Commentary

Global Warming’s Dirty Secret

The lead story on the June 29 MSNBC News was that there were terrible floods in the United States and—interspersed in the middle of the story—that global warming is going to be even worse than we thought. This was one-sided, emotional science reporting even worse than I thought possible.

The story was rooted in a recent study by Tom Wigley, introduced as “a respected climatologist.” Wigley’s study was financed by the Pew Foundation, which is running a multi-million-dollar campaign to hype global warming.

Wigley says that sulfate aerosols will be legislated out of existence faster than previously thought. He champions the theory that sulfates reflect away the sun’s radiation, conveniently explaining why the planet has warmed so little despite the claims of warming doomsayers and their computers.

Without sulfate aerosols, computer models indicate our hemisphere should have already warmed about 2.3 degrees Celsius as a result of the greenhouse effect. The observed warming this century is a scant 0.65 degrees. If the sulfate hypothesis fails, the argument devolves into what the “skeptics” have said for decades: the earth simply isn’t going to warm all that much.

Having held a doctorate in climatology for two decades, I feel confident in saying that every one of my colleagues who has expressed an opinion to me dislikes Wigley, mainly because he seems arrogantly dismissive of some facts when they get in the way of his theories. He actively discourages the airing of points of view that conflict with his.

In October 1994, at a global warming meeting called by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), Wigley was confronted with the reality that satellites had found no warming. He merely waved his hands and said, “Oh come now, that’s just the satellite data.” Oh come now, Tom, it’s just the only global measure of temperature that exists!

The sulfate aerosol theory is politically correct, because some explanation is needed for why the early climate models flopped so badly. They served as the basis for the United Nations climate treaty, recently modified in Kyoto to force the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 45 percent in 8.5 years. Even though the treaty would devastate the U.S. economy, Wigley thinks it is not enough, saying we need “nine more Kyotos.”

Needless to say, Tom is very big with the folks like the Pew Foundation and the United Nations, both of which seem to care not a whit about the destruction of the American economic miracle as long as dreaded global warming is banished.

He co-authored a famous 1996 paper that showed that, from 1963 through 1987, the behavior of the atmosphere did in fact increasingly resemble that of one in which greenhouse warming was being counteracted by sulfate cooling. But the data available for his study actually began in 1957 and ended in 1995. When all of the data on the critical region of the atmosphere was looked at, there was no change whatsoever! Wigley has never given a satisfactory explanation of why he ignored all the data. Should he write a response to this paper, I reserve the right to reply.

Wigley does not like to be confronted with this in public. Resources for the Future, a Washington outfit big in the global warming game, recently held a forum featuring Wigley but none of his critics. When pressed, Wigley said that his critics did not belong on the stage with him because they generally did not publish their work in peer-reviewed literature. Hogwash. Wigley’s critics are among the most published in the business.

Arizona State’s Robert Balling may be the most prolific living climatologist. Only a handful of papers have mathematically searched for predicted greenhouse signals—and several are mine. The five most prominent critics have published nearly a thousand articles, mostly in peer-reviewed journals. Critics include a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the former head of the American Physical Society, heads of major research laboratories and former presidents of other scientific and professional societies. The fact that they even appear in the literature at all, given the thousands of people who lose some of the $2.1 billion that we spend each year on global change research if it all goes kerblooey, is testimony to the cogency of their arguments. Maybe that’s why Wigley doesn’t want any opposition.

Sulfates don’t do a good job of explaining the failure of the models noted above. NASA scientist James Hansen, who essentially ignited the greenhouse issue 11 years ago with his flamboyant congressional testimony, has become very skeptical about sulfates. University of Washington scientist Peter Hobbs found that sulfates off the East Coast are overwhelmed in their own plume by black carbon particles that absorb radiation and cancel sulfate cooling. And throughout the eastern United States, where sulfates have been in decline for the last 30 years, the temperature hasn’t budged during the entire century.

Any or all of these observations could have been offered by “respected climatologists” if MSNBC had bothered to do a little legwork. The real “story behind the story” is why they didn’t.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.