The Debunking Handbook
This page presents a strategy for addressing a common climate misconception in the classroom, derived from The Debunking Handbook, by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky. This material was created by faculty as part of the CLEAN Climate Communications Workshop, held in April, 2012.

Rebutting the Myth: Consensus on the Causes of Climate Change

Daniel Steinberg, Princeton University
Susan Buhr, CIRES University of Colorado Boulder
Susan Spierre, Arizona State University
Julie Lambert, Florida Atlantic University

Start with the Fact:

97% of practicing climate scientists agree that human activities are the main driver of recent climate change

Myth Rebuttal Process

The following 4-step process can be used to debunk the myth regarding scientific consensus on climate change:

1. Begin the myth debunking by writing a headline that clearly states the core scientific fact.

97% of practicing climate scientists agree that human activities are the cause of recent climate change (Doran and Zimmermann, 2009; Litcher, 2008).

2. Present a reinforcement of the core fact that is brief, to the point, and is easily understandable by your target audience. Pair the explanation with a graphic.
Recent empirical work proves our core scientific statement.A 2009 survey was conducted by Doran and Zimmerman. Seventy-nine climate scientists responded to these two questions:
  1. When compared with pre-industrial levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant? 96.2% answered risen
  2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures? 97.4% answered yes
Also, Harris Interactive surveyed 489 members of the American Meteorological Society and American Geophysical Union in 2007. According to Litcher (2008) 97% of responding climate scientists believe that average global temperatures have increased, compared to only 60% in 1991.

Furthermore, Oreskes (2004) conducted a qualitative analysis of 928 abstracts of scientific journal articles, published between 1993 and 2003. Seventy-five percent either explicitly or implicitly accepted that the most recent IPCC report expresses a clear consensus that human activities are affecting the Earth's climate. The remaining 25% dealt with methods or paleoclimate topics, and took no position on the subject. According to Oreskes, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus view.

3. Give an explicit warning that warns the reader that misinformation is coming and then state the myth.

Some will have you believe that there isn't a consensus among scientists, that the science is still in doubt. One technique is the use of people with science degrees but who are not climate scientists to back their bogus claims. Various petitions and letters have included signatures of scientists who claim recent climate change is not human-caused.

4. Use a closing statement that debunks the myth and reinforces the core fact.

However, the signatories are overwhelmingly not climate scientists. For example, 99.9% of scientists listed in the OISM Petition Project are not climate scientists. According to the Petition Project, signatories are approved for inclusion in the Petition Project list if they have obtained formal educational degrees at the level of Bachelor of Science or higher and includes medical doctors, mechanical engineers and computer scientists.

Teaching Tips

Target audience: High school through adult, public audiences, non-scientists

Context: To address this misconception in the classroom, have students list the sources of information in their lives and rate the credibility of each source. What constitutes a credible scientific authority? What constitutes a credible source of information? Why or why not?

Analogies may help here: If your students had a medical problem would they seek medical expertise from someone who is a practicing specialist in the field or would they make life-changing decisions based on advice from someone in a different field?


Refer to information literacy standards for higher education here: These include assessments and standards for performance.


Doran, Peter T, and Maggie Kendall Zimmermann. (2009) 'Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.' EOS vol. 90, no. 3 20 Jan.

Oreskes, Naomi. (2004) 'Beyond The Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.' Science, 3 December 2004:Vol. 306. no. 5702, p. 1686.

Lichter, S. Robert. (2008) 'Climate Scientists Agree on Warming, Disagree on Dangers, and Don't Trust Media's Coverage of Climate Change.' Statistical Assessment Service, George Mason University. (,%20Disagree%20on%20Dangers,%20and%20Don%E2%80%99t%20Trust%20the%20Media%E2%80%99s%20Coverage%20of%20Climate%20Change.pdf) accessed Feb., 2009.

Over 31,000 scientists signed the OISM Petition Project, a synopsis of the issue by Skeptical Science

Qualifications of Signers from the OISM Petition Project website