Climate Change Opinion and Facts: Scientists, Politicians and the Public


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Is there consensus on climate change? That depends on how one decides to try and answer this question. There are three general ways of answering the question “is there consensus on climate change? (1) Ask the public; (2) ask lawmakers; (3) ask scientists. Each group has its own answer, and some of the answers are better informed than others. Here, we preference the answer provide by scientists, since after all, they are actively engaged in research on that issue while the public and lawmakers generally have opinions that may or may not be the result of understanding the science of climate change and the literature written about climate change.

Natural scientists now tend to describe climate change as the preeminent global environmental problem facing the world today.

From global public opinion polls we know that about 84% of the global public believes that climate change is a serious concern (e.g., see this REPORT). Globally, the public also tends to understand that the causes of climate change are anthropogenic – or of human origins. In many countries, the majority of the population believes that climate change has already harmed people in their country.

While the global public shows considerable agreement that climate change is occurring and has caused harm, most of the public thinks that scientists disagree about climate change and its causes. This is likely the result of the way the media reports climate change news (e.g., Boykoff, 2007; Boykoff and Boykoff, 2007; Carvelho, 2007). Inaccuracies in media reports on the science of climate change and the level of consensus among scientists reported in newspapers has long been addressed by researchers (Bell, 1994; for a current example see, UK EXAMPLE). As noted below, scientists largely agreed about climate change, and thus why the American public, for example, believes they do not is an interesting subject for analysis.
Climate scientists report that there is a widespread effort to suppress their ability to discuss climate change, particularly when those scientists are employed by governments. This has been a particular problem in the US. During the G. W. Bush Administration, for example, scientists were pressured to removed reference to terms such as “climate change” and “global warming” from their reports. The Inspector General’s Office of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NAS) reported in 2008 that White House appointed NASA staff members censored and suppressed scientific data on climate change (News Report). NASA’s chief climate scientist, James Hanson, confirmed that Bush Administration representatives attempted to censor information on climate change produced by agency scientists (HANSON). Green criminologists have examined the broader efforts of the G. W. Bush Administration to alter both the science of climate change and the government’s response to climate change (Lynch, Burns and Stretesky, 2010).

In the US, at least, politicians are less likely than the public to agree with the science of climate change (for discussion see this article in the Seattle Times). Chief among these political climate change deniers is James Inhoff (Republican, Oklahoma). But Inhoff is not alone, and the website “Skeptical Science” has kept track of some of the things US politicians say about climate change/global warming that are inaccurate (Skeptical Political Quotes).

In contrasts to US politicians and what the American public thinks about scientific agreement, sciences do agree about climate change. Indeed, 97% of scientists polled agree on the science of climate change and climate changes’ causes (see the discussion of this issue on the website of NASA, 97% Agreement). A list of the 200 worldwide scientific organizations that agree about climate change and its human origins can be found here: Global Organizations.

Further Reading


Bell, Allan. 1994. “Media (mis) communication on the science of climate change.” Public understanding of science 3, 3: 259-275.

Boykoff, Maxwell T. 2007. “Flogging a dead norm? Newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change in the United States and United Kingdom from 2003 to 2006.” Area 39, no. 4 (2007): 470-481.

Boykoff, Maxwell T., and Jules M. Boykoff. 2007. “Climate change and journalistic norms: A case-study of US mass-media coverage.” Geoforum 38, 6: 1190-1204.

Carvalho, Anabela. 2007. “Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: re-reading news on climate change.” Public understanding of science 16, 2: 223-243.

Lynch, Michael J., Ronald G. Burns and Paul B. Stretesky. 2010. “Global Warming as a State-Corporate Crime: The Politicalization of Global Warming During the Bush Administration.” Crime, Law and Social Change 54,3: 213-39.

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