The Week That Was
January 4-10, 1999

The circus begins again. Last Wednesday (Jan. 6) Eugene Rasmussen, president of the American Meteorological Society, said at a press briefing that a rise in global temperatures would increasingly be attributed to human activities unless scientists can make a "persuasive case" that it is just a natural fluctuation. In other words, the global warming theory is valid until someone can prove it isn't.

Hello? That turns the scientific method on its head--as junk science expert Steve Milloy politely pointed out when he posted this item (from The Daily Environment Report, Jan. 7) on-line.

Is Dr. Rasmussen another activist misusing his position to further his personal views? We've already seen a disturbing trend in that direction. During Dr. Jane Lubchenco's one-year leadership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAAS web site was not only linked to that of the climate-change activist group Ozone Action, but AAAS headquarters was used to hold a press briefing promoting global warming. Only when pressed by reporters did Dr. Lubchenco admit that the views expressed at that briefing did not represent any official position of the AAAS.

Later this month members of the Council of the American Geophysical Union will issue a public position statement on global warming that they know is inaccurate and misleading. They are plunging ahead because, as one said, it is their "duty" to "warn policy makers that something should be done." That doesn't sound like science either.

The AGU position statement will give reporters the impression that it represents a consensus view of the 35,000 AGU members. It does not. In fact, AGU members have never seen this statement, and won't before it is published.

The Council's reluctance to give the rank and file a look at the statement in advance may have something to do with an earlier, and considerably shorter, draft statement that was posted to the AGU web site some 8 months ago. Dozens of members sent in critical comments, many questioning why a global warming statement needed to be issued at all.

Now we have a final draft, and it's a pip. For example, it states that greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, "are predicted to persist in the atmosphere for times ranging to thousands of years." But according to Princeton Professor Jorge Sarmiento, an expert on this issue, about half of the CO2 injected into the atmosphere will be absorbed by the oceans within 30 years; only a fraction remains beyond even a century.* The most recent science report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 1996, makes a similar statement on CO2. Will reporters know that?

The AGU statement also claims that the geologic record "provides evidence of larger climate variations associated with changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide." This gives the misleading impression that, in the geologic past, increases in CO2 have led to a warming of the climate. In fact, the opposite is true. Several studies, including one presented at the most recent AGU conference, indicate that past increases in carbon dioxide have FOLLOWED a warming of the climate, by about 1000 years. Will reporters know that?

(Dr. Fred Singer's more detailed critique of the AGU statement will soon be posted on the SEPP web site.)

Interestingly, this kind of verbal overreach, obviously driven by our recent spate of odd weather, is spurring cautioning comments from scientists who have thus far been neutral or even on the pro-warming side.

Professor Gerald North, chairman of the meteorology department at Texas A&M University, said last week in the Washington Times that Vice President Gore's many claims relating Florida forest fires and the Texas drought/heatwave to global warming "were probably an overstatement." "El Nino probably accounted for the majority" of the "record warmth of 1998," North said, and added that the situation in Texas was caused by a high-pressure air mass that hovered over the state for weeks.

Jerry Mahlman, director of NOAA's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab at Princeton and a prominent climate modeler, locked horns with Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado on the pages of the Palm Beach Post. Trenberth claimed the odd weather was one of the signals of global warming." Mahlman, according to the Post, said that was baloney.

"Basically, we're getting jerked around by the same stuff that's been jerking us around for a long time," i.e., the El Nino and La Nina. The public perception that weather is bouncing around, said Mahlman, simply stems from the fact "that weather in the news has gotten a lot sexier than it used to be. Everybody's interested in it. You hear more about weather far from where you live than you used to...Everybody has a heightened sense of weather as something that can get you."

One follow-up item from the TW2 of two weeks ago. As readers may recall, Dr. S. Fred Singer pointed to some possible flaws in a research paper published recently in Science magazine by Dr. Tom Wigley. Dr. Wigley wrote a rebuttal and included excerpts from his paper's three prepublication reviews, each of which contained the unusual phrase "excellent and exciting." We found that consistency rather puzzling, given that reviewers are supposed to be unknown to each other.

The mystery has now been solved. Science, as it turns out, is one of several journals that includes a multiple-choice questionnaire at the end of its review form. "Excellent and exciting" is one of the boxes reviewers can check off, and apparently at least two of Wigley's reviewers picked up on the phrase and repeated it in their written comments. Wigley's third reviewer's "comment" is actually from the questionnaire itself.

Journals have been including such questionnaires in recent years so that editors won't have to read through all of the written comments. But this is unfortunate; any shortcut encourages a less than thorough reading of the paper and could result in research being rushed into print that lacks merit or is seriously flawed.

We don't know that that's what happened in this case, of course. With Dr. Wigley's paper, although Dr. Singer found it less than "excellent and exciting," we are satisfied that Wigley's three reviewers legitimately and anonymously did.

* We quote from page 78 of Dr. Fred Singer's book Hot Talk, Cold Science:

"Lifetime" is related to the fraction of emitted CO2 retained in the atmosphere. There is no single lifetime since there are different physical processes that remove CO2 -- from rapid absorption through surface layers of the oceans, to a medium-term absorption into expanding forests stimulated by CO2 fertilization, to long-term absorption into the deep ocean mediated by the rate of downwelling. IPCC WGI (1996, p. 76) states, "an approximate value of about 100 years may be given for the adjustment time of CO2 in the atmosphere, the actual adjustment is faster in the beginning and slower later on."

Until next week...

TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall

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