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Monday, April 03, 2006

Grad Students Could Be Expelled For This

As a casual consumer of the popular press discussions of global warming issues, I've gotten the impression that people generally can be categorized as follows:
  1. Masses of people who are generally uninformed about the details, some of whom are willing to listen to all sides (I'd include myself in this group) and some of whom are unwilling to pay attention at all

  2. People who are convinced that global warming is a serious problem, some of whom are professional scientists and some of whom are very interested lay-people

  3. Republican partisans and energy-industry shills

Now, I would not say that all Republicans belong in category 3. Christie Whitman favored CO regulation, for instance (at least,before the president flip-flopped and embarassed her by showing just how little impact his EPA administrator really had). But from listening to and reading about Republicans like Senator James Imhofe (R-OK) and the energy-industry funded centers whose job seems to be to convince non-scientists (especially policymakers) that the scientists are all wrong, I get the sense that all too many Republicans have piled into category 3.

Enter George Will, who has a reputation for thinking deep thoughts (at least, when he tires of his search for septuasyllabic words). In yesterday's Washington Post, Will took a hatchet to the notion that global warming is a problem. His "argument" basically goes like this:

  1. "[S]cientists and their journalistic conduits" are telling everyone to "Be worried, be very worried" about global warming.

  2. Scientists and the media were really wrong in the 1970s, when they predicted and worried about a trend toward global cooling.

  3. Since "they" said something 30 years ago that was wrong (point 2), we shouldn't listen to them (point 1) today. (Not only that, we should belittle them, since Will can't seem to write a column without belittling at least someone.)

In making his case regarding point 2, Will quotes several words from several 70s sources. Some of these quotes are from "regular" media like the NYT, while others are attributed to scientific publications like Science.

Well, it turns out that in at least one of these cases, Will is....full of hot air. His first piece of 1970s "evidence" for his "argument" is this:

Science magazine(Dec. 10, 1976) warned of "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation."
Pretty, damning, eh? Not really, actually.

Gilbert Martinez at Stanford Democrats did something that Will evidently couldn't be bothered to do: he read the article* and correctly reported its conclusions in context. Here's the full paragraph from which Will's quotation was drawn, as well as the succeeding one, which is relevant to another part of Will's column:
Future climate. 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.

One approach to forecasting the natural long-term climate trend is to estimate the time constants of response necessary to explain the observed phase relationships between orbital variation and climatic change, and then to use those time constants in the exponential-response model. When such a model is applied to Vernekar's (39) astronomical projections, the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is towards extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and cooler climate (80). [CCM Notes: Emphasis added; also, I pulled this text from climate modeler William Michael Connelly's website.]

The bolded and italicized parts of this quotation show that the authors of this paper, J.D. Hays, John Imbrie, and N.J. Shackleton, explicitly qualified their conclusion by distinguishing natural cooling trends from possible human-caused effects on the climate of fossil-fuel burning.

Of Will's seemingly impressive array of citations, one is theScience article just discussed, another comes from ScienceDigest, two come from the NYT, one from Newsweek,and one from the Christian Science Monitor. The one fromScience is the only one I've seen (and, knowing a bit aboutmathematical statistics myself, I would be impressed if, indeed,George Will had read and understood more than the summary of thispaper). Thus I can't vouch for the scientific-ness of the other articles, nor for whether Will has done his job and reported in at least a non-deceptive way what their authors said.

However, climate modeller William Michael Connelly writes (link originally from ThinkProgress):

The article was shamelessly misquoted to support the assertion that an "immenent" [sic] iceage was predicted. Actual reading of the article (an action not performed by those who cited it) shows that: it hedges its predictions by saying that these would be the tendencies in the absence of human perturbation of the climate system, that it predicts glacial conditions in 20,000 years time and that it predicts (again, assuming no human influence) a cooler trend over the next several thousand years (not glaciation within this timespan).

So now we have George Will quoting the shameless misquoters. For the non-technical reader of CCM, here's a baseball analogy to Will's deceptive/sloppy reporting here (I have no
idea which it is):

Actual facts of what happened in 1976: A pitcher throws a baseball in the general direction of a batter. The ball travels toward the batter. The batter swings the bat, hitting the ball, which changes direction and travels toward the outfield.

Scientist's results from a study designed to account for only the first part of what occurred in 1976 but that contemplates the second part: A ball was thrown toward a batter. Having been thrown with sufficient force, the ball's natural tendency would be to pass the batter - provided that the batter did not strike the ball, causing it to move away from the batter instead.

Hysterical sports journalist, late 1970s: New scientific evidence on baseballshows that pitched balls will no longer be hittable within 20 years!

Current scientist and/or sports journalist: Baseballs travel toward the outfield after being hit by batters.

George Will's hypothetical article involving selective quotation of 1976 scientific account:

Notwithstanding the hysterical heresies and surreptitiously pseudo-scientific silliness of present days, scenes played out peremptorily perchance as thusly lo 30 years whence: baseballs' "natural tendency would be to pass the batter."

Yet today, we find these supposedly sophisticated sophists verily contending that "Baseballs travel toward the outfield." Surely we must credit them nought.

Ok, that was gratuitous. But he deserves it.

Anyway, I don't know whether Will's conclusion is correct that we should ignore the uncertain - but potentially catastrophic - prospective costs of global warming because they have immediate, certain costs. That conclusion is inherently both normative and subjective. Normative because some people are more willing to bear catastrophic risks than others, and subjective because no one knows for sure the probability distribution over global warming's economic, environmental, health and social costs. Personally, I'm more willing than Will to buy insurance via smart climate regulations.

More relevantly to this post, though, I'm glad to distinguish myself from Will with a willingness to listen to today's scientists talk about today's science - rather than listening only to today's energy-industry apologists.

Will's column is a disgrace to his projected image as a no-nonsense realist who simply reports the hard facts as they are. At best, he has engaged in extremely sloppy journalism. At worst, he has deliberately misled his readers. He ought to be ashamed, and regardless of his intent, the Post should make him publish a column to explain what yesterday's column so artfully obfuscated.

*Note: you will need a JSTOR subscription to access this link.

Also: See this link at RealClimate for links to more about George Will on this issues, and about the "global cooling myth".


Anonymous The Man in the Yellow Hat said...

It is nice to see Professor Gelbach taking note of climate change. It is also time to forget about the George Wills, who have planted their heads firmly in the sand, and to refocus on the larger issue: if you really want to take out an insurance policy you need to make a plausible assessment of both the extent of the items at risk and the likelihood that they will be harmed in the absence of timely action.

Maybe our species has passed some invisible point of no return in which those who are smart enough to think about these things are also so intimidated about not being the right kind of expert that they will remain forever "open minded" when they need to be able to make a prudential choice, and soon.

Nobody knows precisely what the future of a changing climate holds in store, and none of the leading climatologists make such a claim. But the accumulation of evidence and the carefully qualified conclusions drawn by leaders in a remarkably wide range of specialized fields all point to the same sobering conclusions:

1. Changes in earth's climate are real, accelerating, and substantially anthropogenic

2. These changes have exceeded predictions based on climate models, which themselves are becoming more reliable and more frightening in their implications

3. Reports of scientific findings have been systematically distorted in the direction of understatement through a process of international vetting of results that gives vested interests in business-as-usual an opportunity to tamp down unwanted conclusions.

4. Climate changes have already caused the extinction of several living species and are undeniably disrupting many oceanic and terrestrial habitats so that the collapse of other species is highly predictable.

5. The unraveling of habitats, though not immediately of concern to inhabitants of developed nations, has direct and frightening implications for the capacity of human societies to provide sufficient water and food supplies for the rest of this century.

6. While most scenarios for the planet under business-as-usual anticipate a "slow" crisis with decades left to stop the buildup of atmospheric and oceanic carbon, there are several wild-card possibilities, such as collapse of the Amazon rainforest, collapse of the Gulf stream, and massive releases of methane from thawing permafrost or changing seabeds. These events would have a far more dramatic and unmanageable impact, and geological records demonstrate that each of them has a past precedent in earth's history.

Our shared heritage of social theory, including economic theory, has always assumed that the planet we inhabit was too vast and inexhaustible a "resource" for us to worry about harming it. But our collective "footprint" has grown so large that this is no longer the case. How we affect the planet and planetary processes needs to become the first priority of social policy.

Forget George Will. We need bloggers who will get up to speed on the real dangers and real forms of "insurance" that need to be acquired. (Interestingly, the major reinsurers are not taking this issue lightly -- they are beginning to suggest that they will simply not be able to insure against certain environmental hazards that are becoming more likely and less contained.)

Bottom line: The most extensive and thoroughgoing scientific investigation of a major issue affecting humanity in the history of science has been conducted by the hundreds of scientists around the world who have worked on climate change. Even under pressure to understate their results, they have left a clear picture of looming danger and possible paths to safety. But they cannot make the rest of us change our individual and collective ways. An open mind is a fine thing, until there is reason to come to a conclusion. It is truly five minutes to midnight. Is anyone awake?

PS: For starters, a good summary of current science and its wide-ranging implications is Tim Flannely's book, The Weathermakers. Unsurprisingly, the NYT Book Review published a trivializing review of it by a reviewer with no apparent qualifications to assess it.

4/05/2006 4:42 PM  
Blogger Jonah B. Gelbach said...

We need bloggers who will get up to speed on the real dangers and real forms of "insurance" that need to be acquired.

Good point, TMITYH. I think I know who you are -- and I think I've invited you to co-blog here at CCM.

What do you say? Willing to take up my offer and your challenge?


4/05/2006 5:01 PM  
Anonymous The Man in the Yellow Hat said...

Oops, caught in a web of my own weaving... Fair enough, I accept your offer (Now you go read Flannely!)

4/06/2006 1:02 AM  
Anonymous amela said...

oh you two...

4/14/2006 2:24 AM  

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