The 98 Percent Consensus of Nothing

Published September 8, 2011

During last night’s Republican presidential debate, Jon Huntsman doubled down on Al Gorism, claiming global warming “skeptics” are making “comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said.” Just as moderator John Harris of Politico asked Rick Perry to name some of the scientists he agrees with, I wish Harris would have asked Huntsman just what the “98 out of 100 climate scientists” believe.

In the “survey” to which Huntsman alluded, scientists were invited to participate in a short online survey. Despite what Huntsman said, not even 100 climate scientists chose to participate. The two questions were: 1. Have global temperatures risen during the past 200 years? and 2. Are humans significantly contributing to this? 

Forgetting for the moment that only the most statistically/scientifically ignorant or most anti-science global warming advocates would claim that a survey sample of only 77 scientists volunteering to participate in a survey is even remotely indicative of what the entire climate science community believes, the questions and answers themselves tell us nothing.

To illustrate, I will answer the survey:

Q1. “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?”

James Taylor Answer: Risen

Q2. “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

James Taylor Answer: Yes

Regarding the first question, prior to the 1800s the world was in the grips of the Little Ice Age, which constituted the planet’s coldest temperatures since the last ice age epoch ended roughly 10,000 years ago. The answer to Question 1 is not only “risen,” but more appropriately (and sarcastically) “Duh!”

Regarding the second question, is human activity a significant contributing factor? Notice how the question did not say “sole factor,” “majority factor,” or even “primary contributing factor.” Rather, the term is merely “significant contributing factor.” More precisely, if human activity is not a “significant” contributing factor then it must be an “insignificant” contributing factor. What is the threshold between “significant” and “insignificant”? Five percent? Ten Percent? The threshold of “insignificance” is certainly no higher than that.

So, are humans responsible for at least 10 percent or so of recent global warming? In other words, are humans responsible for roughly – and merely – 0.06 degrees Celsius of warming during the past century? Most global warming “skeptics” certainly believe that!

The real question should be, “So what?”

From the assertion that humans may have caused roughly 0.06 degrees of warming during the past century, it does not necessarily follow, as Huntsman and his fellow alarmists would have us believe, that humans are creating a global warming crisis. Nor does it necessarily follow that we must wreck our economy to fight it. I suspect that even the most sensitive of plant and animal species will not notice a 0.06 degree increase in temperature, especially when such a miniscule temperature increase is spread out over the course of a century.

So then, just what do “98 out of 100 climate scientists” believe? Nothing of significance, unless you like to misrepresent meaningless surveys to score cheap political points.