Recently, Warren Pearce and colleagues published a paper called [b]eyond climate consensus which I wrote about here. There was a response from John Cook, one from Naomi Oreskes, and a Guardian article by multiple authors. Pearce et al. have now published a response to these responses.
So, why am I confused? The first Pearce et al. comment suggested that [q]uantification of consensus within climate science continues to occupy a central role in public discussions of climate change and discussed the focus on consensus messaging. The second Pearce et al. comment, though, says
the data shows a clear majority position among Americans: that climate change is real, important and worrisome, and that the US should take policy action and invest in public education. These positions have been reached in the absence of accurate knowledge about the scientific consensus.
If there has been some kind of undue focus on consensus messaging, then how can one claim that the public position has been reached in its absence? The above, therefore, seems inconsistent with what was suggested in the first Pearce et al. comment. On the other hand, maybe the word accurate in the above quote has some significance, but that still doesn’t make much sense. You can’t really imply something about the accuracy of consensus study without some kind of evidence to support that suggestion, and I’m not quite sure how the public would know if the estimates of the scientific consensus were accurate, or not.
So, it seems that the two comments are rather inconsistent. Either we’re giving undue focus to consensus messaging and crowding out more effective/appropriate alternatives, or consensus messaging is having no impact on how people develop their positions, but it can’t really be both.
Let me make an additional comment. The more recent Pearce et al. comment says
First, the debate over the hiatus/pause in global temperature increase was not invented by fossil fuel interests, but is a subject of genuine scientific disagreement ….. . Second, there is increasing expert debate regarding how much carbon dioxide can be emitted while keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C….. For climate scientists, there is no obvious consensus about questions such as these. On the other hand, Cook, Oreskes and others persist in messaging the minimalist fact that human influence on a changing climate is uncontroversial amongst scientists.
Well, if it is so uncontroversial why do people keep criticising its use? Also, the two examples above essentially miss the point. The consensus position is very simply that humans are causing global warming; it says nothing about specific issues like short-term variability, or carbon budgets. There are also certainly no suggestions that we should promote consensus messaging ahead of discussions about more specific aspects of the topic. Furthermore, the so-called pause certainly does not challenge the basics of anthropogenically-driven climate change and I would argue that there is a consensus about keeping global temperatures below 1.5oC; it’s going to be very difficult to do so.
Let me be clear about something, though. If someone could convince me that consensus messaging was actually counter-productive and that there was a clear alternative that was more appropriate and effective, then I would happily endorse that. However, that there is a strong consensus about the basics is true, and so – in my view – one needs to make a pretty strong argument if one is going to essentially argue that we should avoid highlighting something that is true. Furthermore, we don’t live in a world in which there was no consensus messaging. Therefore, it would seem difficult to make claims about its effectiveness if you don’t really have a control in which it was not used.
So, until someone presents some pretty compelling evidence to support their claims about going beyond consensus messaging, I’m going to continue to be confused as to why its use is so controversial. I’m also quite happy for people to follow many alternative communication strategies, I’m simply unclear as to why there seems to be such a need to criticise consensus messaging. Why not promote your alternative, rather than undermining one that is aimed at highlighting a simple truth?
Update: Steve Bloom’s Twitter comment has clarified – I think – the significance of the term accurate in the bit I’ve quoted above. I think the argument is that a majority regard climate change as important and worrisome despite not having an accurate understanding of the level of consensus. I can see some logic to this argument, but I still think that without some kind of control (which is essentially impossible) it is difficult to draw any strong conclusions about the effectiveness of consensus messaging from these kind of surveys – i.e., you don’t know what the outcome would have been in its absence.