Triumph of the Will-bashing
George Will is peddling a new column about global warming that’s just a lame, tired rear-guard set of conservative talking points. Shocking, I know! Still, if you’d like to see it eviscerated, I give you Progress Report:
On Sunday, conservative pundit George Will used prime space in the Washington Post and other major papers to suggest that not only is global warming not the result of human activity, but that global warming may not exist at all. There is no evidence to support Will’s claim, so he resorted to distortion, misdirection, and outright deception. This morning, columnist Robert Novak used his regular space in the Washington Post and elsewhere to suggest that global warming, if it exists, will only have impacts "so far in the future that technological advances surely will be available to cope with the problem." Question: Given the lack of any factual grounding, is there a point when printing mythology about global warming is incompatible with responsible journalism?
WILL SUGGESTS GLOBAL WARMING MIGHT NOT EXIST: George Will notes that global temperatures have risen about one degree over the last 100 years, but that "might be the margin of error when measuring the planet’s temperature." Embarrassingly, the only support Will provides for this statement is a crude analogy. ("To take a person’s temperature, you put a thermometer in an orifice or under an arm. Taking the temperature of our churning planet, with its tectonic plates sliding around over a molten core, involves limited precision.") There is not a shred of scientific evidence to support Will’s position that the earth is not warming. Science Magazine analyzed 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers on global warming published between 1993 and 2003. Not a single one challenged the scientific consensus that the earth’s temperature is rising due to human activity. The National Academy of Sciences (which the Bush administration recently called "the gold standard of independent scientific review") concluded in 2001, "Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded global warming is "real and has been particularly strong within the past 20 years … due mostly to human activities.” The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have also "issued statements in recent years concluding that the evidence for human modification of climate is compelling."
LIES, DAMN LIES, AND GEORGE WILL’S CITATIONS: The highlight of Will’s column is a list of citations from the 1970s of publications that purportedly warn of "global cooling." (Nevermind that, even if it were all true, it does not function as an analytic rebuttal to scientific evidence of global warming caused by human activity.) The first such citation is from a December 1976 edition of Science Magazine which warned of "extensive Northern Hemispheric glaciation." The use of this quote is outrageously dishonest. First, the article in question deals with variations in the earth’s climate based on variations in the earth’s orbit over periods of 20,000 years or longer. Second, the article explicitly excludes the effect of humans on the climate. (The article states its predictions apply "only to the natural component of future climatic trends — and not to such anthropogenic effects as those due to the burning of fossil fuels.) George Will is clearly counting on the fact that most of his readers will not have access to a 1976 edition of Science Magazine.
SCIENCE VS. NON-SCIENCE: There was, in fact, a temporary global cooling trend from the 1940s to the 1970s. A few mainstream press outlets (notably Newsweek [PDF]) improperly extrapolated this temporary trend to make long term predictions. Importantly, however, no scientific publication predicted "global cooling." In fact, scientists were warning others not to do that. So, today, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming exists and is being caused by human activity. Nevertheless, Will claims today that scientists say "they were so spectacularly wrong" in the 1970s.
WILL SAYS THAT EVEN IF GLOBAL WARMING EXISTS, IT MIGHT BE A GOOD THING: Will says that even if, hypothetically, the globe is warming, it might be a good thing. Will asks: "Are we sure the consequences of climate change — remember, a thick sheet of ice once covered the Midwest — must be bad?" Will doesn’t mention any of the purported benefits of global warming. Scientists, however, believe that global warming is likely to cause severe hurricanes, flooding of coastal population centers, and the spread of serious disease.
JUSTIFYING INTRANSIGENCE: As thin as Will’s argument is, it’s winning out in the White House. As the world moves forward to address climate change, the United States, "which is home to less than 5% of Earth’s population but produces 25% of CO2 emissions, remains intransigent." President Bush abandoned the Kyoto protocols, broke his "campaign pledge to control carbon output to the relaxation of emission standards," and gave "recent rhetorical nods to America’s oil addiction." And his praise of alternative fuel sources such as switchgrass have yet to be followed by real initiatives. The National Academy of Sciences debunks Novak’s contention that there is time to wait. In 2005, it signed a joint statement with 10 other national academies which said, "The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action (PDF)."