A lightning bolt over a city

Controversy? What controversy?

Raging arguments over climate change? Not among the experts…

In 2004, science historian Naomi Oreskes analysed every abstract published in scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 referring to ‘climate change’ – 928 in total. For each, she looked to see whether or not they accepted the scientific consensus – that human activity is leading to climate change.

The number that challenged the consensus? Precisely zero. So much for the ‘scientific controversy’ about climate change.

That consensus was supported by a study in 2010, which found that between 97 and 98 per cent of climate experts agreed on the reality of global warming, and that the average number of publications by unconvinced scientists was about half the number by scientists who were convinced by the evidence. In other words, the more expert the scientist, the more strongly they supported the reality of climate change.

Interestingly, though, the public’s perception that there is a firm scientific stance on the issue is changing. Between 1998 and 2006 Americans felt increasingly certain that scientists agreed that climate change was happening. Since then they have become less sure. In the UK in recent years public concern about climate change also seems to have dropped, along with the belief that humans are to blame.

Why the discrepancy? It may partly have been down to the media, who prefer a lively spat to boring consensus. In the UK, media figures such as Lord Nigel Lawson, Christopher Booker and James Delingpole regularly make the case for climate scepticism.

There is also evidence that climate change sceptics actively promoted the notion of scientific disagreement. Oil company ExxonMobil, for example, has been widely criticised – by the Royal Society among others – for misleading the public about climate change, while the Donors Trust in the USA, funded by billionaires, seeks to undermine climate change science.

Which is not to say that everything is cut and dried. There is considerable uncertainty in climate change science about what might happen. And there will no doubt be individual discoveries or pieces of research that will lead some to think that climate change isn’t inevitable, such as the 2014 research that suggests that the Atlantic Ocean’s absorption of heat is – temporarily – slowing global warming.

Some climate scientists believe that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is being far too conservative in its predictions, particularly about sea level rise.

Assessing possible health impacts adds another layer of uncertainty. Although less controversial at the moment, the growing acceptance even among sceptics of the reality of climate change may see potential health impacts scrutinised more in the future.

Lead image:

Michael Foox/Flickr CC BY NC ND


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Ecology and environment
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development