George Will: Uncheckable?

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Long-time readers of this blog will be aware of my Ahab-like obsession with George Will’s global warming errors in the Washington Post–and the Post’s hollow claims to have carefully fact-checked him. I confess that I’ve let a couple of his more recent columns slip by. But I had to stop to blog about his latest take on global warming, in which he jumps on the recently stolen emails among climate scientists. He does a remarkable job of making no sense at all.

In case you haven’t followed it, somebody stole thousands of private emails from the University of East Anglia, where the Climate Research Unit gathers and analyzes climate data. Suspicions are turning to Russian hackers, but there’s been no official word about who did it. The emails ended up on the Internet, and have become a big deal. The University of East Anglia, for example, is investigating both the theft itself and the accusations that have been leveled against UAE scientists as a result.

There’s been a huge amount of stuff published in newspapers and on blogs in the two weeks since the theft. I recommend a piece in Popular Mechanics by a geochemist at Columbia named Peter Keleman. Keleman carefully distinguishes between the possible ethical issues raised in the emails and where this controversy leaves the science of climate change.

Unfortunately, pieces like Keleman’s are not stopping the spread of myths that promote the notion that global warming is a fiction generated by a global (and centuries-old!) conspiracy. For example, US congressmen are claiming that the emails reveal a campaign of suppression that included the firing of the editor of a journal called Climate Research after the publication of a “skeptical” paper. Actually, the editor-in-chief resigned in protest over the paper, which he considered flawed, as well as the publisher’s unwillingness to let him write an editorial about that. (Three other editors resigned at the same time.)

George Will gets on the bandwagon, too, in his latest piece. He tries to fold the news about the email theft into his favorite errors, like the one about how global warming actually “stopped” in 1998, because 1998 was warmer than any other year since. He seizes on one email for his opportunity.

A CRU e-mail says: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment” — this “moment” is in its second decade — “and it is a travesty that we can’t.”

Will has put himself in a bind. He loves to tell us that it’s been over ten years that there has been no global warming. In an earlier column, he invoked the World Meteorological Organization as his source, linking to this document (pdf). But the climate record they show (on page 4) is the handiwork of none other than the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, the epicenter of those wretched climate scientists who, Will assures us, “compound their delusions of intellectual adequacy with messiah complexes.” If you look at analyses produced by other groups, 1998 does not appear as the warmest year on record–instead, it is much more recent. In NASA’s analysis, it’s 2006. The difference lies, in part, in the weather stations included in the analyses.

Will cannot have it both ways. He cannot pretend to speak with authority about the history of climate, but rely on people he considers cranks as authorities on that history.

None other than the Secretary General of Will’s beloved World Meteorological Organization himself wrote to the Post in March to explain why Will’s fixation on 1998 was misleading:

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.

Evidence of global warming has been documented in widespread decreases in snow cover, sea ice and glaciers. The 11 warmest years on record occurred in the past 13 years.

The difference between long-term and short-term patterns was actually at the heart of the email Will quotes. Kevin Trenberth of National Center for Atmospheric Research was writing in reference to a paper (pdf) he recently published in which he wrote that, while the long-term trend in global warming is clear, scientists ought to try to monitor short-term variability more closely to understand its sources. In other words, Trenberth was not  part of a conspiracy to hide some embarrassing facts about the climate history. He was writing about it in public, and proposing ways to move the science forward.

I have no idea if Will was even aware that Trenberth wrote the email, let alone bothered to read the paper to get some context. But a fact-checker definitely should have, and should have raised a host of red flags.