That Rupert Murdoch governs over a criminal media empire has been made clear enough in the UK courts in recent years. That the Wall Street Journal op-ed pages, the latest victim of Murdoch’s lawless greed, are little more than naked propaganda is perhaps less appreciated. The Journal runs one absurd op-ed after another purporting to unmask climate change science, but only succeeds in unmasking the crudeness and ignorance of Murdoch’s henchmen. Yesterday’s (September 5) op-edby Matt Ridley is a case in point.
Ridley’s “smoking gun” is a paper last week in Science Magazine by two scientists Xianyao Chen and Ka-Kit Tung, which Ridley somehow believes refutes all previous climate science. Ridley quotes a sentence fragment from the press release suggesting that roughly half of the global warming in the last three decades of the past century (1970-2000) was due to global warming and half to a natural Atlantic Ocean cycle. He then states that “the man-made warming of the past 20 years has been so feeble that a shifting current in one ocean was enough to wipe it out altogether,” and “That to put the icing on the case of good news, Xianyao Chen and Ka-Kit Tung think the Atlantic Ocean may continue to prevent any warming for the next two decades.”
The Wall Street Journal editors don’t give a hoot about the nonsense they publish if it serves their cause of fighting measures to limit human-induced climate change. If they had simply gone online to read the actual paper, they would have found that the paper’s conclusions are the very opposite of Ridley’s.
First, the paper makes perfectly clear that the Earth is warming in line with standard climate science, and that the Earth’s warming is unabated in recent years. In the scientific lingo of the paper (it’s very first line, so Ridley didn’t have far to read!), “Increasing anthropogenic greenhouse-gas-emissions perturb Earth’s radiative equilibrium, leading to a persistent imbalance at the top of the atmosphere (TOA) despite some long-wave radiative adjustment.” In short, we humans are filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel use, and we are warming the planet.
Second, the total warming is distributed between the land and ocean surface on the one hand and the ocean deep water on the other. The total rise of ocean heat content has continued unabated, while the proportion of heat absorbed at the surface and in the deeper ocean varies over time. Again, in the scientific lingo of the paper, “[T]his forced total OHC [ocean heat content] should be increasing monotonically over longer periods even through the current period of slowed warming. In fact, that expectation is verified by observation …”. In other words, the ocean has continued to warm in line with predictions of just such a phenomenon seen in climate models.
Third, it is the “vertical distribution” of the warming, between the surface and deep water, which affects the warming observed on land and at the sea surface. The point of the paper is that the allocation of the warming vertically varies over time, sometimes warming the surface rapidly, other times warming the deeper ocean to a great extent and the surface water less rapidly. According to the paper, the period of the late 20th century was a period in which the surface was warmed relative to the deeper ocean. The period since 2000 is the opposite, with more warming of the deeper ocean. How do the scientists know? They measure the ocean temperature at varying depths with a sophisticated system of “Argo profiling floats,” which periodically dive into the ocean depths to take temperature readings and resurface to transmit them to the data centers.
So, what is Ridley’s “smoking gun” when you strip away his absurd version of the paper? It goes like this. The Earth is continuing to warm just as greenhouse gas theory holds. The warming heats the land and the ocean. The ocean distributes some of the warming to the surface waters and some to the deeper waters, depending on the complex circulation of ocean waters. The shares of warming of the surface and deeper ocean vary over time, in fluctuations that can last a few years or a few decades.
If the surface warming is somewhat less in recent years than in the last part of the 20th century, is that reason for complacency? Hardly. The warming is continuing, and the consequences of our current trajectory will be devastating unless greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide) are stopped during this century. As Chen and Tung conclude in their Science paper, “When the internal variability [of the ocean] that is responsible for the current hiatus [in warming] switches sign, as it inevitably will, another episode of accelerated global warming should ensue.”
Mr. Murdoch, and the Wall Street Journal, can it be any clearer than this?
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The Wall Street Journal downplays global warming risks once again (The Guardian)
The periodical follows the Murdoch media pattern of sowing doubt about climate change threats
Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters
As has become the norm for media outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, just before a half million people participated in the People’s Climate Marcharound the world, The Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece downplaying the risks and threats posed by human-caused global warming. The editorial was written by Steven Koonin, a respected computational physicist who claims to have engaged in “Detailed technical discussions during the past year with leading climate scientists,” but who is himself not a climate scientist.
Koonin did admit that the climate is changing and humans are largely responsible, and noted,
There is well-justified prudence in accelerating the development of low-emissions technologies and in cost-effective energy-efficiency measures.
This is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, Koonin’s editorial focused almost exclusively on the remaining uncertainties in climate science. Ironically, he stated,
Any serious discussion of the changing climate must begin by acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future.
But Koonin himself got the certainties wrong. For example, we know that humans are the main cause of the current climate change, responsible for about 100% of the global warming since 1950. However, Koonin’s editorial claimed,
The impact today of human activity appears to be comparable to the intrinsic, natural variability of the climate system itself.
This is simply incorrect. As climate scientist Michael Mann told Climate Science Watch in their thorough response to Koonin’s piece,
The fact is that the actual peer-reviewed scientific research shows that (a) the rate of warming over the past century is unprecedented as far back as the 20,000 years paleoclimate scientists are able to extend the record and (b) that warming can ONLY be explained by human influences.
Indeed, it is the RATE of warming that presents such risk to human civilization and our environment.
Climate scientists Michael Oppenheimer and Kevin Trenberth also took issue with Koonin’s assertion about the impact of human activity, saying,
Warming is well beyond natural climate variability and projected rates of change are potentially faster than ecosystems, farmers and societies can adapt to without major disruptions. Many details remain to be settled, and weather and natural variability will always mask some effects, especially regionally. But economic analysis of these risks supports substantial action beyond “no regrets” strategies. To argue otherwise as Koonin does is to ignore decades of research results.
Koonin primarily focused on the uncertainty in the specific impacts of continued rapid global warming. However, he glossed over the fact that those uncertainties range from generally bad impacts to potentially catastrophic impacts. Even in a best case scenario, climate science research indicates that we anticipate experiencing widespread coral mortality, hundreds of millions of people at risk of increased water stress, more damage from droughts and heat waves and floods, up to 30% of global species at risk for extinction, and declined global food production, for example.
Those are the anticipated impacts if we limit global warming to not much above 2°C warming as compared to pre-industrial levels. Accomplishing that would require intensive efforts to reduce human greenhouse gas emissions, and if we fail, the consequence will be far worse.
The good news is that slowing global warming can be accomplished with minimal economic impact. In fact, economic research consistently shows that reducing greenhouse gas emissions, if done right, is far cheaper than paying for the damages caused by unabated climate change. For example, a revenue-neutral carbon tax could create jobs and grow the economy. Two recent studies by the New Climate Economy Project and the International Monetary Fund likewise found that reducing carbon pollution could grow the economy, as summarized by The Guardian.
As Koonin noted in his piece, risk management is key in determining how to respond to the threats posed by climate change. On the one hand, we have a threat to the entire global climate on which every species on Earth relies, which humans are in the process of destabilizing at a rate more rapid than many species can adapt.
On the other hand, we have concerns about the impacts of climate policy on the economy. However, numerous studies have found that if done right, those policies can grow the economy, and will certainly be cheaper than paying for the damages of unabated climate change.
While uncertainties remain about whether the impacts of climate change will be bad, catastrophic, or somewhere in between, that’s precisely the kind of scenario in which uncertainty is not our friend. When faced with a risk to something so important, humans are usually smart enough to take action to manage that risk. For example, we buy home insurance, we wear seat belts, and fewer people now smoke than in previous generations who were unaware of the associated risks.
It’s critical to grasp not just that there are uncertainties about the impacts of climate change, but what those uncertainties tell us about the range of potential outcomes. It’s easy to simply say “the impacts are uncertain,” but when those uncertainties range from bad to catastrophic, taking action to mitigate the threat is a no-brainer. Additionally, larger uncertainty means that we can’t rule out the most catastrophic potential impacts, and actually makes the case for taking action stronger, as a study published earlier this year showed.
The bottom line is that while there are and always will be uncertainties in climate science that require further research, it’s already been several decades since we’ve understood climate change well enough to justify taking serious action to solve the problem. The longer we wait, the costlier those actions become, and the worse the impacts of human-caused global warming will be. The hundreds of thousands of people who marched yesterday understand that, but the Murdoch media hasn’t caught up yet.