Do 97% of Climate Scientists Really Agree?

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Jul 11, 2016

Is it true that 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real? Where does the 97% figure come from? And if it is true, do they agree on both the severity of and the solution to climate change? New York Times bestselling author Alex Epstein, founder of the Center for Industrial Progress, reveals the origins of the "97%" figure and explains how to think more clearly about climate change.

Do 97% of scientists really agree about the source and threat of climate change? No. The data behind that claim was badly misrepresented.

  • The “97%” claim comes from a meta-analysis of research performed by Dr Richard Cook which blatantly misrepresented data, using faulty methods for determining which scientists agreed that man was the “main cause” of climate change.View Source
  • Scientists who were falsely classified as supporting the claim of human-caused global warming have since spoken out against Dr Cook.View Source
  • Dr Richard Tol, who has published over 122 articles on climate science, had 112 of his papers dismissed from the counts, of which 111 were neutral on the causes of global warming.View Source
  • WATCH: Atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen on “Climate Change: What Do Scientists Say?”View Source

The claim that “97%” of scientists agree climate change is real tells us nothing about the meaning or magnitude of “climate change.”

  • The often cited “97%” claim comes from a meta-analysis of research performed by Dr Richard Cook which used blatantly faulty methods—and has been repeatedly debunked.View Source
  • President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry often claimed that “97% of scientists agree that climate change is real,” and then pivot, falsely, to suggest that this means that their own climate policy is correct or appropriate. This is the “fallacy of equivocation.”View Source
  • The “fallacy of equivocation” results when the same term is used in multiple but different ways.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Myth of Climate Change '97%'” – Wall Street JournalView Source
  • WATCH: Atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen on “Climate Change: What Do Scientists Say?”View Source

Progressives claim there’s scientific “consensus” about climate change. Even if that were true, “consensus” arguments are flawed.

  • Attempting to argue that something is true because there’s a “consensus” among experts is flawed. This is true for climate change. Consensus studies overlook research suggesting that climate change is inconclusive.View Source
  • Fred Singer, who led the early dissent against climate change extremism in the 1990s and against the Kyoto Accords, has estimated that as many as 40% of scientists are skeptical of global warming claims.View Source
  • Related reading: “'97% Of Climate Scientists Agree' Is 100% Wrong” – Alex Epstein, ForbesView Source
  • Related reading: “The Climate Science Isn't Settled” – Richard Lindzen, Wall Street JournalView Source

“97%” of scientists do not agree that climate change is mostly man-made. They also don’t all think it’s a catastrophic threat. 

  • Dr. Richard Cook’s study that first claimed that “97% of climate scientists agree” that climate change is real and mostly caused by man blatantly misrepresented data and has since been debunked.View Source
  • Scientists who were falsely classified as supporting the claim of human-caused global warming have since spoken out against Dr Cook.View Source
  • One study estimates that about 40 percent of scientists are skeptical about claims of “man-made” global warming.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Climate Science Isn't Settled” – Richard Lindzen, Wall Street JournalView Source
  • WATCH: Atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen on “Climate Change: What Do Scientists Say?”View Source

Multiple studies claiming overwhelming “consensus” on climate change have been debunked because they used faulty methodology.

  • Many who promote climate change alarmism cite an overwhelming “consensus” among scientists on the source and threat of the issue. That claim is false, but even if it were true, “consensus” claims often depend on faulty data. For example, a 2003 article published by science historian Naomi Oreskes excluded research by prominent scientists who are skeptical of drastic climate change claims.View Source
  • Research published in Nature also revealed that abstracts of scientific papers, which were used by Oreskes, often contain claims that are not substantiated in the academic papers.View Source
  • The famous claim that “97 percent of climate scientists agree” about the cause of climate change comes from a meta-analysis of research performed by Dr Richard Cook which used blatantly faulty methods and has since been debunked.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Climate Science Isn't Settled” – Richard Lindzen, Wall Street JournalView Source

The left’s use of the debunked claim “97% of climate scientists agree” climate change is man-made is a classic example of equivocation. 

  • The “fallacy of equivocation” results when the same term is used in multiple but different ways.View Source
  • President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry repeatedly claimed that “97% of scientists agree that climate change is real”—which is based on badly misrepresented data—and then pivot, falsely, to suggest that this means that their own climate policy is correct or appropriate. This is the “fallacy of equivocation.”View Source
  • Related reading: “The Myth of Climate Change '97%'” – Wall Street JournalView Source
  • WATCH: Atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen on “Climate Change: What Do Scientists Say?”View Source

“97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real.”

How many times have you heard that statement? Probably hundreds. It may seem like a compelling and scientific argument against fossil fuels, but it’s one of the most illogical, unscientific arguments you can make. To see how, let’s use this form of argument for another controversial product, vaccines.

An anti-vaccine person approaches you and says, “97 percent of doctors say that the side effects of vaccines are real?”

What would you say in response?

You’d probably say, “Yeah but the benefits far outweigh the side effects.”

By saying that “97% of doctors agree that vaccine side effects are real” without mentioning any of the benefits of vaccines, the anti-vaccine activist is trying to get you to look at the potential dangers of vaccines out of context. 

When fossil fuel opponents say “97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real,” they are doing the same. Yes, using fossil fuels for energy has a side effect—increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Okay. But what about the upside? In the case of fossil fuel that upside is enormous: the cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy that makes modern life possible, and at a scale no other energy source can match.

So, how significant is the side effect? This raises another problem with the statement “97% percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is real.” It tells us nothing about the meaning or magnitude of “climate change”—whether it’s a mild, manageable warming or a runaway, catastrophic warming. This is an example of the fallacy of equivocation—using the same term in different, contradictory ways.

If someone were to say “97% of doctors agree that vaccine side effects are real,” what exact “vaccine side effects” do the doctors agree on? That a certain number of babies will get a rash? Or that large percentages will get full-blown autism? Precision is key, right?

But fossil fuel opponents don’t want you to know the precise magnitude of climate change. Because if you did you wouldn’t be scared of climate change, you would be scared of losing the benefits of fossil fuels.

For example, listen to how Secretary of State John Kerry manipulates the “97 percent of scientists” line. “97 percent of climate scientists have confirmed that climate change is happening and that human activity is responsible,” he said in a speech in Indonesia in 2014. Later, in the same speech, he claimed that Scientists agree that, “The world as we know it will change—and it will change dramatically for the worse.” 97 percent of climate scientists never said any such thing.

So what did the 97 percent actually say? It turns out, nothing remotely resembling catastrophic climate change. One of the main studies justifying 97 percent was done by John Cook, a climate communications fellow for the Global Change Institute in Australia. Here’s his own summary of his survey: “Cook et al. (2013) found that over 97 percent [of papers surveyed] endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.”

“Main cause” means “over 50 percent. But the vast majority of papers don’t say that human beings are the main cause of recent warming. In fact, one analysis showed that less than 2 percent of papers actually said that.

How did Cook get to 97 percent, then? First, he added papers that explicitly said there was man-made warming but didn’t say how much. Then, he added papers that didn’t even say there was man-made warming, but he thought it was implied.

A scientific researcher has a sacred obligation to accurately report his findings. Cook and researchers like him have failed us—as have the politicians and media figures who have blindly repeated the 97 percent claim to support their anti-fossil fuel goals.

How can we protect ourselves against this kind of manipulation? Whenever someone tells you that scientists agree on something, ask two questions: “What exactly do they agree on? And, “How did they prove it?”

I’m Alex Epstein, author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, for Prager University.

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