Editorial | Published:

Climate consensus

Nature Climate Change volume 3, page 303 (2013) | Download Citation

People's acceptance of global warming can be influenced by many filters.

Collectively our individual lifestyle choices and support for or resistance to government policies make us — as members of society — key players in the climate change, and indeed any, debate. In our social lives, we are motivated by a combination of values, norms, beliefs and interpretations of the world, many of which are now challenged by global warming. Therefore, it is not surprising to see a growth of work exploring individual perceptions of, and trends in public opinion about, anthropogenic climate change.

Psychologists, sociologists and political scientists have focused on different factors shaping public views of global warming. However, they all discuss — albeit from different angles — the role of scientific information, and in particular perceptions about the degree of scientific consensus on climate change. As shown in the Article by Lewandowsky and colleagues (page 399) that also appears in our web focus 'Public and experts' views about climate change', individuals are more likely to attribute long-term climatic trends to human causes once informed of scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming.

The good news for those concerned with climate communication is that there is a great deal of scientific agreement on the issue. The bad news is that climate is inherently uncertain — mainly because of the internal variability of the climate system. As a result, climate models can deliver a range of results, and communicating to the general public that there is scientific consensus — despite the uncertainties — gets complicated. Climate change experts have to work in the face of these inherent uncertainties. They can certainly improve models, but they may have to work also on the basis of their judgement. Expert judgement elicitation — a tool used in medicine, engineering and natural sciences to determine the degree of scientific consensus and explore collective views on uncertainties — is gradually making its way into the climate science community. The study by Bamber and Aspinall on page 424 (see also the News and Views on page 311) demonstrates that it can help to quantify uncertainties around the contribution of ice sheets to future sea-level rise. Hopefully, this tool will also help communicators.

Communication of climate consensus among scientists is not enough to explain trends in public opinions though. Evidence indicates (Nature Clim. Change 2, 236–237; 2012) that in the US, for example, when political groups show consensus on anthropogenic global warming, the public follows and the societal level of concern rises. It follows that mass communication of scientific information, and even scientific agreement on climate change, may have limited impact if political elites continue to disagree on the issue. And influencing the public in polarized contexts is surely a challenging task.

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