Two Columns Debunk George Will’s Claims on Climate Change

After coming under tremendous criticism for publishing a column by George Will with inaccurate information on climate change, The Washington Post is redeeming itself by publishing two columns which debunk his false claims. Chris Mooney writes:

Consider a few of Will’s claims from his Feb. 15 column, “Dark Green Doomsayers“: In a long paragraph quoting press sources from the 1970s, Will suggested that widespread scientific agreement existed at the time that the world faced potentially catastrophic cooling. Today, most climate scientists and climate journalists consider this a timeworn myth. Just last year, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society published a peer-reviewed study examining media coverage at the time and the contemporary scientific literature. While some media accounts did hype a cooling scare, others suggested more reasons to be concerned about warming. As for the published science? Reviewing studies between 1965 and 1979, the authors found that “emphasis on greenhouse warming dominated the scientific literature even then.”

Yet there’s a bigger issue: It’s misleading to draw a parallel between “global cooling” concerns articulated in the 1970s and global warming concerns today. In the 1970s, the field of climate research was in a comparatively fledgling state, and scientific understanding of 20th-century temperature trends and their causes was far less settled. Today, in contrast, hundreds of scientists worldwide participate in assessments of the state of knowledge and have repeatedly ratified the conclusion that human activities are driving global warming — through the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the scientific academies of various nations (including our own), and leading scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society.

Will wrote that “according to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” It turns out to be a relatively meaningless comparison, though the Arctic Climate Research Center has clarified that global sea ice extent was “1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979.” Again, though, there’s a bigger issue: Will’s focus on “global” sea ice at two arbitrarily selected points of time is a distraction. Scientists pay heed to long-term trends in sea ice, not snapshots in a noisy system. And while they expect global warming to reduce summer Arctic sea ice, the global picture is a more complicated matter; it’s not as clear what ought to happen in the Southern Hemisphere. But summer Arctic sea ice is indeed trending downward, in line with climatologists’ expectations — according to the Arctic Climate Research Center.

Will also wrote that “according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.” The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is one of many respected scientific institutions that support the consensus that humans are driving global warming. Will probably meant that since 1998 was the warmest year on record according to the WMO — NASA, in contrast, believes that that honor goes to 2005 — we haven’t had any global warming since. Yet such sleight of hand would lead to the conclusion that “global cooling” sets in immediately after every new record temperature year, no matter how frequently those hot years arrive or the hotness of the years surrounding them. Climate scientists, knowing that any single year may trend warmer or cooler for a variety of reasons — 1998, for instance, featured an extremely strong El Niño — study globally averaged temperatures over time. To them, it’s far more relevant that out of the 10 warmest years on record, at least seven have occurred in the 2000s — again, according to the WMO.

The other article is by Michel Jarraud,  Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization:

Data collected over the past 150 years by the 188 members of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) through observing networks of tens of thousands of stations on land, at sea, in the air and from constellations of weather and climate satellites lead to an unequivocal conclusion: The observed increase in global surface temperatures is a manifestation of global warming. Warming has accelerated particularly in the past 20 years.

It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column [“Dark Green Doomsayers,” George F. Will, op-ed, Feb. 15] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.

The difference between climate variability and climate change is critical, not just for scientists or those engaging in policy debates about warming. Just as one cold snap does not change the global warming trend, one heat wave does not reinforce it. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit.

Evidence of global warming has been documented in widespread decreases in snow cover, sea ice and glaciers. The 11 warmest years on record occurred in the past 13 years.

While variations occur throughout the temperature record, shorter-term variations do not contradict the overwhelming long-term increase in global surface temperatures since 1850, when reliable meteorological record keeping began. Year to year, we may observe in some parts of the world colder or warmer episodes than in other parts, leading to record low or high temperatures. This regional climate variability does not disprove long-term climate change. While 2008 was slightly cooler than 2007, partially due to a La Niña event, it was nonetheless the 10th-warmest year on record.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, co-sponsored by the WMO, has confirmed through observations and increasingly sophisticated and realistic models that regional variability has increased and will continue to increase as global surface temperatures rise. This is likely to result in more weather and climate extremes, such as droughts, floods, storms and heat waves. Responding to these challenges will require the collaborative efforts of all countries and of scientists in multiple disciplines to develop adaptation strategies to reduce the risk of disaster. This topic is scheduled for discussion at the World Climate Conference-3 beginning Aug. 31 in Geneva.

Be Sociable, Share!

1 Comment

  1. 1
    Nature Concern says:

    We’ve got to be united to save earth! Earth Hour is practised at large scale in all developed and developing countries but there has been more publicity and awareness this year, as well as participation from large corporations like which is a good sign – that there is still hope and that people still care!
    Let’s all do this, no matter where you are! Saturday, 28 March 2009. Lights off from 8.30pm to 9.30pm!
    Nature Concern

1 Trackbacks

Leave a comment