It’s become one of the more contested numbers in the heavily contested debate over climate change, but for the panel organized at this week’s American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington, the bigger question was, What’s all the fuss about?
The notion that an overwhelming majority of researchers — 97 percent — believe global warming is real has emerged as a major political point of contention, with climate change skeptics insisting the survey vastly overstates the scientific consensus. But the skeptics found few reinforcements on the AGU panel Tuesday.
“Do we still need to do this in 2014? Sometimes things, they need to be said more than once, [but] it’s really horrible that we even have to be having this conversation,” said Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor of history in science, who co-authored a study that posited the 97 percent claim more than 10 years ago.
Ms. Oreskes and Peter Jacobs, a researcher in environmental science at George Mason University, said that while Republicans and Democrats hold staunchly opposing views on climate change, the 97 percent statistic remains a subject up for debate only because Americans aren’t aware of the extent of the consensus within the science community.
“There’s an enormous disconnect between lines of what scientists think and what Americans think the scientists believe,” Mr. Jacobs said. “More than half of Americans don’t know that there is a consensus.”
Skeptics are unlikely to agree that the debate is settled.
Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast and climate scientist Roy Spencer, writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, argued that the research by Ms. Oreskes and others to produce the 97 percent figure amounted to “science fiction.” They wrote:
“The so-called consensus comes from a handful of surveys and exercises in counting abstracts from scientific papers — all of which have been contradicted by more reliable research.”
The assertion that 97 percent of scientists believe that climate change is man-made has been a political flashpoint since it came about more than 20 years ago. Secretary of State John F. Kerry referred to the statistic during a Boston College commencement speech last month, a move that drew criticism from the right. Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, also invoked the 97 percent number after Mr. Obama’s administration unveiled a major new climate-assessment report in May.
Ms. Oreskes said she believes the topic has become “so politically polarized” that we now have to “deal with that reality,” citing the case of former South Carolina GOP Rep. Bob Inglis as an example of how that polarization has affected Republicans who agree with the scientific consensus on climate change.
South Carolina Republicans ousted Mr. Inglis in 2010 in favor of then-district attorney Trey Gowdy. The moderate Mr. Inglis angered his conservative base in part after speaking out about his belief in man-made climate change.
Mr. Jacobs acknowledged that while scientists have been wrong before — citing the lack of consensus over the theory of plate tectonics as an example — he said, “uncertainty has two faces.
“Just because [the climate change consensus] may not turn out to be exactly correct, that doesn’t mean that things are going to be great,” he said. “Things could turn out to be much worse. We could just as well end up on the bottom as on the top.”