limbo.jpgThe bar for Wall Street Journal editorials, in the journalistic equivalent of limbo dancing, keeps dropping. In a piece titled “The Science of Gore’s Nobel” (subs. req’d), Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of the WSJ editorial board manages to slander the media, Al Gore, the Nobel Committee, and all climate scientists — without offering any facts to back up the attacks:

The media will be tempted to blur the fact that his medal, which Mr. Gore will collect on Monday in Oslo, isn’t for “science” … Yet now one has been awarded for promoting belief in manmade global warming as a crisis.

Why would the media blur the Nobel Peace Prize with a science prize when Gore isn’t a scientist? They wouldn’t, of course, but this imagined media blunder allows Jenkins — a journalist — to make climate change the subject of his piece.

What is especially bizarre about the WSJ piece is that Gore shared the Nobel Peace Price with thousands of scientists who form the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — but Jenkins never mentions that fact at all. Again, that’s because he wants to attack the Nobel committee for “promoting belief in manmade global warming as a crisis.”

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In fact, the award was not given for promoting “belief” — a pejorative word as Jenkins uses it — but for promoting “knowledge.” As the Nobel committee said, the award was given for “efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

By omitting mention of the IPCC, Jenkins can ignore the tremendous scientific evidence for the theory of human-caused global warming and the urgent need for action. Jenkins attacks the international scientific consensus without providing a single piece of counterevidence — or any understanding of either the nature of the consensus or the difference between “belief” and “scientific knowledge.”

Because the consensus is so important, and now, so alarming, it is worth understanding what it is — and what it isn’t — since conservatives must either ramp up their attack on it, or accept the clarion call for immediate government action (something most of them cannot stomach politically no matter what the science says).

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Let’s start with what the consensus isn’t — ably set out by Jenkins:

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What if the heads being counted to certify an alleged “consensus” arrived at their positions by counting heads?

It may seem strange that scientists would participate in such a phenomenon. It shouldn’t. Scientists are human; they do not wait for proof; many devote their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses (especially well-funded hypotheses) they’ve chosen to believe.

Less surprising is the readiness of many prominent journalists to embrace the role of enforcer of an orthodoxy simply because it is the orthodoxy. For them, a consensus apparently suffices as proof of itself.

Uh, not even close. The scientific consensus is most certainly not established by counting heads (although, strangely enough, that is how we elect our leaders). Scientists do not devote their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses they’ve chosen to believe (although that would be a good description of the people who study “intelligent design“).

In fact, scientists are paid skeptics who actually make a name for themselves disproving widely held theories and adding new knowledge — when they do reach a strong consensus, it usually is something everyone else should start close paying attention to.

What is the consensus? In the case of global warming, the nations of the world realized the subject was so complex that they needed high-level, independent scientific advice — so they asked the top scientists in the world to examine the entire scientific literature on a regular basis, issue reports, and then summarize the state of scientific knowledge — not belief — for policymakers. That is what the IPCC does every 5 or 6 years, including 2007. In the summaries, the governments of any member country — including, say, Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States — can strike out anything they like.

So it is very safe to say that the IPCC “consensus,” as reflected in the widely read summaries, typically represents a somewhat-watered-down, conservative version of the state of scientific knowledge that, if anything, underestimates what we face. That was the point of my posts: Are scientists overestimating — or underestimating — climate change (Part I, Part II, and Part III).

What is stunning about the latest IPCC summary, therefore, is how strong it is:

Members of the panel said their review of the data led them to conclude as a group and individually that reductions in greenhouse gasses had to start immediately to avert a global climate disaster that could leave island states submerged and abandoned, African crop yields decreased by 50 percent, and cause over a 5 percent decrease in global gross domestic product.

And 40 to 70 percent of the world’s species could go extinct!

The report finds that, based on observable evidence gathered by scientists, climate change is accelerating .The head of the IPCC, the normally understated Rajendra Pachauri — a scientist and economist — said:

If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.

Fortunately, the IPCC synthesis report makes clear that a review of the peer-reviewed literature — and real-world experience — concludes that avoiding catastrophic outcomes is very affordable, and would slow global GDP less than 0.12 percentage points a year. In fact:

Bottom-up studies suggest that mitigation opportunities with net negative costs have the potential to reduce emissions by around 6 GtCO2-eq/yr in 2030.

Yes — a 20 percent reduction in global emissions might be possible in a quarter century with net economic benefits using existing or in-the-pipeline technology.

That is the consensus.

Jenkins and the WSJ assert, however, that actions to stop global warming are “policies that the public will eventually discover to be fraudulent” (and fear of this “fraud” is supposedly what keeps Gore from running for president). But is any evidence for this stunning assertion offered? No. The piece ends with no facts being offered at all, but just these absurd claims:

Public opinion cascades are powerful but also fragile — liable to be overturned in an instant when new information comes along. The current age of global warming politics will certainly end with a whimper once a few consecutive years of cooling are recorded. Why should we expect such cooling? Because the forces that caused warming and cooling in the past, before the advent of industrial civilization, are still at work.

No, this wouldn’t prove or disprove a human role in warming, only that climate is variable and subject to complicated influences. But it would also eliminate the large incentive for politicians to traffic in doom-laden predictions — because such predictions would no longer command media assent and would cease to function as levers to redistribute resources.

Mr. Gore would have to find a new job.

Seriously. The WSJ has gotten so desperate to fight the overwhelming evidence — that humans are the main cause of recent warming, that the warming is accelerating, and that it could ruin the well-being of the next 50 generations — that they simply assert that the climate will cool at some indeterminate point in the future. The science on this is very clear: barring a series of massive volcanoes, it won’t be cooling. [Note to anyone who happens to know Jenkins: You can make a bundle of money from him betting that the next decade will be hotter than this one and that the decade after that will be even hotter.]

Why can’t conservatives like Jenkins accept the massive evidence and remarkable scientific consensus that human emissions are now, for the foreseeable future, the driving force behind our changing planet — overwhelming the kind of external forcings (like changes in the Earth’s orbit) that used to cause (much slower) climate variation?

The answer is found in those two key words, “redistribute resources,” from Jenkins’ penultimate sentence. Conservatives can’t abide the solution to global warming — strong government actions to promote clean energy solutions of the kind the Senate is considering, and that have been proposed by Al Gore and Senators Obamaand Clinton.

Because they can’t stand the solution, they are largely immune to scientific evidence about the problem. But while conservatives may — if they so choose — be able to block progressives and others from taking the political actions needed to stop global warming, they can’t stop catastrophic warming by mere assertions. If they stick to their obstructionist denial, it won’t be the “current age of global warming politics” that will “end with a whimper” — it will be the entire conservative movement, which will rightly be blamed for the destruction of our livable climate.

The WSJ‘s journalistic limbo dancing may serve only to leave conservatives in political limbo.

This post was created for, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.