Commentary

Mainstreaming Fringe Science with John Holdren

In recent months, White House science adviser John Holdren has repeatedly pushed the link between extreme weather events and human-caused climate change well beyond the bounds of established science. Now, veteran climate scientists are pushing back.

The White House science adviser confuses global-warming fact and fancy.”

Mr. Holdren’s efforts started in January, as much of the nation was shivering in the midst of an excursion of arctic air into the lower 48 states.

Anyone with a passing interest in the climate of the United States knows that is hardly an unusual occurrence (“citrus freeze” anyone?), but outfit the chill with a new, scarier-sounding moniker and a blase-sounding “cold-air outbreak” goes viral as the “polar vortex.”

Apparently, sensing the time was ripe for a bit of global-warming alarmism, the White House released a video titled “The Polar Vortex Explained in 2 Minutes,” featuring Mr. Holdren describing how “a growing body of evidence suggests that the kind of extreme cold being experienced by much of the United States as we speak is a pattern that we can expect to see with increasing frequency as global warming continues.”

Although this statement is not outright false, it is, at its very best, a half-truth — and a stretch at that. In fact, there is an ever-larger and faster-growing body of evidence that directly disputes Mr. Holdren’s contention.

This was pointed out last month in a letter to Science magazine authored by five veteran climate scientists, who are all experts in the field of atmospheric circulation patterns.

The scientists disputed Mr. Holdren’s explanation, writing that “we do not view the theoretical arguments underlying it to be compelling” and concluded that while such research “deserves a fair hearing to make it the centerpiece of the public discourse is inappropriate and a distraction.”

One of the letter’s authors, atmospheric science professor John Wallace from the University of Washington, even wrote a guest post at the popular Capital Weather Gang blog run by The Washington Post, to proclaim, “I disagree with those who argue that we need to capitalize on recent extreme weather events to raise public awareness of human-induced global warming.”

Such pushback didn’t stop Mr. Holdren, though.

A couple of weeks ago at a congressional hearing, Mr. Holdren attacked the views of University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke Jr. concerning the connection between anthropogenic global warming and the ongoing drought in the Southwest.

Mr. Pielke, an expert on the relationship between natural disasters and climate change, had previously testified to Congress that the best science regarding many types of extreme weather, including hurricanes, tornados, floods and droughts, indicated no detectable tie-in to global warming.

Mr. Holdren described Mr. Pielke’s views as being outside of “mainstream scientific opinion” and submitted a six-page explanation to the Senate subcommittee describing why he thought so, focusing on drought and specifically California drought (a copy of which was also posted at the White House website).

In response, Mr. Pielke defended himself, laying out a strong and overwhelming scientific case in a lengthy essay for The New Republic and accusing Mr. Holdren of “wielding his political position to delegitimize an academic whose views he finds inconvenient.”

Mr. Pielke was not alone in his defense. Recently, Martin Hoerling, lead scientist of the Interpreting Climate Conditions Team of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, expressed surprise at Mr. Holdren’s response to Mr. Pielke in the DotEarth blog hosted by The New York Times.

Mr. Hoerling wrote that the type of drought currently facing California “has been observed before” and that “[i]t is quite clear that the scientific evidence does not support an argument that this current California drought is appreciably, if at all, linked to human-induced climate change.”

In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for “more urgency” in combating climate change, and with his Climate Action Plan — his attempt to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions by fiat — a central theme to his legacy, we have to wonder just who is advising who?

Is the president giving orders to his science adviser to make the case that carbon-dioxide emissions are the cause of weather disasters in the United States despite the best science that argues otherwise? Or is his science adviser misinforming the president as to what the collection of science actually says, leading him to pursue carbon-dioxide regulation where it is not needed?

In either case, the situation is badly in need of repair.

Paul C. “Chip” Knappenberger is the assistant director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute.