Where There’s a Will There’s a Fray


Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

First Things First: U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon expressed confidence that international negotiators can resolve impediments to a global climate agreement, and that Copenhagen will be a productive step in that process. Ban visited Washington, DC, where he and climate adviser Janos Pasztor spoke with lawmakers about the international community’s expectations for U.S. leadership on global climate policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation that the Copenhagen COP-15 talks can be a useful “stepping stone toward full legal agreement.”


President Barack Obama may visit Copenhagen in December if he can help clinch a deal, although his track record on visiting Copenhagen to clinch deals has a 100 percent fail rate (with a sample of one). A quiet-ish week for climate on Capitol Hill pushed news out to the states, where politicians and scientists are fighting what for a while it seemed like were yesterday’s battles.

Let’s Call a Spade a Rake: Political speech sometimes has a duplicitous relationship to the record of observations and understanding that makes up what we know on any given day about “physical reality.” Few things highlight this duality quite like global warming, and no prominent columnist spends more energy prying climate rhetoric and understanding farther apart than Newsweek and Washington Post columnist George Will.

Will’s most recent column about climate change, “Everyone Out of the Water!”, makes a useful touchstone for a week marked by a widening gap between political rhetoric and scientific observation. Space limitations limit analysis of Will’s column to two points, a falsehood and a self-deflating contradiction.

Falsehood: Will dubs as “cooling” conditions that have conspired to make 10 of the hottest years on record all occur between 1997 and 2008, despite flat temperature readings. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report explains how it is possible to have a decade of sub-record breaking temperatures within a warming trend [see pp 23-24 here]. If Newsweek editors follow the lead of their Washington Post colleagues, the magazine will issue no correction, and in fact, allow him to repeat this in a later column. In April, Washington Post reporters went to the possibly unprecedented length of correcting him in a news article.

Self-Deflating Contradiction: Will questions whether “computer models are correctly projecting catastrophic global warming.” This is a fine thing to question. In fact, the entire reason we have computer models is to question them. What they do, sometimes, is give us a sense of probabilities, and among them, a sense of the probability for catastrophic, non-catastrophic, and bearable global warming. Say that you aren’t interested in climate-model projections at all. Say you are interested in U.S. population growth. You might construct a scenario based on what we know of U.S. population growth and conditions for the next few decades. In fact, later in his column, Will writes of emissions targets in the recent House climate bill, “The last time this nation had that small an amount [of emissions] was 1910, when there were only 92 million Americans, 328 million fewer than the 420 million projected for 2050.” Interesting: Why should Will ask us to dismiss any value of climate modeling, and then build his argument for ignorance and inaction based on population modeling? Climate Post bets George Will would never say to a successful hedge fund, Well, you didn’t really make all of that money because you were just using computer models to project probabilities of market behavior and bet accordingly.

Will is only the most prominently published politico to distort scientific habits of mind and the results of vetted observation. In Illinois, five of seven Republican gubernatorial candidates have taken positions against documentation and observation. Utah’s governor and state legislators this week received a “stinging rebuke” from Brigham Young University scientists for privileging “fringe positions.” In this kind of environment, credit goes to the U.S. Senate House Republicans who are pushing back at the Interior Department’s recent move to set up a climate operation: Their letter appears to keep the conversation focused on “What to do” rather than “What’s going on.” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who signed the letter, is helping address a hole in science-and-technology research by co-sponsoring a bill that would set up awards for developers of technologies to gobble up airborne carbon dioxide economically and dispose of it.

What’s Going on: Politics and scientific data have typically driven the climate conversation in the U.S. That’s changing, as, across the country, professionals are realizing that warming might challenge or change standard operating procedures. Western water managers face “a pretty daunting and disconcerting reality that we’re beginning to get our heads around,” according to a Nevada official quoted in Climate Wire. The Army Corps of Engineers sees at least some benefit to projections of potential climate change so that “make stupid large investments that are difficult or impossible to undo.” Observational data bear out their concern. The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced this week for the last decade record-high temperatures have occurred twice as frequently as record-low ones.

Welcome to Our Growing Indian Audience:
Nothing could be less surprising than, even 14 years after a international scientific collaboration detected a “discernible human influence” on global warming, a writer as influential as George Will being allowed by editors to put forth demonstrable falsehoods about the topic. This criticism is not leveled on policy issues. Deciding to do nothing about warming is one reaction to the preponderance of evidence demonstrating the risks of change. Deciding to reduce U.S. emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020–as developing nations argue we should–is another take. The latter route might lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression. The former might also lead to an economic contraction worse than the Great Depression–just not in our lifetimes. Or it might not. That’s the charm of climate change: You really have to decide how much you want to jeopardize the future based on scientifically generated risk data. George Will might argue something like the former, if he would like. He might argue something like the latter, if he would like. But whatever he argues, he might help everyone by looking more deeply at his characterization of climate risk. There’s a big difference between “catastrophic global climate change” and “the risk of catastrophic global climate change.” (Climate Post called Will’s office earlier this year, proposing a year-long team climate reporting project, but never received a response.) After all, what difference can a few degrees make?

[Late addition: Will’s irresponsible columns are a greater tragedy when placed against the sad backdrop of U.S. media dematerialization. Newsweek announced a new round of layoffs this week.]

After a month spent talking in India in part about all the new, interesting, and productive climaterelated developments occurring in the U.S, it’s a shame to have to spend time pushing back against mean-spirited factual incorrectness. To boot, our national conversation is no longer a national conversation. It’s “global” warming, not “America” warming. Many of the people who may live with the economic, social, political, and physical consequences of change are listening, looking to the U.S. for leadership, and not always finding it.