Is the Sky Really Falling? A Review of Recent Global Warming Scare Stories

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Executive Summary

In the last two years, a remarkable amount ofdisturbing news has been published concerningglobal warming, largely concentrating on meltingof polar ice, tropical storms and hurricanes,and mass extinctions. The sheer volume of thesestories appears to be moving the American politicalprocess toward some type of policy restrictingemissions of carbon dioxide.

It is highly improbable, in a statistical sense,that new information added to any existing forecastis almost always “bad” or “good”; rather,each new finding has an equal probability ofmaking a forecast worse or better. Consequently,the preponderance of bad news almost certainlymeans that something is missing, both in theprocess of science itself and in the reporting ofscience. This paper examines in detail bothrecent scientific reports on climate change andthe communication of those reports.

Needless to say, the unreported informationis usually counter to the bad news. Reports ofrapid disintegration of Greenland’s ice ignorethe fact that the region was warmer than it isnow for several decades in the early 20th century,before humans could have had much influenceon climate. Similar stories concerning Antarcticaneglect the fact that the net temperature trend inrecent decades is negative, or that warming thesurrounding ocean can serve only to enhancesnowfall, resulting in a gain in ice. Global warmingaffects hurricanes in both positive and negativefashions, and there is no relationshipbetween the severity of storms and ocean-surfacetemperature, once a commonly exceeded thresholdtemperature is reached. Reports of massivespecies extinction also turn out to be impressivelyflawed.

This constellation of half-truths and misstatementsis a predictable consequence of theway that science is now conducted, where issuescompete with each other for public support.Unfortunately, this creates a culture of negativitythat is reflected in the recent spate of globalwarming reports.

Patrick J. Michaels

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and professor of natural resources at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists and an author of the 2003 climate science “Paper of the Year” selected by the Association of American Geographers. His research has been published in major scientific journals, including Climate Research, Climatic Change, Geophysical Research Letters, Journal of Climate, Nature, and Science. He received his Ph.D. in ecological climatology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1979. His most recent book is Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media.