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Jason Walsh: Is Sonoma in climate-change denial?

We’re in big trouble, people. Big trouble. At least that seems to be the case if the results of the Index-Tribune’s recent reader poll about climate change are any indication.

“Real science is real, but the propaganda being called science on this scam completely ignores facts it doesn’t want to see.” That was among the comments posted with the poll, which asked readers if they believe in human-caused climate change.

Given Sonoma’s relatively well-informed demographic, we originally thought it was something of a softball question – a no-brainer survey filled with “yes” responses, along with a few scattered denials thrown in for good measure. But, boy, were we wrong. (See page A12 for the results.)

While “yes,” did win the day, it was eyebrow-raisingly close, with about 46 percent of Sonoma respondents saying they didn’t believe in human-caused climate change – despite the fact that surveys show that 97 percent of climate scientists say its real and its effects could be catastrophic.

Talk about ignoring facts you don’t want to see.

Much ballyhoo has been made over the past couple of years over this 97-percent scientific consensus, a very inconvenient truth which some – clearly many in Sonoma -- are trying desperately to ignore. Environmentalists have rightly echoed that percentage in an effort to once-and-for-all put to rest any doubts about the dangers of unchecked consumption – and that mitigating carbon emissions is an imperative.

Because if the overwhelming agreement of experts on a particular subject isn’t convincing, then what is?

If 97 out of 100 doctors say smoking will give you lung cancer, you try to quit, right? If 97 out of 100 mechanics say your brakes are shot, you bring in your Prius.

But when 97 out of 100 scientists say human-created emissions are cooking the globe what do 46 percent of Sonomans do? Change the channel to Fox News.

Of course, it stands to reason that if 97 percent of people who know exactly what they’re talking about regarding the earth’s climate insist climate change is real – then those who stand to lose politically and financially by Americans curbing greenhouse gas emissions have quite a big problem. So they need to do something to enlist Americans – or, 46 percent of Sonomans – into their line of thinking. Do they offer credible, peer-reviewed scientific evidence debunking the link between C02 emissions and the earth’s drastic warming trends since the advent of the industrial revolution? No, because that climate-change-debunking-evidence doesn’t exist.

Instead, they attack the veracity of the consensus of experts. In fact, they attack the very idea of expertise itself.

One of the hallmark strategies of climate-change denial is the old “do your own research” argument. As in, don’t blindly accept the beliefs of a few tree-hugging scientists when, if you conducted your own research into the matter, you would see the fallacies and political agendas in their conclusions. In other words, ignore the people who’ve dedicated their entire lives to the study of the climate’s effect on earth and vise versa – and instead poke around on a few anti-global-warming blogs and draw your own conclusions. Because now you’re the expert.

But the more popular route taken by greenhouse-gas huggers is to simply deny the consensus in the first place. To pretend there’s legitimate debate among scientists about climate change, that the 97 percent is closer to 50-50 and, until the scientific community makes up its mind about whether climate change is human made, we can just keep idling our cars on a cold day in a parking lot, as usual.

But how does one deny a 97-percent consensus of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific journals that examined the issue of human-made global climate change and found that it’s a serious threat to humanity?

Why, say they made it up, of course! After all, that’s what folks in Congress do.

“That 97-percent number that’s thrown around… that’s pulled out of thin air,” said former Republican Senator Rick Santorum. “The stat of 97-percent of scientists is based on one discredited study,” said Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Time and time again, climate-change deniers insist the 97-percent statistic has been debunked.

And, as it happens, they’re right. But not in the way they’d like to be.

In 2015, an organization called Skeptical Science launched a study called the Consensus Project, which sought to analyze the veracity of the 97-percent claim. It wasn’t assessing the realities of global warming, per se, it was assessing the scientific consensus of it.

The group examined seven major studies that looked at the scientific consensus of human-caused climate change and found that, based on how one interprets each peer-reviewed report on global warming, that the actual consensus among published climate scientists could be as low as 91 percent, or as high as 100 percent. In any event, there’s a clear and overwhelming consensus within the science community on the matter.

Which led the researchers to wonder: Why do some people still think there’s a serious debate among scientists about whether humans are causing global warming?

One of the key things they found in the study was that the higher a person’s expertise in climate science, the stronger the agreement on human-caused global warming. When consensus studies began including opinions of people without knowledge of climate science – economic geologists, meteorologists – the consensus number dropped significantly.

“Among climate scientists who have published peer-reviewed public research, there is 97 percent agreement,” according to Skeptical Science. “But the fact that the consensus gets stronger with higher expertise gets exploited by those looking to cast doubt on the consensus.” They do this, the group says, by selecting groups of scientists who have lower expertise in climate science to get a lower level of scientific agreement. They then use the opinions of non-experts to argue there’s no consensus. “It’s a key characteristic of science denial known as ‘the appeal to fake experts,’” Skeptical Science says.

Alarmingly, it seems to be working. At least with 46 percent of Sonoma survey responders.

But enough about that; I’ve got to run. Ninety-seven out of 100 gastrointestinal surgeons just told me my appendix is about to burst. And I need to ask Sean Hannity whether to believe them.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.