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EDITORIAL MISCHIEF


Saturday October 19, 2013

Every now and then, the editors of The Wall Street Journal take flight to remind us of the meaning of the word casuistry. One such day was Oct. 1, the lead editorial jumped all over the latest IPCC report (a massive consensus document on climate change compiled from the work of more than a thousand scientists and policymakers from around the globe) because the report seemed to modulate its expectations of future warming. Here’s a couple of my favorite sentences from the editorial: “If emitting CO2 into the atmosphere causes global warming, why hasn’t the globe been warming?” and then, “Translation: Temperatures have been flat for 15 years…”

Except that they haven’t. The World Meteorological Association documents that the first decade of the new millennium was the warmest on record, breaking the record established by the previous decade, which in turn broke the record that was established during the one prior. The trend continues as every year seems to be in the top ten warmest.

Most sophistry builds upon something that looks factual, and denialists have seized on distortions introduced by the extremely hot year of 1998, where warming was supercharged by one of the strongest El Ninos in 200,000 years. The 1998 record  skewed subsequent trend lines. It was so warm that 1998 wasn’t bumped from the number one spot until 2005 (which in turn was displaced by 2010). Some flattening!

Focusing on temperature obscures the derivative impacts of global warming. For instance, the editors neglect to mention that the same report significantly revised upwards its estimates of sea level rise.  They also might have asked themselves: why, if the report implies global warming has halted, its assessment would be raising estimates of sea level rise.

There’s barely a sentence in the editorial that holds up under scrutiny. In the Orwellian world of the editorial it’s the climate scientists who are “bullies,” which is stammer-inducing when one thinks of the vitriol visited on Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist who has been hounded and even physically threatened by deniers for sticking to his assertion that recent temperatures have risen so fast recently that a graph of the record looks like a hockey stick. As attorney general of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli (now candidate for governor) pursued a Joe McCarthy-like campaign of intimidation of Mann that basically drove the distinguished scientist out of the state.

Of course, none of this is news to anyone who knows anything the role of the deniers in forestalling action on climate change. The enduring question is why? I’ve no doubt the editors are smart. They know that cherry-picking is a bogus form of argument. I’m sure they can see the economic damage of out-of-season extreme storms, droughts, wildfires, floods, and other byproducts of changing climate. My guess is that this obstinate blindness is something visceral rather than intellectual: with an acute dislike of the other side feeding on a combination of ideology and economic self-interest. 

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Short Take

THOUGHTS ON WHY THE EARLY IPCC ASSESSMENTS UNDERSTATED THE CLIMATE THREAT

 

An oped involves extreme compression, and so I thought I’d expand on why I think the initial IPCC reports so underestimated the threat. Make no mistake, the consensus in the summaries for policy makers in the first two assessments did underestimate the threat. The consensus was that permafrost would be stable for the next 100 years and also that the ice sheets would remain stable (there was even a strong sentiment at that time that the East Antarctic sheet would gain mass). Moreover, in 1990, the concept of rapid climate change was at the periphery of mainstream scientific opinion. All these things turned out to be wrong

Of course, there were scientists at that time who raised alarms about the possibility of rapid climate change, collapse of the ice sheets, and nightmare scenarios of melting permafrost, but, fairly or not, the IPCC summary for policy makers was and is taken to represent the consensus of scientific thinking.

In my opinion such documents will always take a more conservative (less dramatic) position than what scientists feel is justified. For one thing the IPCC included policy makers, most of whom were more incentivized to downplay the threats. For another, many of the national governments that were the customers for these assessments barely tolerated the exercise and gave strong signals that they didn’t want to see anything that called for dramatic action, and this being the UN, there was a strong push to present a document that as many governments as possible would accept.

And then there is the nature of science and the state of climate science at that point. There is an inherent structural lag built in to the nature of science. For instance, the 1980’s were marked by the rapid development of proxies to see past climate changes with ever more precision. By the mid-late 80’s the proxies and siting had been refined sufficiently that the GISP and GRIP projects could confidently get ice cores from Greenland that they felt represented a true climate record and by then they also had the proxies with the resolution to see the rapid changes that had taken place in the past. Given the nature of data collection, interpretation, peer-review and publishing, it wasn’t until 1993 that these results were published.

It took nearly another decade for this new, alarming, paradigm about how rapidly global climate can change to percolate through the scientific community, and, even today, much of the public is unaware that climate can change on a dime.

As for the ice sheets, when I was on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 1996, there was talk about the acceleratio of  ice streams feeding the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, but the notion that there might be a significant increase in runoff from the ice sheet over the next hundred years was still very much a fringe idea.

With permafrost, the problem was a sparsity of data in the 80s and early 90s and it is understandable that scientists didn’t want to venture beyond the data.

The problem for society as a whole was that the muted consensus on the scale of the threat diminished any sense of urgency about dealing with the problem. Perhaps the best example of this was the early work of William Nordhaus. Working from the IPCC best estimates in the early 1990s Nordhaus published one paper in which he predicted the hit to the US GDP from climate change in 2100 would be about ½ of 1%. Nobody is going to jump out of their chair and demand action if the hit to the economy was going to be 0.5% of GPD a hundred years laterLibertarians such as William Niskanen seized on this and testified before Congress that there was plenty of time to deal with global warming if it was a threat at all.  

And then there was the disinformation campaign of industry, particularly fossil fuel lobbyists, as well as pressure from unions (the UAW in particular) and the financial community. These highly motivated, deep-pocketed interests seized on scientific caution to suggest deep divisions among scientists and that the threat was overplayed. Little wonder then that the public failed to appreciate that this was a looming crisis that demanded immediate, concerted action.

 



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