Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Where There's a Will, There's No Way

George Will writes the most appalling drivel in his latest Washington Post column ("Dark Green Doomsayers", February 15, 2009). Here's a summary:
  1. Scientists in the 1970s widely predicted severe global cooling.

  2. The University of Illinois says that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

  3. The UN says that "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade".

  4. Paul Ehrlich lost a 1980 bet that the prices of certain commodities would increase by 1990.

  5. Ergo, there is no global warming.
The first three items are just plain wrong, and the fourth merits a resounding "Huh?". This seems to make his conclusion rather dubious. How's about we look at each of these.

1: Scientists in the 1970s were predicting global cooling

No, they weren't.

The quotes Will uses to buttress this assertion are generally from news and popular media. He doesn't bother to look at the scientific papers of the era because, if he had, it would have ruined his thesis. Among other things, he would have found this comprehensive study of peer-reviewed climate-related scientific articles from 1965 to 1979 (summarized nicely in USA Today). Of the 71 papers reviewed, fewer than 10% predicted global cooling, while over 60% predicted global warming (about 30% made no prediction).

Where he does quote scientific sources, he's less than candid about context or accuracy. Here's an example: he quotes a 1976 article in Science as predicting "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation". And Science did indeed predict that--but not in the way that George wants you to think. He quotes the prediction itself, but he doesn't bother with any of the fruity topping. Here's the bit he left out:

Having presented evidence that major changes in past climate were associated with variations in the geometry of the earth's orbit, we should be able to predict the trend of future climate. Such forecasts must be qualified in two ways. First, they apply only to the natural component of future climatic trends - and not to anthropogenic effects such as those due to the burning of fossil fuels. Second, they describe only the long-term trends, because they are linked to orbital variations with periods of 20,000 years and longer. Climatic oscillations at higher frequencies are not predicted. [Emphasis added]
George, this prediction doesn't take human activity into account. It's a very general forecast for the next 20,000 years in the absence of human activity.

There was no scientific consensus for global cooling in the 1970s; in fact, scientists were already tending, although not with today's near-unanimity, in the opposite direction.

Item 1 is wrong.

2: The University of Illinois says that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979

No, it doesn't.

In fact, University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center immediately repudiated Will's statement:

In an opinion piece by George Will published on February 15, 2009 in the Washington Post, George Will states "According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.
Plain enough? The very source that Will cites says, "We do not know where George Will is getting his information....".

Item 2 is wrong.

3: The UN says that "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade"

No, it doesn't.

Will references the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) but appears to be quoting a badly written BBC News article.

Here's the deal: In early 2008, the WMO noted that 2008 was likely to be cooler than 1998. Why? Because 2008 was going to be a La Niña year, while 1998 was an extreme El Niño year. La Niña has a cooling effect, while El Niño has a warming effect. Now, anyone who was old enough in 1997-1998 will remember the extraordinary weather of that period. Along with everything else, it was damned hot--hot enough that almost everyone who tracks these things ranks it as the warmest or second warmest year ever.

So, it's not surprising that 2008 would be cooler than 1998, and the WMO said so. But here's how the BBC News article phrases that:
This would mean that temperatures have not risen globally since 1998 when El Nino warmed the world.
Uh, no, it wouldn't mean that at all. It only means that the specific year 2008 would probably be cooler than the specific year 1998 due to La Niña/El Niño effects. This has nothing to do with global warming, and it is unequivocally wrong for Will to quote the WMO as having said anything even remotely like "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." [Update: See Hume-an Error for more detail on why you can't do this.]

In fact, the WMO says this in the next paragraph of the same article that Will is quoting:
"When you look at climate change you should not look at any particular year," [WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud] said. "You should look at trends over a pretty long period and the trend of temperature globally is still very much indicative of warming.

"La Nina is part of what we call 'variability'. There has always been and there will always be cooler and warmer years, but what is important for climate change is that the trend is up; the climate on average is warming even if there is a temporary cooling because of La Nina."
So when Will says that
[A]ccording to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade....
what the WMO actually says is that
[T]he trend of temperature globally is still very much indicative of warming....
Item 3 is wrong.

4: Paul Ehrlich lost a 1980 bet that the prices of certain commodities would increase by 1990.

Wow, this one is true. But I'm still trying to figure out how it's relevant. The fact that an individual scientist made a foolish bet thirty years ago and lost is supposed to somehow prove that the understanding of climate change that is now accepted by 97% of climatologists is wrong? Seriously?

Now, Will's column is an op-ed piece. He's entitled to his opinion (however wrong-headed it may be). But here's the thing: it doesn't matter what your view of climate change is--these "facts" are simply wrong. Opinion is opinion. Facts is facts. If your facts are wrong, your opinion is of no value.

It gets worse: not only is the column wrong on facts, it is fundamentally dishonest. Will had to know that everything he wrote was wrong (well, except for the part that's irrelevant). If he read enough of the BBC News article to find the WMO "statement" he used, then he had to have also read the WMO's refutation of that point--it's the next paragraph. Furthermore, Will was taken to task on the 1970s global cooling myth (and much more) when he wrote the same thing at least three times before.

George Will is a professional writer with a professional research staff. He is paid top dollar to write these pieces. It is inconceivable to me that he was unaware of the factual inaccuracy of this column. If he was, then he is grossly incompetent and shouldn't be writing for a top newspaper like the Post. If he wasn't, then he is lying.

I do not see a third alternative.

Update: We now know for a fact that Will was previously apprised of his misuse of a Science News article--but the current column misuses the same quote in the same way. Journalist and science writer John Fleck reveals in the Albuquerque Journal that he sent a copy of the complete article to Will in 2008:
When George Will last wrote about this subject, in May 2008, I sent him a copy of the 1975 Science News article, hoping he might get a fuller picture of what was going on at the time. I got a nice note back from him thanking me for sharing it. It doesn't seem as if he read it, which would have been nicer.

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