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Poll Shows Limited Consensus on the Expected Impact of Climate Change



A new survey of climate researchers indicates claims of a “97% consensus” that catastrophic human-caused climate change is happening tells only part of the story.

Agree Climate Is Changing

The poll, conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University and commissioned by The Heartland Institute, surveyed people who hold at least a bachelor’s degree in the academic fields most pertinent to the climate debate, including meteorology, climatology, physics, geology, and hydrology. Ninety-five percent of the respondents fell into the categories of meteorology or climatology, so physicists and geologists, among others, were underrepresented. Only 24 percent of those surveyed had advanced degrees in their respective fields.

The respondents answered questions breaking down the issue into more specific queries. The questions ranged from the expected extent of impacts on people globally due to a changing climate to beliefs about the frequency or pattern of severe weather events.

Unsurprisingly, the poll found 96 percent of those surveyed believed climate change is occurring and, on average, they attribute 75 percent of the change to human activity.

No Consensus on Harm

However, the survey found there is no consensus climate change is causing catastrophic impacts.

Of those surveyed, 59 percent believe human-caused climate change will “significantly harm” the lives and livelihoods of humans alive today. Forty percent of those surveyed were either unsure whether or not any harm would occur, thought climate change might cause slight harm, or believed climate change would result in a slight or significant improvement in the lives of people living today. The remaining group of respondents did not believe climate change was occurring.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed believed extreme weather events like hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires had either increased significantly (41 percent), or slightly (46 percent), in recent years.

This perception, however, flies in the face of available data, which show either no change or slight declines in the occurrence of most extreme weather events.

For instance, official data from the United States government and international sources show the frequency of hurricanes has slightly declined in recent years, and they have not become more severe. Data also shows wildfires have decreased over the past century. Instances of extreme drought and tornadoes also remained unchanged or slightly declined.

And concerning harm to humans, peer-reviewed studies like one recently published in The Lancet show human deaths related to temperatures have declined significantly over the past 30 years, and human mortality related to climate has declined during the last hundred years of climate change.

The Scientific Method

Science is not done by consensus or beliefs, but rather by testing and running experiments, says James Taylor, president of The Heartland Institute, commenting on the results of the survey.

“The Scientific Method requires that we engage in science by testing and analyzing theories according to objective data rather than asking for a show of hands,” Taylor said. “However, to the extent people are curious about what other scientists believe, there is substantial disagreement among scientists themselves regarding whether climate change poses serious threats, or even merely significant ones.”

Experience Matters

Only a minority of the older, more experienced scientists surveyed, 50 years old and above, said climate change presents a real danger, says Anthony Watts, a senior fellow with The Heartland Institute.

“Just 44 percent of scientists over 50 years old believed climate change would reduce our standard of living in our lifetimes,” Watts said. “Further, just 38 percent were convinced severe weather events have increased.

“The results suggest the draconian solutions, such as net-zero, being pushed by the left—even if they actually worked—are aimed at a non-problem,” Watts said.

Large Attribution, Small Impact

Although most respondents thought a majority of the current warming could be attributed to human activity, a large number also thought the impact of warming would be relatively minor, says H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute.

“Although, on average, most respondents attributed 75 percent of recent warming to human activity, nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they believed climate change will cause only slight harm, no harm, or even improve living conditions,” Burnett said. “So, climate change? Yes. Humans responsible for most of it? Those polled say, ‘yes.’ Catastrophe? No agreement.”

Burnett agrees with Watts’ observation that more seasoned professionals and academics tend to have more moderate opinions on the impacts of climate change, more in line with existing data, in contrast to the more extreme, alarmist views of younger respondents.

“Interestingly, it seems the more experience one has as a researcher, the more skeptical one becomes of extreme climate claims, with less than half of those surveyed who were 50 or older believing climate change threatens significant harm to those living today,” Burnett said. “It seems years of indoctrination have succeeded in brainwashing younger, less experienced climate scientists into believing, data to the contrary, that humans are causing a climate catastrophe.”


Linnea Lueken (llueken@heartland.orgis a research fellow with the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute.