Study finds overwhelming scientific consensus that humans have caused global warming, but media still hasn't caught up
Here's the news from 1991 – a vanishingly small number of peer-reviewed studies in science journals argue that humans aren't the cause of global warming.
Here's the news from 2013 – since 1991, less than two per cent of all peer-reviewed studies say climate change is caused by something other than human activities (that's burning fossil fuels and digging up forests, to you and me).
Both the news from 2013 and the news from 1991 come from new research published this week in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The study looked at 12,000 peer-reviewed papers in science journals since 1991 to find out just how many studies agree that humans cause global warming – known as anthropogenic global warming (AGW).
What's really striking about the research is the red line on the graph showing the number of papers that claim something is to blame, such as the sun or natural cycles.
Like a cardiac monitor warning of a soon-to-be lifeless patient, for more than 20 years the red line hovers around zero showing barely a flicker of life. Cook says they expected to see a rising number of papers which had "no position" and didn't feel the need to state the obvious "just as geographers find no reason to remind readers that the earth is round".
In other words, the alternative arguments about the causes of global warming were already dead or dying 20 years ago.
Yet since then, climate science contrarians/deniers/sceptics have continually applied the defibrillator paddles to these failing theories in an attempt to bring them back to life.
Despite what you might have seen on TV hospitable dramas, when the heart goes all asystolic no amount of defibrillator action is going to chase away the reaper.
So after giving up on the peer-reviewed literature, the climate science contrarians – often bolstered by support from the fossil fuel industry and free-market idealogues - took their talking points somewhere else.
That is, out into the public domain, the mainstream media and the blogosphere and far away from the less forgiving operating theatre of peer-reviewed science journals.
To this day, these dead theories hang around like slack-jawed zombies in the graveyards of global media outlets.
Take a recent column published in the Wall Street Journal, for example, which tried to claim that global warming was down to natural cycles and changes in the sun's output. Carbon dioxide was just food for plants, wrote the authors.
Or how about London Mayor Boris Johnson's column earlier this year in The Daily Telegraph, where he also claimed climate change was driven by the sun. Johnson often quotes his "old chum" Piers Corbyn, a long-range weather "forecaster" who claims CO2 has no effect on global temperature.
Then there's The Australian newspaper which earlier this month concocted a story of a fake debate between scientists about a coming ice age.
The newspaper quoted a Russian physicist who is a member of Principia Scientific International – a group of contrarian scientists led by a man who claims CO2 isn't a greenhouse gas.
A 2011 study of opinion columns appearing in The Australian found that climate change contrarians outnumbered four-to-one those authors calling for firm action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.
In the US, the Union of Concerned Scientists has looked at climate change coverage in the Wall Street Journal and on Fox News over a six-month period. In the case of Fox, UCS classified 37 out of 40 segments as "misleading" on climate change science. In almost a year of Wall Street Journal articles, just nine out of 48 articles were deemed to accurately reflect the state of the science.
Then there is the near omnipresence of free market conservative think-tanks – funded variously through secretive channels or the largesse of fossil fuel interests – who write books, columns and are asked to be "expert" commentators on climate change.
In Australia, one study has found how the free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs had been the source of a range of climate sceptic talking points echoed in mainstream media.
The current issue of the journal American Behavioral Scientist (ABS) is devoted to the phenomenon of climate change scepticism and denial and brings together studies and essays looking at the role of the media in trying to keep alive those climate change theories which have been under permanent cardiac arrest for the last two decades or more.
One self-explanatory study is titled "Leading Voices in the Denier Choir : Conservative Columnists' Dismissal of Global Warming and Denigration of Climate Science".
The authors, Professor Riley Dunlap and Shaun Elsasser, both of Oklahoma State University, looked at 203 columns written by more than 80 conservative writers published between 2007 and 2010. The authors conclude:
The overall results reveal a highly dismissive view of climate change and critical stance toward climate science among these influential conservative pundits. They play a crucial role in amplifying the denial machine's messages to a broad segment of the American public.
Similarly self-explanatory were some of the titles of the columns they investigated. There was "The Global Warmists' Deceit", "It's Got to Suck to Be a Climavangelist", "Hoax of the Century" and "Four Colossal Holes in the Theory of Man-Made Global Warming."
Dunlap and Elsassser also tally-up and categorise the arguments used to dismiss the science or dismiss the need to act. And the most common climate science denial argument used? "There is no consensus".
In an essay in the same issue of ABS, Maxwell Boykoff, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, notes how accurate media coverage alone won't be the panacea for genuine policy action to cut emissions. He adds:
But improvements in reporting on claims and claims makers will help. The fossils of climate science and policy decision-making as well as communications may choose to continue along with the status quo. But to more effectively inform and engage - rather than confuse and bewilder - the public, 21st-century journalists and editors, as well as researchers, scientists, policy actors, and other non-nation-state actors, need to acknowledge the disproportionate influence of these outlier voices in mass media and communicate climate change with greater specificity and context.
While some media outlets have given their consumers the impression that climate scientists are split on the causes of climate change, the pulse of actual scientific debate on this issue faded long ago.
At least now, readers can be more certain that when they hear that climate change might not be caused by humans, it's probably just a zombie theory.
And kids, zombies aren't real.