Will and Novak misled on climate change

In separate columns, George Will and Robert Novak misrepresented the facts and omitted key evidence -- embraced by the vast majority of climate scientists -- demonstrating that global warming is occurring and that human activity is contributing to the problem.

In separate columns on April 2 and April 3, nationally syndicated columnists George Will and Robert D. Novak misrepresented the facts and omitted key evidence -- embraced by the vast majority of climate scientists -- demonstrating that global warming is occurring and that human activity is contributing to the problem.

Will: Mistaken “worrie[s]” about “global cooling” in 1970s resemble current concerns over global warming

Alleging that Americans have “got[ten] their anxiety” about global warming “from journalism calculated to produce it,” Will argued in his April 2 column, titled "Let Cooler Heads Prevail," that because there were inaccurate reports in the 1970s suggesting that civilization should be “worried, very worried about global cooling,” current theories on global warming are also likely wrong:

Recently, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer flew with ABC's George Stephanopoulos over Glacier National Park's receding glaciers. [...] While worrying about Montana's receding glaciers, Schweitzer, who is 50, should also worry about the fact that when he was 20 he was told to be worried, very worried, about global cooling.

Will then pointed to a handful of reports he cited as examples of the hysteria over “global cooling.” In doing so, Will misrepresented one study when he wrote: “Science magazine (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of 'extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.' ” In fact, far from suggesting impending doom, the paper to which Will referred, Variations in the Earth's Orbit: Pacemaker of the Ice Ages, addressed only long-term trends “with periods of 20,000 years and longer.” In a 2004 column, Will cited the same Science paper while suggesting that “30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling.

Moreover, in his April 2 column, Will stated: “In fact, the Earth is always experiencing either warming or cooling.” But as climate website RealClimate.org, pointed out, Will neglected to mention that the Science magazine study “qualified its predictions by 'in the absence of human perturbation of the climate system' as did many papers at the time.” Indeed, Science exclusively addressed the impact on global cooling of natural activity, excluding human contributions “such as those due to the burning of fossil fuels.”

Noting that "[t]he National Academy of Sciences says the rise in the Earth's surface temperature has been about one degree Fahrenheit in the past century," Will challenged the significance of that finding by declaring that "[t]aking the temperature of our churning planet" involves “limited precision,” and “one degree might be the margin of error when measuring the planet's temperature.” In fact, uncertainties (here and here) such as “margin of error” are routinely taken into account by scientists in their study of long-term climate trends and were addressed in the National Academy of Sciences report that Will apparently referred to, titled Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions, which nonetheless concluded that "[d]espite the uncertainties, there is general agreement that the observed warming is real and particularly strong within the past 20 years." As Media Matters for America has noted, in its 2001 “Third Assessment Report,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that it is “very likely” (defined in the report as a 90-percent to 99-percent chance) that “the 1990s was the warmest decade, and 1998 the warmest year, in the instrumental record (1861-2000).”

Media Matters has also documented that Will previously conflated hurricane frequency with hurricane intensity to claim that no scientific evidence supports a correlation between global warming and intense hurricane activity that occurred in the fall of 2005.

Claiming scientists are “divided” on global warming, Novak trusted intelligent design advocate over NASA scientist

In his April 3 column, Novak also misconstrued the facts on global warming. First, Novak exaggerated the imminence of the global warming threat as characterized by James E. Hansen, the Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies who claimed that he was prevented by NASA from speaking out about climate change. Novak wrote, “A senior government scientist apparently risked his job to at long last reveal that only 10 years remained before global warming would ruin planet Earth.” In fact, Hansen simply said, as a January 29 article in The Washington Post noted, that "[w]e can't let [global warming] go on another 10 years like this. We've got to do something."

In another reference to Hansen, Novak cited University of Alabama researcher Roy Spencer. Novak wrote that Spencer believes Hansen is less concerned with debating science than with the “crusade for what he believes in.” But Novak omitted the fact that a major global warming study co-authored by Spencer was found to have significant errors (see here and here), and that Spencer has also taken up another cause that places him well outside the scientific mainstream -- his view that “intelligent design, as a theory of origins, is no more religious, and no less scientific, than evolutionism.”

Novak also misleadingly claimed that "[t]he scientists are divided" on the conclusions of climate change:

[T]he dispute over whether the U.S. government should regulate emissions of greenhouse gases is at heart political. But it is not a matter of industry's allies in government nullifying unanimous scientific opinion. The scientists are divided, and Hansen and his friends are using political tactics to try to prevail.

In fact, as Media Matters has documented, only a small minority of scientists dispute findings that global warming is caused by human activities. Numerous scientists and scientific organizations agree:

  • Stephen H. Schneider of Stanford University noted that only "[a] handful of 'contrarian' scientists and public figures who are not scientists have challenged mainstream climatologists' conclusions that the warming of the last few decades has been extraordinary and that at least part of this warming has been anthropogenically induced."
  • The Pew Center on Global Climate Change notes: “The scientific community has reached a strong consensus regarding the science of global climate change. The world is undoubtedly warming. This warming is largely the result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from human activities.”
  • A National Academy of Sciences report, authored by 10 academic scientists and one government scientist stated that “because climate change will likely continue in the coming decades, denying the likelihood or downplaying the relevance of past abrupt [climate] events could be costly.”
  • The American Meteorological Society stated in February 2003:

There is now clear evidence that the mean annual temperature at the Earth's surface, averaged over the entire globe, has been increasing in the past 200 years. There is also clear evidence that the abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased over the same period. In the past decade, significant progress has been made toward a better understanding of the climate system and toward improved projections of long-term climate change. Several national and international studies published in 2001 have provided reviews and assessments of the science of climate change. A National Research Council report concluded that "[g]reenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. ... The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability" (National Research Council 2001a). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that recent regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases, have already affected many physical and biological systems (McCarthy et al. 2001), and a national assessment on climate change impacts on the United States concluded that “natural ecosystems, which are our life support system in many ways, appear to be the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of climate change,” but, “highly managed ecosystems appear more robust” (National Assessment Synthesis Team 2001).

  • The American Geophysical Union stated in December 2003:

Human activities are increasingly altering the Earth's climate. These effects add to natural influences that have been present over Earth's history. Scientific evidence strongly indicates that natural influences cannot explain the rapid increase in global near-surface temperatures observed during the second half of the 20th century.

Human impacts on the climate system include increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and their substitutes, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.), air pollution, increasing concentrations of airborne particles, and land alteration. A particular concern is that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide may be rising faster than at any time in Earth's history, except possibly following rare events like impacts from large extraterrestrial objects.

  • Even a National Academy of Sciences report commissioned by the Bush administration began: “Greenhouse gases are accumulating in the Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.”
  • The Pentagon also warned (here and here) in an October 2003 report that climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern.” The executive summary states:

There is substantial evidence to indicate that significant global warming will occur during the 21st century. Because changes have been gradual so far, and are projected to be similarly gradual in the future, the effects of global warming have the potential to be manageable for most nations. Recent research, however, suggests that there is a possibility that this gradual global warming could lead to a relatively abrupt slowing of the ocean's thermohaline conveyor, which could lead to harsher winter weather conditions, sharply reduced soil moisture, and more intense winds in certain regions that currently provide a significant fraction of the world's food production. With inadequate preparation, the result could be a significant drop in the human carrying capacity of the Earth's environment.