Commentary

Press: We Decide, We Report

“We Report, You Decide,” FoxNews’ catchy slogan, definitely isn’t the way the mainstream papers report on global climate change. Two recent examples demonstrate their egregious lack of rigor (or dare we say purposeful lack of balance) surrounding this important issue.

Is climate change getting worse? On Dec. 12, Usha Lee McFarling wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “groups that are concerned about climate change point out that the rate of warming is steeply increasing,” something which would (and perhaps should) alarm every reader.

Her source? Lester Brown, author of about 25 consecutive annual “State of the World” reports about how ecological doom is at hand. (After a quarter-century don’t you think even the greenest pressie might catch on to the scam)?

Quoting Brown, McFarling wrote, “Studying these annual temperature data, one gets the unmistakable feeling that the temperature is rising and that the rise is gaining momentum.”

How California! Brown and the L.A. Times may choose to trust “feelings,” but real science is a world where the data report and the data decide. Is there an accelerating warming trend in recent decades? Absolutely not.

Most scientists believe the earth’s surface temperature turned a corner sometime in the mid- or late 1970s when a three-decade period of global cooling ended abruptly and a warming began. In fact, there’s a California-discovered peculiarity, known as “the great Pacific climate shift” of 1976-77, which seems to initiate the current climate era. So let’s start an analysis in 1977, or a quarter-century ago.

My research director, Chip Knappenberger, calculated the rate of warming for the first five years (1977-82), and then added successive years, all the way up to 1977-2002 (making some modest assumptions about the last two weeks of the current year). If the L.A. Times and Lester Brown were right-and if the latter had really “studied” the data instead of relying on “feelings”-he would have found no significant trend whatsoever in the rate of warming in the last quarter century.

This seems a bit surprising because right near the end of the record, in 1998, is the whopping El Nino that was created with what was clearly the warmest year. You’d think that would induce some type of increasing trend, but it doesn’t. After futzing around for the first few years, the well-established trend is 0.15ºC per decade. Rock solid.

While the very green Times characterized Brown as a “respected authority” on climate, he isn’t. Rather, he is an experienced agronomist. So it’s not surprising that he’s not overly current with trends in climate science.

According to James Mahoney, U.S. Department of Commerce, taxpayers have doled out about $20 billion on climate science since 1990, and unless all that money is wrong, human-induced warming should take place at a constant or nearly constant rate once it starts. That’s the “central tendency” of the dozens of models for future climate that have been developed largely on those dollars-a fact illustrated in Chapter 9 of the latest compendium on climate change from the United Nations.

How difficult is it to determine whether warming is accelerating since the mid-1970s? It took Chip about 10 minutes to find the U.N.’s global temperature record and analyze it for increasing trends.

It would be convenient to blame this all on idealogues, but unfortunately it is often the scientific community itself that is less than candid. On Dec. 8, both the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times carried a story headlined “Arctic Ice is Melting at Record Level, Scientists Say.” The N.Y. Times actually contradicted itself in the first sentence, which read, “The melting of Greenland glaciers and Arctic Ocean sea ice this past summer reached levels not seen in decades.” Some record.

All of this came out of the December meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, from a paper that examined satellite records of arctic ice back to 1978. The selfsame AGU, in its premier journal, EOS, on Nov. 18, ran an article by Igor Polyakov that examined arctic ice and temperature back to 1878, a record some 100 years longer than the satellite data. Discussing ice extent, Polyakov wrote, “long-term trends are small and generally statistically insignificant,” and that “the high latitude temperature increase was stronger in the late 1930s to the early 1940s,” long before the initiation of much human warming. The warmest Arctic year was 1938, some 64 years ago.

None of this was noted in any press contact with the AGU. So it’s not just the media. But surely some science editor at either newspaper had to be aware of Polyakov’s article. And if they weren’t, why are they science editors at papers of such stature?

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at Cato Institute and the co-author of “Satanic Gases” (Cato Institute).