National Geographic Melting Down?

September 9, 2004 • Commentary

This is not your father’s National Geographic any more. Once a coffee table staple with gorgeous photos of people, places and things, it now more resembles a host of other slick lobbying mags, pushing today’s popular issues.

Last month’s cover story was “fat.” What has that to do with geography, other than some people are skinny, some are large, and they all don’t live in the same place? And obesity turns out to be a pretty slippery subject, given that what is fat today was considered healthy a century ago.

This month it’s global warming, a subject that actually lends itself to quantitative fact‐​checking, of which National Geographic apparently did little.

Dispassionate objectivity and virtue are the claims of every lobby. So, on the masthead, editor Bill Allen informs us what’s inside isn’t “science fiction” and “we’re not going to show you waves swamping the Statue of Liberty” (referring to this summer’s ludicrous global warming flick, The Day After Tomorrow). He realizes what’s inside may not jibe with the perceptions of some of us unfortunates who live outside Georgetown, but he “can live with some canceled memberships” to tell what he calls “the biggest story in geography today.”

His masthead essay must have been completed before the final copy came in, because the fourth paragraph of the first article, by Daniel Glick, says the effects of global warming indeed are “like watching the Statue of Liberty melt.”

This massive rhetorical gaffe, unfortunately, is typical. I will start with the first misrepresentation of facts. When I get to this article’s word limit, I’ll still have 75 percent of them left.

It begins with a picture of a flooded rice field in Bangladesh, with the comment that “as global temperatures and sea level climbs [rice farming] becomes an ever more precarious means of support.” In 2001, Cecile Cabanes calculated sea‐​level rise for the last half‐​century around the world. In Bangladesh, there was a net fall in the 1990s. In the last 50 years, it has risen there an infinitesimal seven‐​tenths of an inch, far too little for anyone to notice, in Bangladesh or anywhere else.

People in North Carolina adapt and prosper, living with sea level rises of 12 feet in 10 minutes, or a decent hurricane storm surge. If seven‐​tenths of an inch in 50 years is a problem, it’s a social, not a climatic, one.

Two pages later, we read, “Human activity almost certainly drove most of the past century’s warming.” That’s not true either. There were two warming periods in the 20th century — one early and one late — and they were both the same magnitude. There is little dispute the first was “natural,” caused by a warming sun. It occurred before humans could have influenced climate much with industrial emissions.

Speaking of human influence, the next paragraph says “warming may not be gradual.” Yet double‐​digit billions of dollars of scientific research comes to this central tendency: Once human warming begins in the atmosphere, it occurs at a constant rate. At least that’s what the average of all of our climate models for the future says.

And, if the warming trend of late 20th‐​century temperatures is caused by humans, which is reasonable, that rate has been established. And, indeed, what is remarkable is its constancy and that it is at the absolute low end of computer projections.

The first article starts with the melting of Sperry Glacier, in Montana’s Glacier National Park, saying, “A trailside sign notes that, since 1901, Sperry Glacier has shrunk from more than 800 to 300 acres.” Indeed, it has. And, according to data from the National Climatic data center, which you can download at www​.wrcc​.dri​.edu, summer temperatures averaged over Western Montana show absolutely no warming trend whatsoever in the 20th century. Glaciers melt in the summer.

Next column: “The famed snows of Kilimanjaro have melted more than 80 percent since 1912.” Again, indeed, true. In the “natural” warming of the first part of the 20th century, Kilimanjaro lost 45 percent of its cap. From 1953 through 1976, another 21 percent. That occurred while the planet cooled. Since 1976, in the era of “human” warming, another 12 percent, or the slowest melt rate of the last 100 years. National Geographic forgot to tell us this. Or that from 4,000 to 11,000 years ago it was much warmer in Africa than today, and Kilimanjaro’s cap was much larger than now.

Seven misleading statements in three pages. There are 28 more. When the truth gets this stretched, that’s more than one person’s work. Instead, it’s a process, where scientists tell editors what they want to hear, editors don’t check the facts and, ultimately, we all pay with very bad policies. Unfortunately, it’s all predictable.

Different scientific communities compete with each other for a finite (but large) amount of our tax dollars, and no one ever won out by saying his or her issue was not the world’s most important problem. That makes great copy for Washington’s other lobbies, like the National Geographic Society, now crusading against obesity and global warming.

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