In reported response to Will controversy, Wash. Post ombudsman compounds global warming misinformation

››› ››› JEREMY SCHULMAN

As numerous progressive and science bloggers have noted, Washington Post columnist George Will misused data and distorted statements made by climate experts in order to suggest that human-caused global warming is not occurring. Moreover, in his reported response to criticism of Will's column, Post ombudsman Andy Alexander falsely suggested that a statement by the Arctic Climate Research Center supports Will's claims about sea ice levels when, in fact, the ACRC statement rebuts the very argument Will was making.

As numerous progressive and science bloggers have pointed out, Washington Post columnist George Will misused data and distorted statements made by climate experts in order to suggest that human-caused global warming is not occurring. Moreover, in his reported response to criticism of Will's column, Post ombudsman Andy Alexander falsely suggested that a statement by the Arctic Climate Research Center (ACRC) supports Will's claims about sea ice levels when, in fact, the ACRC statement rebuts the very argument Will was making. Indeed, contrary to Will's suggestion that ACRC data on global sea ice levels undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming, the ACRC document Alexander cites actually states that the sea ice data are consistent with the outcomes projected by climate-change models and studies.

In his February 15 column, Will suggested that ACRC data undermine the case for the existence of "man-made global warming":

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

In response, the ACRC reportedly stated:

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.

Responding to criticism of Will's column and of the Post's refusal thus far to correct it, Alexander reportedly suggested in an email to The Wonk Room's Brad Johnson that Will's "conclusion" is supported by a January ACRC document:

George Will's column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors. The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn't agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement (http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf) that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that "Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979,"

But Alexander's suggestion that the ACRC only now says it disagrees with Will's "conclusion" and that the earlier (January) ACRC document actually supported Will's conclusion is false. While Will cited ACRC global sea ice level data as evidence that human-caused global warming is not occurring, ACRC says its data are consistent with global warming predictions and that it is important to distinguish between sea ice in the Northern and Southern hemispheres when discussing global warming. Indeed, as noted by Discover magazine contributing editor Carl Zimmer and Washington Monthly blogger Hilzoy, the full context of the January ACRC document -- as opposed to the single, out-of-context sentence Alexander cites -- actually rebuts the notion that ACRC sea ice data undermine the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming. The full document states that "[a]lmost all" climate models project that human-caused global warming will result in decreased sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, that some recent studies have suggested that warming might initially cause sea ice to increase in the Southern Hemisphere, and that these projections are consistent with observed sea ice data.

The January ACRC document states in its entirety:

On January 1, 2009, an article by Michael Asher entitled "Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979" appeared on the Daily Tech website. We have received many requests for confirmation and clarification on this article from media outlets and interested individuals regarding the current state of the cryosphere as it relates to climate change and/or global warming.

One important detail about the article in the Daily Tech is that the author is comparing the GLOBAL sea ice area from December 31, 2008 to same variable for December 31, 1979. In the context of climate change, GLOBAL sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator. Almost all global climate models project a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades under increasing greenhouse gas scenarios. But, the same model responses of the Southern Hemisphere sea ice are less certain. In fact, there have been some recent studies suggesting the amount of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere may initially increase as a response to atmospheric warming through increased evaporation and subsequent snowfall onto the sea ice. (Details: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050630064726.htm)

Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979, as noted in the Daily Tech article. However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N. Hemisphere reduction.

Global climate model projections suggest that the most significant response of the cryosphere to increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will be seen in Northern Hemisphere summer sea ice extent. Recent decreases of N. Hemisphere summer sea ice extent (green line at right) are consistent with such projections.

Arctic summer sea ice is only one potential indicator of climate change, however, and we urge interested parties to consider the many variables and resources available when considering observed and model-projected climate change. For example, the ice that is presently in the Arctic Ocean is younger and thinner than the ice of the 1980s and 1990s. So Arctic ice volume is now below its long-term average by an even greater amount than is ice extent or area.

In his column, Will also claimed that "according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization [WMO], there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." Will did not cite a source for this claim, but it echoes a widely criticized April 4, 2008, BBC article that reported on statements made by WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud. From the revised version of the BBC article:

This year, the Pacific is in the grip of a powerful La Nina.

[...]

Mr Jarraud told the BBC that the effect was likely to continue into the summer, depressing temperatures globally by a fraction of a degree.

This would mean that temperatures have not risen globally since 1998 when El Nino warmed the world.

However, the BBC did not attribute to Jarraud or the WMO the assertion that "temperatures have not risen globally since 1998," nor did it report that WMO concluded that, in Will's words, "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." Indeed, the April 2008 BBC article quoted Jarraud saying the opposite: "There has always been and there will always be cooler and warmer years, but what is important for climate change is that the trend is up; the climate on average is warming even if there is a temporary cooling because of La Nina":

Global temperatures for 2008 will be slightly cooler than last year as a result of the cold La Nina current in the Pacific, UN meteorologists have said.

The World Meteorological Organization's secretary-general, Michel Jarraud, told the BBC it was likely that La Nina would continue into the summer.

But this year's temperatures would still be way above the average - and we would soon exceed the record year of 1998 because of global warming induced by greenhouse gases.

The WMO points out that the decade from 1998 to 2007 was the warmest on record. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74C.

[...]

"When you look at climate change you should not look at any particular year," he said. "You should look at trends over a pretty long period and the trend of temperature globally is still very much indicative of warming.

"La Nina is part of what we call 'variability'. There has always been and there will always be cooler and warmer years, but what is important for climate change is that the trend is up; the climate on average is warming even if there is a temporary cooling because of La Nina."

In an April 4, 2008, statement, the WMO reiterated that "[t]emporary La Niña's cooling effect does not stall global warming":

The long-term upward trend of global warming, mostly driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is continuing. Global temperatures in 2008 are expected to be above the long-term average. The decade from 1998 to 2007 has been the warmest on record, and the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74C since the beginning of the 20th Century.

The current La Niña event, characterized by a cooling of the sea surface in the central and eastern Equatorial Pacific, is a "climate anomaly" part of natural climate variability. This La Niña started in the third quarter of 2007 and is likely to persist through to the middle of 2008. It has influenced climate patterns during the last six months across many parts of the globe, including in the Equatorial Pacific, across the Indian Ocean, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

"For detecting climate change you should not look at any particular year, but instead examine the trends over a sufficiently long period of time. The current trend of temperature globally is very much indicative of warming," World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General, Mr Michel Jarraud said in response to media inquiries on current temperature "anomalies".

"La Niña modulates climate variability. There has always been and there will always be cooler and warmer years, but what is important for climate change in the present context is that the trend is still upwards; the global climate on an average is warming despite the temporary cooling brought about by La Niña."

And as recently as January 7, 2009, Agence France Presse quoted Jarraud as saying, "The major trend is unmistakably one of warming":

A cold front is sweeping across Europe after gripping swathes of North America last month, but the deep freeze does not mean the threat of global warming has abated, caution scientists.

"The major trend is unmistakably one of warming," Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), told AFP.

"If we look at the trajectory over the last 160 years, it overlays a large natural variability, and that's what causes confusion."

The cooler weather that was a hallmark of 2008 can be explained partly by La Nina, a reversal of the phenomenon by which warm waters build up on the surface of the Pacific, said Jarraud.

From Will's February 15 Washington Post column:

Credentialed intellectuals, too -- actually, especially -- illustrate Montaigne's axiom: "Nothing is so firmly believed as what we least know."

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

An unstated premise of eco-pessimism is that environmental conditions are, or recently were, optimal. The proclaimed faith of eco-pessimists is weirdly optimistic: These optimal conditions must and can be preserved or restored if government will make us minimize our carbon footprints and if government will "remake" the economy.

Because of today's economy, another law -- call it the Law of Clarifying Calamities -- is being (redundantly) confirmed. On graphs tracking public opinion, two lines are moving in tandem and inversely: The sharply rising line charts public concern about the economy, the plunging line follows concern about the environment. A recent Pew Research Center poll asked which of 20 issues should be the government's top priorities. Climate change ranked 20th.

Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones. Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
Network/Outlet
The Washington Post
Person
George F. Will, Andy Alexander
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