Up in the Air
by Elizabeth Kolbert – April 12, 2010
Joe Bastardi, who goes by the title “expert senior forecaster” at AccuWeather, has a modest proposal. Virtually every major scientific body in the world has concluded that the planet is warming, and that greenhouse-gas emissions are the main cause. Bastardi, who holds a bachelor’s degree in meteorology, disagrees. His theory, which mixes volcanism, sunspots, and a sea-temperature trend known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, is that the earth is actually cooling. Why don’t we just wait twenty or thirty years, he proposes, and see who’s right? This is “the greatest lab experiment ever,” he said recently on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show.
Bastardi’s position is ridiculous (which is no doubt why he’s often asked to air it on Fox News). Yet there it was on the front page of the Times last week. Among weathermen, it turns out, views like Bastardi’s are typical. A survey released by researchers at George Mason University found that more than a quarter of television weathercasters agree with the statement “Global warming is a scam,” and nearly two-thirds believe that, if warming is occurring, it is caused “mostly by natural changes.” (The survey also found that more than eighty per cent of weathercasters don’t trust “mainstream news media sources,” though they are presumably included in this category.)
Why, with global warming, is it always one step forward, two, maybe three steps back? A year ago, it looked as if the so-called climate debate might finally be over, and the business of actually addressing the problem about to begin. In April, the Obama Administration designated CO2 a dangerous pollutant, thus taking the first critical step toward regulating carbon emissions. The following month, the Administration announced new fuel-efficiency standards for cars. (These rules were finalized last week.) In June, the House of Representatives passed a bill, named for its co-sponsors, Edward Markey and Henry Waxman, that called for reducing emissions seventeen per cent by 2020. Speaking in September at the United Nations, the President said that a “new era” had dawned. “We understand the gravity of the climate threat,” he declared. “We are determined to act.”
Then, much like the Arctic ice cap, that “new era” started to fall to pieces. The U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in December broke up without agreement even on a possible outline for a future treaty. A Senate version of the Markey-Waxman bill failed to materialize and, it’s now clear, won’t be materializing anytime this year. (Indeed, the one thing that seems certain not to be in a Senate energy bill is the economy-wide emissions reduction required by the House bill.) Last week, despite the Senate’s inaction, President Obama announced that he was opening huge swaths of the Atlantic and Alaskan coasts to oil drilling. The White House billed the move as part of a “comprehensive energy strategy,” a characterization that, as many commentators pointed out, made no sense, since comprehensiveness is precisely what the President’s strategy lacks. As Josh Nelson put it on the blog EnviroKnow, “Obama is either an exceptionally bad negotiator, or he actually believes in some truly awful policy ideas. Neither of these possibilities bodes well.”
As lawmakers dither, public support for action melts away. In a Gallup poll taken last month, forty-eight per cent of respondents said that they believe the threat of global warming to be “generally exaggerated.” This figure was up from thirty-five per cent just two years ago. According to the same poll, only fifty-two per cent of Americans believe that “most scientists believe that global warming is occurring,” down from sixty-five per cent in 2008.
The most immediate explanation for this disturbing trend is the mess that’s come to be known as Climategate. Here the situation is the reverse of what’s going on in the troposphere: Climategate really is a hyped-up media phenomenon. Late last year, hackers broke into the computer system at the Climatic Research Unit of Britain’s University of East Anglia and posted online hundreds of private e-mails from scientists. In the e-mails, C.R.U. researchers often express irritation with their critics—the death of one detractor is described as “cheering news”—and discuss ways to dodge a slew of what they consider to be nuisance Freedom of Information requests. The e-mails were widely portrayed in the press and in the blogosphere as evidence of a conspiracy to misrepresent the data. But, as a parliamentary committee appointed to investigate the matter concluded last week, this charge is so off base that it is difficult even to respond to: “Insofar as the committee was able to consider accusations of dishonesty against CRU, the committee considers that there is no case to answer.”
The e-mail brouhaha was followed by—and immediately confused with—another overblown controversy, about a mistake in the second volume of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, from 2007. On page 493 of the nine-hundred-and-seventy-six-page document, it is asserted, incorrectly, that the Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035. (The report cites as a source for this erroneous information a report by the World Wildlife Fund.) The screw-up, which was soon acknowledged by the I.P.C.C. and the W.W.F., was somehow transformed by commentators into a reason to doubt everything in the three-volume assessment, including, by implication, the basic laws of thermodynamics. The “new scandal (already awarded the unimaginative name of ‘Glaciergate’) raises further challenges for a scientific theory that is steadily losing credibility,” James Heiser wrote on the Web site of the right-wing magazine New American.
No one has ever offered a plausible account of why thousands of scientists at hundreds of universities in dozens of countries would bother to engineer a climate hoax. Nor has anyone been able to explain why Mother Nature would keep playing along; despite what it might have felt like in the Northeast these past few months, globally it was one of the warmest winters on record.
The message from scientists at this point couldn’t be clearer: the world’s emissions trajectory is extremely dangerous. Goofball weathermen, Climategate, conspiracy theories—these are all a distraction from what’s really happening. Which, apparently, is what we’re looking for. ♦