they were “very sure” average global temperatures have risen. Respondents who said they believe global temperatures have fallen or remained constant were “significantly less certain” in their beliefs.

The respondents’ certainty in their beliefs on climate change appeared to be linked to the source of their climate information. “Our findings showed that scientists who got more of their climate change information from popular media were slightly less certain in their beliefs in climate change and their belief in human contribution to climate change,” Carlton said. “While there are several potential explanations for this finding, we know that the media have tended to portray climate change as more scientifically controversial than it actually is.”

He said the practice of some media to portray climate change as more controversial among scientists than it actually is could decrease people's certainty in whether climate change is occurring and its potential causes.

“The media probably do this for good reasons: They want to give each side of a story to try to be balanced,” Carlton said. “However, our study shows that there is very little disagreement among climate scientists or other scientists about the existence of climate change or the quality of climate science as a discipline. There are important questions about what we should do about climate change, but those are policy controversies, not science controversies.”

The results of the study, which was funded by the Purdue Climate Change Research Center and the university’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, were published Thursday (Sept. 24, 2015) in Environmental Research Letters and is available at http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/10/9/094025.

Carlton is located at Texas Sea Grant’s offices at Texas A&M University at Galveston, where he is studying climate change beliefs in the Galveston Bay area, a region where recreation and tourism intersect with industry. He also is developing a new research program to examine the human dimensions of climate change, coastal hazards and ecosystem-based management, and has implemented a climate literacy workshop series for use in outreach efforts by Texas Sea Grant and other groups.

 

For additional information, contact:
Dr. Stuart Carlton
Healthy Coastal Ecosystems and Social Science Specialist
Texas Sea Grant College Program
Phone: 409-740-4983
Email: stuartcarlton@tamu.edu

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.