"Do not quote or cite." Stamp that phrase on a government document on global warming that's still in peer review and you're guaranteed to ignite climate change hysteria. That is especially true with magnum opus reports on the environment. The last United Nations compendium on global warming was published in 1996, but New York Times environmental reporter Bill Stevens had it above the fold in September 1995. Not surprisingly, one of the U.N. paper's 1,000-odd reviewers had put it on the Internet, just hoping for exactly what happened. Stevens obliged, saying that "it was on the Internet, and therefore I felt I had to do it."
Stevens wrote that the upcoming report would contain "an important shift of scientific judgment" on human effects on the earth's climate. In fact, the report's centerpiece phrase, "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate," wasn't officially inserted into the text until 20 minutes after midnight on November 30, 1995. Someone had leaked to Stevens not only text but also an additional, profoundly important sentence the U.N. had planned to insert after the peer review process had ended.
The U.N. remains one of a handful of entities addicted to five-year plans. So, right on schedule, it posted the review draft of a new climate report, called the "Third Assessment Report" (TAR), on the Internet last month. This time the Washington Post's Curt Suplee beat out his rival Stevens, who is busy trying to retire and sell his global warming book, A Change in the Weather, at the same time.
Suplee's story quotes from the current draft of the TAR: "The observed warming of the last 100 years is exceptional and unlikely to be solely natural in origin" (emphasis added). The fragmentary quote is certainly a bit more incendiary than the whole cloth, but its use is repeating the effects of the 1995 leaks. That time around, Bruce Callendar, a senior official involved in producing that U.N. report, said, "All knew that the sentence [about a discernible human impact] would be the most widely quoted in the report." Callendar went on to state that "some of the media conveyed this message to the public in a corrupted form, presenting it as proof that greenhouse gas emissions . . . could be blamed for contemporary weather extremes, from floods to droughts."
Two of the most frequent "corrupters" are President Clinton and Vice President Gore, who are habituated to standing in front of every weather disaster and blaming global warming, unchallenged or uncorrected by either the U.N. or the hundreds of U.S. scientists who know better. Can anyone recall an instance in which a U.N. official stood up on television or wrote in a newspaper to denounce anyone who "corrupted" the 1996 statement?
The U.N. is standing similarly mute this time around. But what would happen if someone spun back the U.N.'s words in full, which state that the latest scientific research is too inaccurate to say how much of, or even whether, the warming of the last 100 years is caused by human activity?
At least that's what the words "suggest" (no certainty) and "unlikely to be solely of natural origin" (we don't know how much) mean.
I offer a guarantee, though: If any scientist proposed that explanation in the combined presence of a television camera and a U.N. official, he would be accused of not being a member of the U.N.'s so-called consensus of scientists, despite what's really in the TAR.
A final note with regard to the designation of "exceptional" climate: In the last 1,000 years, the warming of the last third of the 20th century has been equaled only once, by a similar warming in the first third of the same century. Never mind that humans hadn't changed the greenhouse effect very much in that first instance. But think back -- beyond the arbitrary 1,000-year time frame imposed by the TAR. Approximately 15,000 years ago, half of North America was covered by thousands of feet of ice. Before that, for 97 percent of the last 300 million years (1,000 years is 1/3,000 of that), the earth's surface temperature averaged warmer than it is today.
What's "exceptional"? Glaciers over Chicago or a nice May day in Washington? Who now is going to write the rest of the story, given that everyone has read that the current climate is "exceptional"? Save for a few scientists and journalists, only readers of this column know that the "exceptional" climate was merely "suggested" by scientific research and that it is "unlikely" to have been "solely natural." But the whole truth isn't what happens when we leak the TAR.