The myth of Inhofe’s 97%

Dear EarthTalk: What exactly is the “Myth of the Climate Change 97 percent” mentioned by Sen. James Inhofe during recent confirmation hearings on President Donald Trump’s cabinet post nominations?

Rosemary R.

Clifton, N.J.


This is in reference to the argument made by climate skeptics who dispute the notion that 97 percent of climate scientists have achieved consensus that global warming is occurring and is caused by human activities. 

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Inhofe, a notorious climate skeptic, referred to this “myth” in recent confirmation hearings for Scott Pruitt, Trump’s choice for administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Inhofe, who is funded by the notorious Koch brothers and other big fossil fuel interests, has stated that only God can affect the climate.

The 97 percent number likely first cropped up in 2013 from a study by Australian researcher John Cook, who surveyed 11,000-plus climate science reports published between 1991 and 2011 in search of attribution of blame regarding the cause of global warming. According to Cook, two-thirds of the reports his team at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute surveyed made no mention of whether global warming was happening, per se. But 97.1 percent of the remaining 4,000 reports that did acknowledge the occurrence of climate change “endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.” 

But critics attacked Cook’s findings almost as soon as they were published. Richard Tol, a Dutch economist at England’s University of Sussex, first publicly articulated doubts about the 97 percent number in 2014 when he peeled off a team of researchers writing up a draft report for the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — he claimed his colleagues were too alarmist. 

Tol stated that while he believes climate change to be real and likely human-caused, he also felt that Cook’s research methodology was flawed and that the 97 percent findings were “essentially pulled from thin air [and] not based on any credible research whatsoever.” 

Tol then orchestrated a “re-analysis” of Cook’s data set and concluded that really only 91 percent of climate scientists think global warming is human-caused.

It’s clear the vast majority of climate scientists agree that human activity is behind our current climate woes. Whether or not 91 percent constitutes “consensus” is a matter of semantics, and vocal minorities on the topic (like Inhofe) will always speak up to defend their point of view. What scares the American people is when such a vocal minority has the ear of the White House.

Contact: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), www.ipcc.ch; “The Myth of the Climate Change 97 percent,” goo.gl/tI2olR.


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