Commentary

CNN’s Predictable Distortion

Last November, my book on the distortion of the science of global warming hit the streets. If I had not finished it by then, I would have devoted a chapter to CNN’s handling of the subject in its global warming documentary that aired on March 27 and is set to re-air three times on April 2.

The thesis of my book is simple: All scientific issues, including global warming, compete with each other for a finite amount of taxpayer largesse. So, logically, in order to gain advantage in that competition, scientists tend to pitch dire and drastic scenarios whenever they can.

The projections of gloom and doom by eminent scholars merit news coverage. The politicians respond to the incessant drumbeat by holding hearings and writing legislation for funding or regulation. What sane scientist would testify that global warming may be no big deal? After all, it’s currently so big a deal that the new budget proposes spending $4 billion researching it.

In its documentary, CNN had an opportunity to present a dramatically different view of global warming. They asked me to talk about global warming science. Here is what they were told.

To study climate change, we really have only two tools at our disposal: the historical record and computer models for the future. Neither is very satisfying when applied singly. But together they provide a very clear picture.

Climate models are simply strings of computer code that attempt to simulate the earth’s varied weather patterns and then estimate how they change if we slightly alter the planet’s natural greenhouse effect. That’s an atmospheric property, contributed largely by water vapor and secondarily by carbon dioxide, that makes the surface and the lower atmosphere warmer than it would be in their absence. Add more of either and the temperature should rise a bit.

Although there are dozens of these models, a comparison of them yields this average behavior: Once warming is established from human addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, it tends to place at a constant rate. The different models largely just produce different rates.

So, to determine what the future holds, all we have to establish is 1) that warming in recent decades is largely from human addition of carbon dioxide, and 2) that it is truly a constant rate. If those two are satisfied, then we know the rate of future warming.

It’s easy to establish that the warming that began around 1970 is indeed largely from human influence. Greenhouse-effect science predicts that cold, dry air should warm preferentially to warm, moist air. This has been the case, with the greatest nonpolar warming observed over cold, dry Siberia in the winter.

All that’s left then is to demonstrate that the global temperature change is indeed constant. In fact, the warming trend has been so steady that there has been virtually no departure from a straight-line trend.

So nature has now discriminated between all those models, and the warming trend works out to a mere 1.2°F for the next half-century. This is right at the low end of the range of projections made by the United Nations in 2001. But, unless all the money we threw into climate models has been wasted to the point that we can’t even tell whether it will be a constant or an increasing rate, we now know the answer to a very small range of error.

How small is that range? The variation in the constant warming trend has been so tiny over the last 35 years that one can say with confidence that the range should be between 1.0 and 1.4°F from 2001 to 2050.

CNN had the chance to prove my book wrong and to show something new and different at the same time. But the cable network failed to do so. The program transcript is 6,497 words long. Two scientists, myself and MIT’s Richard Lindzen, different than the 19-odd other people promoting gloom and doom, were awarded 98 and 68 words, respectively. My segment was followed by the host, Miles O’Brien, saying, “Michaels’ position is in the minority.”

Hardly. It is the consensus of dozens of climate models, produced by an army of researchers, simply adjusted to the very constant rate of warming that has been observed.

Incidentally, the complete title of the book is Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.

Patrick J. Michaels is Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies at the Cato Institute.