Teaching Climate Consensus

The expert scientific community is near unanimous:  Climate change is occurring and human action is driving this change.  To wit: Over 97 percent of climate scientists have independently concluded that human-caused global warming is happening.”

As three leading science communication experts put in a recent op-ed:

“In the history of science, there have been few instances in which almost all experts in a particular field were in complete agreement. Climate change is one of those instances.”

None of this is new information for those familiar with the state of climate change research and policy. But now many — in part as a result of the withering propaganda attacks on climate science financed by the Kochs, Exxon, and others of their ilk — do not understand this.  And, this fact — that scientists have strong agreement on climate science — matters.

A “Gateway Belief” is a piece of knowledge, a fact that — when known — opens the door for greater and deeper understanding of an issue. When it comes to climate change, the consensus among scientists is such a gateway belief. Recent experimental evidence has shown that:

increasing public perceptions of the scientific consensus is significantly and causally associated with an increase in the belief that climate change is happening, human-caused and a worrisome threat. In turn, changes in these key beliefs are predictive of increased support for public action. In short, we find that perceived scientific agreement is an important gateway belief, ultimately influencing public responses to climate change.

In other words, want greater support for climate mitigation and adaptation action, a good starting point is educating people about the substantive (overwhelming) climate consensus. Those resistant to action on climate change have long understood this — no wonder that they attack “97%” and trot out their pet anti-climate science talking head(s).

Sadly, far too many across the English-speaking world do not know this gateway belief.

Recently released research shows that a particularly troubling group is tripping over this gateway:

“Only 30 percent of middle-school and 45 percent of high-school science teachers in the U.S. are aware of the fact that nearly all climate scientists are convinced that global warming is caused mostly by human activities.”

And, things get worse.

Here’s the kicker: The authors explain that although many science teachers themselves believe that climate change is happening, because most are not aware of the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change many opt to teach “both sides” of the so-called climate debate, mistakenly giving students the impression that the basic facts are still contested, rather than conveying the fact that there is a deep and well-established consensus among climate scientists.

“Both sides” is clearly not solely a problem in traditional media where the notion that all sides should be equally reported has a long and stubborn tradition.

Not surprisingly, political ideology impacts teachers’ approaches to climate change. Further to the (and the redder the school district, I would suspect), the more likely “controversy” and “both sides” will make its appearance in the science curriculum.

Focusing on the 97 percent consensus, however, could be an effective tool against this: “one of the few facts that speaks to both conservatives and liberals in a powerful way is information about the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.”




Regardless of political leanings: knowing 97% “strengthens other important key beliefs that people hold about climate change.” Surprising, the effect is most powerful, among conservatives.

Knowing about scientific consensus is powerful in other fields.  After all, there is a reason why “4 of 5 dentists agree” is embedded in the social landscape of a generation of TV watchers.  And, sowing doubt is powerful too. The history of the fight over smoking epitomizes the power of doubt. “Tobacco companies have long understood the psychological consequences of sowing doubt: As long as people think there is disagreement among the experts, most won’t act.”

Sadly, rather than 97% being understood by 97% of Americans, only about half the country believes that human activity is the cause of climate change. In other words, it is far from only school teachers who are tripping at the gateway.  However, teaching teachers “97%” and getting them to teach their students what the scientific community actually believes about climate change may be a way to get beyond 50% and have fewer Americans tripping on the gateway and falling flat on their face when it comes to climate science knowledge.

Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on March 16, 2016.


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