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This item was posted on December 22, 2011, and it was categorized as Climate Change, Global warming skeptics, History of science.
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The climate change wars have several historical precedents — right down to the nastiness and idiocy

Both Nicolaus Copernicus and Albert Einstein became the target of ridicule after they proposed theories that were considered absurd — and worse. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

A RealClimate post on Thursday drew my attention to a fascinating article documenting how the slow acceptance of anthropogenic climate change by the public — and the vituperative treatment often afforded climate scientists — really is nothing terribly new in science.

The article, by Steven Sherwood, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, appeared back in October in Physics Today. But aside from a mention here and there by hyperventilating bloggers, I don’t believe it got much attention. That’s a shame, because the historical insights Sherwood offers can help us understand what’s going on today in the climate change wars.

An excerpt:

The ugly nature of the current climate debate, with its increasingly frequent characterization of scientists as opportunists, totalitarians, or downright criminals, is also, unfortunately, not new. Copernicus (posthumously) and his prominent followers through Isaac Newton were all accused of being heretics or atheists. Einstein was derided by his political opponents through the 1920s and 1930s as a Communist—despite his dim view of the Soviet Union—or simply as a fraud. When a group of American women tried to prevent him from entering the US because of his supposed Communism, he quipped, “Never before have I experienced from the fair sex such energetic rejection of all advances, or if I have, then certainly never from so many at once.” At one point Einstein stopped giving public lectures out of fear for his personal safety, also now a worry for some greenhouse warming proponents.

A graphic from the piece nicely illustrates timelines for acceptance of three paradigm-shifting ideas: the Copernican theory that the Sun, not the Earth is at the center of the solar system; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and the theory of greenhouse warming, which dates all the way back to 1864, when John Tyndall first proposed the idea. The patterns of resistance, organized backlash, and, in the case of the first two, eventual widespread acceptance, are remarkably similar. Click on the thumbnail at left for a larger version over at Physics Today.

Sherwood suggests that, as was the case with the other theories, anthropogenic warming will eventually become largely accepted throughout society. But will it come too late?

Lastly, for a critique of Sherwood’s piece, see this by Roger Pielke, Sr.

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This thing has 5 Comments

  1. Posted December 22, 2011 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    Welcome back!

    Question for you, can you substantiate this statement with data?

    “the slow acceptance of anthropogenic climate change by the public”

  2. Tom Yulsman
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I probably should not write blog posts at 2 a.m…. The words “slow acceptance” are admittedly not sufficiently precise. So let me try to clarify.

    Let’s start with a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. It finds that acceptance of the fact that there is solid evidence for warming has grown over the past year, to 63% of those surveyed. But only 38% in that survey responded that they felt it was because of human activities. I’m sure you can point to other surveys that show a higher percentage of belief in the anthropogenic nature of warming. But I don’t believe any survey shows it much above 50%. I take a smidgen more reassurance in that number than some other people I know. But it doesn’t come even remotely close to reflecting what the climate science community has found.

    Compare public beliefs with the 97-98% of climate researchers most actively publishing in the field who say humans are causing warming and other climatic changes. And in the recent Climate Change in the American Mind survey, just 13% of respondents knew just how overwhelming that consensus is among climate scientists.

    So rather than saying acceptance of AGW among the public has been “slow,” maybe I should have said that there remains a fairly large mismatch between what the public thinks about anthropogenic climate change and what climate scientists think. Also, that mismatch has persisted for many years. Let’s chalk it up to writing at 2 a.m.

    Of course, this doesn’t say much about the lack of policy action. I am not arguing that the percentage of Americans who believe that anthropogenic climate change is real and significant must rise before we can get meaningful action. (Although don’t you think it would help?) This post was a fascinating article that describes a number of historical precedents — heliocentrism and relativity — to explain why major scientific paradigm shifts take a long time, and frequently involve vituperative debate and attacks on scientists.

    So Roger, do you take exception with the general thrust of the article? Or with some of the particulars?

  3. Tom Yulsman
    Posted December 22, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Lack of sleep… I meant to say, “This post was ABOUT a fascinating article…”

  4. Posted December 22, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I find the article poorly argued, empty of data and relying on a few anecdotes. (How is that for a capsule review?;-) There is already a robust consensus among the public on the science of climate change, and has been for years.

    When you write: “Sherwood suggests that, as was the case with the other theories, anthropogenic warming will eventually become largely accepted throughout society. But will it come too late?”

    I wonder what you and Sherwood would define as “largely accepted” and what that would mean practically? In my view the science already is “largely accepted” pretty much everywhere around the world (see TCF for data) …


  5. Steve Bloom
    Posted January 1, 2012 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Oh Humpty Dumpty strikes again.

    Shorter RP Jr.: “Accepted can only mean accepted in the most limited sense, not accepted enough to do much about it.”

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