Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.
In “Global warming’s snowball fight,” Dana Milbank, the Washington Post‘s premier Capitol Hill reporter-turned-columnist, applied his trademark snark to the political debate over climate change. His George Will-style column is based on the premise that “the greens” have been “hoist by their own petard” because they have “argued by anecdote to make their case.” Milbank makes an incomprehensible attack on the “storm stories” of Al Gore for making people expect an “endless worldwide heat wave” even though it’s “not that Gore is wrong.” He goes on to mock science by anecdote:
Other environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish; they’ve blamed global warming for shrinking sheep in Scotland, more shark and cougar attacks, genetic changes in squirrels, an increase in kidney stones and even the crash of Air France Flight 447.
The central flaw in Milbank’s piece is the idea that climate activists discuss the consequences of global warming to validate the theory of climate change. Rather, activists know that global warming is real because of the broad corpus of scientific understanding that greenhouse gases are warming the planet. When scientists, environmentalists, and politicians like Al Gore talk about storms and squirrels, they’re explaining what global warming has already done to the planet and what it will do in the future. There is no real debate over the existence of global warming — it’s a fiction created by the fossil industry, a handful of conspiracy theorists, and right-wing ideologues. Environmentalists talk about typhoons and kidney stones because those phenomena can kill people — and we are collectively responsible for increasing these threats.
The specific examples Milbank chose for mockery from a list compiled by the Heritage Foundation are in fact perfectly valid observations conducted not by “environmentalists” but by research scientists:
“shrinking sheep in Scotland” is a reference to “The Dynamics of Phenotypic Change and the Shrinking Sheep of St. Kilda,” a paper by Arpat Ozgul and other scientists published in Science, 2009. The paper simply finds that changes in regional climate explain observed changes in sheep body weight, making no assertions about global climate change.
“more shark and cougar attacks” refers to two different stories, neither of which “blame global warming” for the attacks. A 2008 article in the Guardian quoted Dr. George Burgess, a shark researcher at Florida University, as the “one thing that’s affecting shark attacks more than anything else” is an “increase in human hours in the water.” Burgess also noted that “[a]nother contributory factor to the location of shark attacks could be global warming and rising sea temperatures.”
A 2007 Canada National Post story said that a “combination of warm winters and Alberta’s population boom is causing a recent jump in cougar attacks,” citing a Canadian government official. The “warm winters” are described as “natural fluctuations.” No mention is made of global warming.
“genetic changes in squirrels” refers to “Genetic and plastic responses of a northern mammal to climate change” by Denis Reale and other biologists, published in 2003 in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. The researchers found that “increasing spring temperatures” in the 1990s “advanced the timing of breeding” of red squirrels in the southwest Yukon by over two weeks. No “environmentalists” were involved.
“an increase in kidney stones” refers to 2008’s “Climate-related increase in the prevalence of urolithiasis in the United States,” published in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science by climate scientist Tom Brikowski and urologists Yair Lotan and Margaret Pearle. This funny-sounding problem, the scientists found, is expected to increase medical costs from kidney stones by $1 billion a year.
“even the crash of Air France Flight 447” refers to an RT.com story that quotes Aleksey Kokorin, a Russian scientist who works for the World Wildlife Federation. Kokorin warns that global warming could increase severe weather like the conditions that contributed to the crash of Air France Flight 447. At no point does he “blame” global warming for the crash.
It’s probably true that hack journalists are writing too many stories with sensationalistic headlines about work being done by climate scientists. It’s also true that scientists like to study funny-sounding things, something Milbank’s hero Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.) is famous for mocking. But manmade global warming is an unfortunate reality, not a “cause” based on shark and squirrel stories. Perhaps if Milbank worked harder at his job than surfing DeMint’s Twitter feed, Inhofe’s Facebook page, and the Heritage Foundation’s website, he’d understand that.