It Ain't (Just) the Heat, It's the Humanity: Increasing Public Understanding of Scientific Consensus and Its Role in Climate Literacy

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 9:30 AM
Peter Jacobs1, John Cook2,3 and Dana Nuccitelli3, (1)George Mason University, Environmental Science and Policy, Fairfax, VA, United States, (2)University of Queensland, St Lucia, QLD, Australia, (3)Skeptical Science, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
An overwhelming scientific consensus exists on the issue of anthropogenic climate change. Unfortunately, public perception of expert agreement remains low- only around 1 in 10 Americans correctly estimates the actual level of consensus on the topic. Moreover, several recent studies have demonstrated the pivotal role that perceived consensus plays in the public's acceptance of key scientific facts about environmental problems, as well as their willingness to support policy to address them. This "consensus gap", between the high level of scientific agreement vs. the public's perception of it, has led to calls for increased consensus messaging. However this call has been challenged by a number of different groups: climate "skeptics" in denial about the existence and validity of the consensus; some social science researchers and journalists who believe that such messages will be ineffective or counterproductive; and even some scientists and science advocates who downplay the value of consensus in science generally. All of these concerns can be addressed by effectively communicating the role of consensus within science to the public, as well as the conditions under which consensus is likely to be correct. Here, we demonstrate that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change satisfies these conditions, and discuss past examples of purported consensus that failed or succeeded to satisfy them as well. We conclude by discussing the way in which scientific consensus is interpreted by the public, and how consensus messaging can improve climate literacy.