Flips, Flops, and Facts About Global Warming

June 10, 2002 • Commentary

Sure was big news on June 3 when the Bush administration released the “Climate Action Report 2002,” a document describing the effects of climate change on the United States in coming decades. It appeared to be a remarkable change in policy, espousing gloom and doom global warming scenarios that President Bush has studiously eschewed for years. Within 24 hours, though, Bush dismissed it as a “report put out by the bureaucracy,” which it was, and “re‐​vowed” his opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

The problem is that the core of the Climate Action Report was produced by the wrong administration. Chapter 6, the section on climate change effects on the U.S., is largely an outtake from the “U.S. National Assessment” (USNA) of global warming, a politically inspired document rushed to publication some 10 days before the 2000 presidential election.

The “Assessment” process began in 1997, when Vice President Gore and Clinton’s science advisor, the green radical John Gibbons, began the process of assembling a team of appropriate scientists. It was empowered by Clinton’s National Science and Technology Council, headed by Gibbons and Gore and, which is, according to the Assessment, “the principal means for the President to coordinate science, space and technology policies.” Policy is the operative word here, not science.

Through a series of committees and subcommittees that makes Enron seem straightforward, the council eventually appointed a “synthesis team” for the Assessment, which consisted of 14 persons. Two were climatologists. One had a doctorate. None had ever expressed public skepticism about the seriousness of climate change as a national and international issue. Where were the well‐​known “skeptics,” even as tokens? For example, notably absent were MIT’s Richard Lindzen, satellite‐​temperature guru John Christy, or Arizona State University’s prolific researcher Robert Balling.

Eventually the Synthesis Team produced a draft for review by the larger scientific community. But, unfortunately, the same people who put together the report decided what to do with the review comments.

Here’s the core of my review — sent to the USNA during the period for scientific comment in August 2000 — along with a translation from scientific to English:

“The essential problem with the USNA is that it is based largely on two climate models, neither of which…reduces the residual variance below the raw variance of the data.”

Translation: The two climate models that are the core of the USNA perform no better than a table of random numbers when it comes to estimating U.S. temperatures during the period of greenhouse effect changes.

Because of that, I continued:

“All implied effects, including the large temperature rise, are therefore based upon a multiple scientific failure. The USNA’s continued use of those models and that approach is a willful choice to disregard the most fundamental of scientific rules [which is that models or hypotheses must conform to reality]…for that reason alone, the USNA should be withdrawn from the public sphere until it becomes scientifically based.”

Needless to say, that review was ignored in the public comments by the Synthesis Team. They had no choice. Being handpicked to produce a report being rushed in an election cycle, how else could they respond? And when the same report served as the core for the new “Climate Action Report,” who on the Synthesis Team was going to stand up and say that the models were junk as far as U.S. temperatures were concerned? It was a no‐​win situation. And it represents perhaps the first time in my professional life that I have had sympathy for government scientists at the mercy of a political process.

More telling, in private, the USNA team replicated my experiment and found indeed that the two models couldn’t beat a table of random numbers over the United States when it came to estimating temperatures.

When the New York Times, which broke the “Climate Action Report” story, interviewed me I mentioned all of this to the reporter, Andrew Revkin. He chose not to include it. But I thought it was worth mentioning on radio and television later that day. Bush was right. The report was a product of bureaucracy, a tragedy caused when politics holds sway over science.

In my opinion, the behavior of the USNA — proceeding with models that it had determined did not work over the U.S. — was a direct shot through the heart of science. Think of it this way: Is it correct for a physician to prescribe a medication he knows does not work, even after he himself tests it? Rest in peace, Climate Action Report. Thank you, Mr. President for your respectful distance.

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