George Will’s recent articles on climate change In the Washington Post have been thoroughly debunked, despite this no correction has been issued. We have, however, gotten the next best thing, four Washington Post articles calling out George Will for the blatant falsehoods in his articles.
This first article is by Chris Mooney, who does a thorough job of dismantling all the main points in Will’s original Article.
A recent controversy over claims about climate science by Post op-ed columnist George F. Will raises a critical question: Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?…
Consider a few of Will’s claims from his Feb. 15 column, “Dark Green Doomsayers“: In a long paragraph quoting press sources from the 1970s, Will suggested that widespread scientific agreement existed at the time that the world faced potentially catastrophic cooling. Today, most climate scientists and climate journalists consider this a timeworn myth. Just last year, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society published a peer-reviewed study examining media coverage at the time and the contemporary scientific literature. While some media accounts did hype a cooling scare, others suggested more reasons to be concerned about warming. As for the published science? Reviewing studies between 1965 and 1979, the authors found that “emphasis on greenhouse warming dominated the scientific literature even then.”…
Will wrote that “according to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” It turns out to be a relatively meaningless comparison, though the Arctic Climate Research Center has clarified that global sea ice extent was “1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979.” Again, though, there’s a bigger issue: Will’s focus on “global” sea ice at two arbitrarily selected points of time is a distraction. Scientists pay heed to long-term trends in sea ice, not snapshots in a noisy system. And while they expect global warming to reduce summer Arctic sea ice, the global picture is a more complicated matter; it’s not as clear what ought to happen in the Southern Hemisphere. But summer Arctic sea ice is indeed trending downward, in line with climatologists’ expectations — according to the Arctic Climate Research Center.
Will also wrote that “according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.” The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is one of many respected scientific institutions that support the consensus that humans are driving global warming. Will probably meant that since 1998 was the warmest year on record according to the WMO — NASA, in contrast, believes that that honor goes to 2005 — we haven’t had any global warming since. Yet such sleight of hand would lead to the conclusion that “global cooling” sets in immediately after every new record temperature year, no matter how frequently those hot years arrive or the hotness of the years surrounding them. Climate scientists, knowing that any single year may trend warmer or cooler for a variety of reasons — 1998, for instance, featured an extremely strong El Niño — study globally averaged temperatures over time. To them, it’s far more relevant that out of the 10 warmest years on record, at least seven have occurred in the 2000s — again, according to the WMO.
Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists — following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It’s also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be — now more than ever.
Next up is and article by Michel Jarraud the Secretary General of the WMO who takes issue with Will’s misuse of the WMO data.
It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column [“Dark Green Doomsayers,” George F. Will, op-ed, Feb. 15] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.
The difference between climate variability and climate change is critical, not just for scientists or those engaging in policy debates about warming. Just as one cold snap does not change the global warming trend, one heat wave does not reinforce it. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit.
But that wasn’t enough to stop George Will, who then wrote more articles on climate change, again misrepresenting the data. Thankfully the more responsible reporters at the Washington Post aren’t taking Will’s misinformation lying down.
Washington Post reporters Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan’s recent piece on the alarming decline of Arctic sea ice, contains the following bit:
The new evidence—including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s—contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.
As David Roberts points out, this is significant because it is exceedingly rare (so much so that he cannot think of another instance) to have a news story at a newspaper explicitly call out an op-ed writer in the same paper for lying, by name.
Next up is Andrew Freeman who writes:
Will Misleads Readers on Climate Science – Again
George Will’s recent columns demonstrate a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science. They raise some interesting questions about journalism, specifically concerning the editing process. Editors and fact checkers are there to ensure that publications like the Washington Post don’t print factually incorrect information…
Will’s climate change columns are a case study in how one can cherry pick scientific data to fit their own agenda. Take his most recent climate change column, for example, which ran in the Post last week. It contained the statement:
“Reducing carbon emissions supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring even though, according to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization, there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998.”
Will appears to have borrowed this nugget from climate change skeptic web sites, which have elevated the argument that global warming has stopped or reversed to the status of an Internet ‘meme.’ However, it has been debunked time and again.
Will’s statement (and another like it in a previous column) is correct in the sense that the World Meteorological Organization considers 1998 to be the warmest year since the start of the instrumental record (although NOAA data indicate 2005 was just as warm). But he fails to accurately convey a fundamental facet of the global warming story, which is that human influences on the climate system take place within the context of the planet’s natural climate variability.
As a forthcoming scientific study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters makes clear, man made global warming is not likely to take place in a monotonic manner, in which each year is warmer than the next. Instead, as can be seen throughout the observational climate record, there will be zigs and zags in the temperature graph. Sometimes the planet may halt its overall warming trend for as long as a decade or two, as may be occurring now, but at other times such a trend will accelerate. The important point is that over decades-long, statistically significant timescales, the climate is likely to continue to warm, with potentially profound consequences for the planet…
Will’s previous two columns contained another misleading statement about climate science, this time concerning sea ice. In his February 15 piece, Will wrote:
“As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”
According to climate scientists, citing “global” sea ice statistics like that is nearly meaningless in the context of global climate change, since it is well known that Arctic sea ice (i.e., the North Pole) should diminish in a world warmed by greenhouse gas emissions, while the Antarctic sea ice would remain stable or even grow. Such patterns are predicted by the computer models scientists use to help predict climate shifts, and is verified by their understanding of climate dynamics.
So while we haven’t gotten a correction to Will’s obviously false claims, we can take some comfort in the the fact that there still exist responsible journalists at the Washington Post, and that they aren’t willing to let Will’s claims go unchallenged.
UPDATE: I missed this the first time around, but we also have Washington’s Tom Toles making fun of George Will in his latest political cartoon. Is four articles, and one cartoon enough to make George Will or the Washington Post issue a correction?