The Week That Was
July 13-19, 1998

Vice President Al Gore’s White House press briefing on July 14 was —- well -— classic Al Gore. Flanked by tame government scientists, the Vice President released a global temperature analysis that claimed last month was the hottest June since reliable record-keeping started over a century ago. Mr. Gore said forcefully "The evidence of global warming keeps piling up, month after month, week after week. How long is it going to take before these people in the Congress get the message? People are sweltering out there." Gore then acknowledged that there's no proof that the recent extreme weather events are being caused by global warming.

Media-wise, the briefing was more notable for who passed on it than who wrote it up. NBC and ABC did the usual gush and CNN Headline News prefaced coverage of the Dallas heatwave with one of the more asinine statements on television: "Federal officcials today said the first six months of this year have been the warmest in the history of the Earth." Major newspapers, however, largely took a pass. The Washington Post was the only paper to give the briefing significant play. Associated Press covered it, but not UPI/Reuters or the Dow Jones Newswire. Nothing turned up on the Internet at the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, or Miami Herald. The Boston Globe ran the AP story on page 14, but cut it short, ending with (and thereby emphasizing) a paragraph about how satellite-based temperature readings show a slight downward trend. The Wall Street Journal gave it a few sentences in a news round-up column; one assumes when the Apocalypse is announced the Journal will set it in larger type.

The same day Gore was staging his briefing, Dr. John Christy of the Earth System Science Laboratory, University of Alabama, Huntsville, raised questions about local weather "records" turning up in newscasts around the country. After both Associated Press and National Public Radio announced that last month in Huntville, Alabama, was the hottest ever, Dr. Christy researched the local records at the Alabama State Climatology Office. He found that there were six years--1914, 1921, 1936, 1943, 1952, and 1953—with warmer Junes than 1998. He speculated that reporters were inadvertently being given faulty information by the National Weather Service, whose computerized data banks are incomplete. Indeed, the NWS Office in Birmingham, Alabama, admitted its state data only went back to 1958.

Multiply Huntsville by a few dozen cities around the United States and you have a major information snafu—one that affects public perceptions about whether the climate is warming. After Christy went public with his concerns, a Canadian colleague reported a similar problem in Canada, where regional temperature records are given only for the last 50 years, despite the fact that many locations have records going back a hundred years and more. Again, it presents the distorted view that recent temperatures are the warmest "ever." Staff members assigned to the House Small Business Committee, chaired by Congressman Jim Talent, have been trying for the past month to arrange a House debate on the scientific evidence for global warming. Satellite data expert Dr. John Christy; Dr. Patrick Michaels, climatologist and professor, University of Virginia; and SEPP President Dr. S. Fred Singer, physicist and former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, were readily lined up to present a critique of the government’s evidence. A number of other scientist-critics were equally available.

But despite some flexibility on the date (finally scheduled for Monday, July 27), signing up the government’s usual suspects for the pro-warming presentation—the same scientists who are only too happy to come to Washington, D.C., to star in the Vice President’s press briefings or to submit to an interview with reporters from CNN, NBC, ABC, etc.--proved a bit of a problem. As staff members ruefully reported, here are the replies:

Dr. James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Science in New York: It’s really not a good time for me to get away right now.

Dr. Stephen Schneider, Stanford professor and author of two books on global warming: Stanford won’t pay my travel, and besides I have jury duty.

Dr. Robert Watson, with the World Bank Environment Program and now chairman of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC ), who finally responded after five telephone calls: Sorry I’m going to be out of the country.

Dr. Michael McCracken, director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program: Gee, I’d like to come, but I’m putting on a conference that week.

Dr. Jerry Mahlman, director of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton, where pricey global climate modeling is supported by government funds through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: Mahlman insulted the scientist-critics, loudly insulted the congressional staff member who called him, and refused to take part in the debate.

Dr. Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s Climate Data Center, Asheville, NC: Initially asked to "think about it" overnight; called back an hour later and said he’d be on leave the week before and didn’t want to use vacation time to prepare. Sorry.

Dr. John Holdren, environmental policy professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government: Going to be out of town that day.

Dr. Daniel Lashoff, formerly with the Clinton administration, now back as senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council: I’ll come, but not if I’m the only witness.

Staff members, shocked by the response, say they will likely recommend to the Committee chairman that the debate be postponed until late August. If government experts present a second round of excuses, they say they will recommend more forceful means of getting these witnesses to the table.

Well, suing the government seems to get results. On Friday, July 17, the U.S. District Court in North Carolina, acting on a lawsuit filed by the tobacco industry, struck down a 1993 finding by the Environmental Protection Agency that so-called "second-hand smoke" causes lung cancer. According to the Associated Press, the EPA’s controversial report concluded that second-hand tobacco smoke should be classified as a Class A carcinogen and was responsible for more than 3,000 lung cancer deaths a year. That report has since been cited widely in decisions by state and local officials to restrict smoking in public places, including bars, restaurants, airliners, and offices.

But the court ruled that the EPA had based its report on inadequate science and failed to demonstrate a statistically significant relationship between second-hand smoke and lung cancer. It further stated that the EPA followed improper procedure by not including industry experts in its deliberations, as required by law, and further criticized the EPA for having "aggressively utilized" the report’s findings "to establish a de facto regulatory scheme intended to restrict plaintiffs’ products and to influence public opinion."

Said the court: "EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before research had begun...[and] adjusted established procedures and scientific norms to validate the agency’s public conclusions."

Not surprisingly, the EPA announced that an appeal was virtually certain. Carol Browner, EPA administrator, said she was "disturbed" by the decision. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said, "No one wants to go back to smoking on airplanes, smoking in restaurants. No one wants to go back to polluting indoors."

We haven’t seen any surveys on how the public feels about a ban versus simply setting aside a smoking section in restaurants and airplanes, but that misses the point. Any survey of airline "frequent flyers" would turn up a goodly number who would like to see crying babies shipped by truck, but is anyone suggesting cooking scientific research so the government could justify banning babies from airlines? The point is, the EPA distorted and misused science to support arbitrary social policy. As the court in North Carolina ruled, that has to stop.

With that, we’ll pour ourselves a tall, cool one, and bask in summer sunshine until next week.

UPDATE, July 22: The House Small Business Committee debate on global warming will go on as scheduled on Monday, July 27.

Much bluster at the White House after reporters began inquiring about the shy response from its experts on global warming.

As a result, IPCC Chairman Dr. Robert Watson will be there on Monday, along with Dan Lashoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to present the government's case.

This issue of TW^2 was compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall

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