The Wall Street Journal Does It Again: Another Whopper Of A Lie On Climate Science

by Dana Nucitelli, via Skeptical Science

Readers may recall a letter published in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in January 2012, signed by 16 climate contrarians, which we dubbed The Latest Denialist Plea for Climate Change Inaction

Roger Cohen, William Happer, and Richard Lindzen (hereafter CHL) were 3 of the 16 signatories on that letter, and have published yet another in the WSJ a mere 7 months later.  As we noted at the time, neither Happer nor Cohen has a single climate science publication to his name, while Happer is a member of two fossil fuel-funded climate denialist think tanks (George C. Marshall Institute and Global Warming Policy Foundation) and Cohen is a George C. Marshall Institute ‘expert’ who has previously worked for ExxonMobil.  Richard Lindzen is of course a climate scientist, but quite possibly the most consistently wrong climate scientist on climate issues on the planet.

Suffice it to say that CHL do not have a great deal of credibility on climate science issues, which is perhaps why they continue to publish their opinions in the conservative mainstream media rather than subjecting their arguments to the scientific peer-review process.  As we saw in January, the first WSJ letter was little more than a compilation of many long-debunked climate myths, and the quality of their arguments has not improved much in their second attempt.  In fact the two letters bear some striking resemblances, for example both citing the climate opinions of Ivar Giaever, who we have previously seen has not even done the most basic climate science research.

In this post we will examine the claims made in the latest WSJ letter from CHL, with one in particular standing out above the rest.

WSJ – Home of the Whopper

Just last month we looked at a paper by Lindzen and Choi (2011) (LC11), which claimed to provide evidence for a climate sensitivity of less than 1°C, meaning that if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles, Lindzen argues that the average global surface temperature will only warm a total of <1°C in response.

As we discussed at the time, subsequent research has identified a number of fundamental errors in LC11 which have not been addressed, and in addition, virtually all other research using many different lines of evidence finds that climate sensitivity is very likely between 2 and 4.5°C for doubled CO2.  At the time, we also noted that arguments for climate sensitivity <1°C depend entirely on LC11, because there has simply been little if any other scientific research in recent years finding such extreme low outlier sensitivity values.

“Since the body of research using multiple different approaches and lines of evidence is remarkably consistent in finding an equilibrium climate sensitivity of between 2 and 4.5°C for doubled CO2 (whereas a ‘low’ sensitivity would be well below 1.5°C), climate contrarians…attempt to replace it with this single study by Lindzen and Choi”

As if they were reading our post when they penned their WSJ article, this is precisely what CHL have done, claiming:

“It is increasingly clear that doubling CO2 is unlikely to increase global temperature more than about one degree Celsius, not the much larger values touted by the global warming establishment.”

How is this “increasingly clear”?  The beauty of publishing an article in the mainstream media is that providing supporting evidence is unnecessary – the reader is expected to simply take CHL’s word for it.  We can only assume that this ‘increasing evidence’ refers to the increase from essentially zero studies finding such extremely low climate sensitivity, to one fundamentally flawed study (LC11).  While this can perhaps be construed as “increasing” evidence, it is hardly a strong or convincing case.

Extreme Weather Obfuscation, Again

Denying the link between climate change and extreme weather events is becoming a common exercise amongst climate contrarians, for example John Christy, Roger Pielke Jr., and Steve McIntyre.  CHL join the extreme weather obfuscation party, and in fact refer to John Christy’s myth and misinformation-filled congressional testimony on the subject as “measured and informative” in the process.  Perhaps they meant to say “misinformative.”

Their comments on the issue are in response to a previous WSJ article by Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, in which Krupp asserted:

“One scorching summer doesn’t confirm that climate change is real any more than a white Christmas proves it’s a hoax. What matters is the trend—a decades-long march toward hotter and wilder weather. But with more than 26,000 heat records broken in the last 12 months and pervasive drought turning nearly half of all U.S. counties into federal disaster areas, many data-driven climate skeptics are reassessing the issue.”

This was a perfectly reasonable and accurate opening to Krupp’s article, but CHL take issue with his measured words, describing them in less than flattering terms:

“Despite shrill claims of new record highs, when we look at record highs for temperature measurement stations that have existed long enough to have a meaningful history, there is no trend in the number of extreme high temperatures, neither regionally nor continentally. We do see the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s setting the largest number of record highs, at a time when it is acknowledged that humans had negligible effect on climate.”

They proceed to list several types of extreme weather events which they proclaim have shown no long-term trend.  However, as we have documented, the link between climate change and many types of extreme weather has already been documented in the peer-reviewed literature.  Here are just a few examples regarding precipitation, drought, and extreme heat.

Min et al. (2011):

“Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas.”

Dai et al. (2011):

“All the four forms of the PDSI show widespread drying over Africa, East and South Asia, and other areas from 1950 to 2008, and most of this drying is due to recent warming. The global percentage of dry areas has increased by about 1.74% (of global land area) per decade from 1950 to 2008.”

Zwiers et al. (2011):

“Therefore, it is concluded that the influence of anthropogenic forcing has had a detectable influence on extreme temperatures that have impacts on human society and natural systems at global and regional scales”

We also recently discussed Hansen et al. (2012), which showed that heat waves have already become both more intense and more frequent as a result of global warming.  This is true on a global scale, on a hemispheric scale, and even just for the United States, although to a lesser degree (Figure 1).

Hansen Fig 7

Figure 1: Percent area covered by temperature anomalies in categories defined as hot (>0.43σ), very hot (>2σ), and extremely hot (>3σ). Anomalies are relative to 1951–1980 base period; σ is from 1951–1980 data.

As this figure shows, if we split summers from 1951 to 1980 evenly into ‘cold’, ‘moderate’, and ‘warm’ such that each occurred 33% of the time, we are now experiencing cold summers just 10% of the time and warm summers ~75% of the time, globally.  However, this shift toward hot summers and heat waves doesn’t occur uniformly over the whole planet’s surface.  CHL are correct to note that the USA experienced similarly hot conditions during the Dust Bowl 1930s, which Hansen et al. discuss explicitly in their paper:

“Temperature anomalies are “noisy” for the United States because of the small area of the contiguous 48 states (less than 1.6% of the globe), yet we can discern that the long-term trend toward hot summers is not as pronounced in the United States as it is for hemispheric land as a whole. Indeed, the extreme summer heat of the 1930s, especially 1934 and 1936, is comparable to the United States temperature in the most extreme recent years.

The large 1930s and 1940s anomalies in the United States do not obviate the conclusion that recent global warming, with high probability, is responsible for recent extreme anomalies.”

Despite the local warm period in the USA in the 1930s, there is still a clear long-term trend toward hotter summer temperatures in the middle frame of Figure 1.  Additionally, the USA does not exist in a bubble.  Our CO2 emissions are mixed throughout the atmosphere and thus impact the global climate; thus we cannot simply consider changes in our own climate while ignoring changes throughout the rest of the world, as CHL do.  The global trend toward more frequent and intense heat waves is abundantly clear in this animation based on the results of Hansen et al. (2012).

More CO2 is Good for Plants?  Really?

CHL proceed to repeat the grossly oversimplified myth that more CO2 is good for plants:

“CO2 levels are below the optimum levels for most plants, and there are persuasive arguments that the mild warming and increased agricultural yields from doubling CO2 will be an overall benefit for humanity.”

Given the recent climate impacts on wheat in Russia and corn in the United States, for example, this contrarian argument is a rather large pill to swallow.  Quite simply, CO2 is not the only factor influencing plant growth.  In fact side effects of increasing atmospheric CO2, like more heat waves and droughts, are far more important for crop growth than CO2 concentration.  And as Dai (2010) showed, droughts are expected to become more common in a warming world, including in the USA (Figure 2 below).

Global map showing projected drought risk, by region

Future drought. These four maps illustrate the potential for future drought worldwide over the decades indicated, based on current projections of future greenhouse gas emissions. These maps are not intended as forecasts, since the actual course of projected greenhouse gas emissions as well as natural climate variations could alter the drought patterns.

The maps use a common measure, the Palmer Drought Severity Index, which assigns positive numbers when conditions are unusually wet for a particular region, and negative numbers when conditions are unusually dry. A reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought. Regions that are blue or green will likely be at lower risk of drought, while those in the red and purple spectrum could face more unusually extreme drought conditions.

For perspective, here is the PDSI map for the USA in July 2012, which produced the agricultural-crippling drought in the midwestern states.

July 2012 PDSI

Figure 3: PDSI for the USA in July 2012 (NCDC)

Note that dark red in Figure 3 corresponds to a PDSI of -4 and below, which corresponds to red in Figure 2.  This current level of agriculture-crippling extreme drought is projected to become the norm in the USA just two decades from now, and drought intensity will only grow worse thereafter.  Dai was recently interviewed by Andrew Revkin at the New York Times and noted that we’ve been lucky in the USA not to have experienced a lot of drought in recent decades, but that our luck on this front is unlikely to continue (emphasis added):

“In essence, I think the U.S. has been very fortunate to have experienced a wetting trend from the 1950s to the 1990s, in contrast to many other low- and mid-latitude land areas. However, this luck is about to run out, because the tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures apparently switched into a cold phase around 1999 that typically lasts for 20-30 years and brings below-normal precipitation and drought over much of the West and southern U.S. On top of that, the greenhouse-gas-induced global warming is predicted to cause severe drying in the coming decades over the U.S. Even if the tropical Pacific condition changes after 1-2 decades into a warm phase, the U.S. is unlikely to return [to] the wet conditions of the 1977-1999 because of the expected large drying from global warming.”

Yet CHL would have us believe that plants will benefit from more atmospheric CO2?

Contrarians Should Take their Own Advice

CHL did actually provide some useful advice in their article, for example:

“Whether increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is bad or good is a question of science. And in science, truth and facts are not the playthings of causes, nor a touchstone of political correctness, nor true religion, nor ‘what I tell you three times is true.'”

Despite these wise words, the contrarians expect us to do exactly that – accept the myths they are peddling because they keep repeating them over and over again in the mainstream media, each time with zero supporting evidence.  Indeed whether increasing CO2 is good or bad is a question of science, and the scientific evidence clearly indicates that it is bad.  If these contrarians believe otherwise, they should subject their evidence to the scientific peer-review process rather than publishing unsupported myths in the public sphere.  The contrarians conclude their article saying:

“Let us debate and deal with serious, real problems facing our society, not elaborately orchestrated, phony ones…”

Again we entirely agree with this sentiment, and there is no more serious or real problem facing our society than human-caused climate change.  CHL of course finish the quoted sentence by denying this reality, but they have provided no credible evidence why we should share their denial.

This piece was originally published at Skeptical Science and was reprinted with permission.

20 Responses to The Wall Street Journal Does It Again: Another Whopper Of A Lie On Climate Science

  1. Spike says:

    From Hansen’s answer to questions raised about the 1930 dust bowl era:

    “It is noteworthy that there are almost no areas in the 1930s that achieve +3-sigma heat, if the standard deviation (σ or “sigma”) is calculated for the 1931-1980 base period. For these six years (1931-1936) the Northern Hemisphere land area with summer heat exceeding +3σ is 0.4% for 1931-1980 standard deviations. The six years 2006-2011, in contrast, have 10% of the land
    area with anomalies exceeding +3σ for 1931-1980 standard deviations. This 10% result
    compares with 12% when 1951-1980 standard deviations are employed (1). For either choice of base period, the hemispheric land area with extremely hot temperature anomaly (> +3σ) is more than a factor of 10 larger in recent years than in the 1930s”

  2. Raven says:

    The Wall Street Journal is no longer a reliable source of infomation. People who falter in writing peices for news papers such as this one, who write or print anything but the absolute truth – should be fired. It is these individual writers who are causing the paper to lose its reputation. Shame they either dont care or see that or refuse to change it.

  3. paul magnus says:

    Can we now have an in depth article showing just how conniving the WSJ has been and who the owners and editors are and some how expose why it is that such a primer journal is taking this stance.

  4. Mike Roddy says:

    It is amazing that WSJ gets away with insulting their readers’ intelligence here. Let’s hope that when events throw this kind of talk into the trash, that readers will remember, and WSJ/Fox are replaced by journalists who actually do their jobs.

  5. mike says:

    Has anybody considered ww1 and ww2 as the causes of the 30’s /40’s dust bowl era? Killing, bombing, industry, the war machine produced huge amount of toxic gases.

  6. Holy cow, they’re claiming Lovelock! Well, you can’t fault them for lack of chutzpah, anyway.

    Unfortunately, Mike R., they are not really insulting their readers’ intelligence at all. Many of their readers don’t have a lot of other information sources, and the mainstream press hardly covers the matter at all. So intelligent people end up believing this sort of thing.

    If nobody actually believed it, this sort of BS wouldn’t be a big problem. But unfortunately, it is.

  7. AA says:

    Much of what we think of as “the dust bowl” was caused by insanely bad land use practices. The prairies were plowed bare, so when the drought hit there was nothing to stop them simply blowing away.

    Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time” is worth a read if you have the time.

  8. Doug Bostrom says:

    When can the public expect some assistance with choosing oracles? What authority can clearly tell us when we’re being misinformed and is in a suitable position to chastise peers who consistently elevate ideology above truth? It’s not as though new ground needs to be broken in order for this to happen; Lindzen’s a member of organizations with explicitly stated expectations concerning ethical behavior in interactions with the public.

    Lindzen’s been doing variations of the WSJ performance for decades now. In the public square Lindzen’s noise is met with silence by his peers, thought they’re perfectly willing to grouse about him privately. Given that it costs Lindzen nothing when he contradicts facts, why should he stop?

  9. Stephanie says:

    Aren’t the people who write this crap, and those Oil scum who fund them, committing some sort of treason against humanity? They are literally destroying us with the billions of dollars they put into misinformation (as well as the billions they put into burning more oil)! When will this be a crime? What will it take to stop these people? I am afraid for my children and future grandchildren. Do these people have any souls at all? How can we appeal to them to PLEASE quit and put survival over profit?

  10. bratisla says:

    Anyone here thinking this op-ed was done in order to put a smokescreen in front of sea ice news ? They didn’t say anything new, but they *had* to say it. Call me suspicious for this one.

  11. catman306 says:

    I wonder if anyone tracks the financial predictions this Wall Street Journal makes? I also wonder if these predictions are as wrong as their choice of op eds?

  12. Brian R Smith says:

    This is as thorough, reasoned and documented a response to the CHL op-ed as could be done. On the substance, Dana Nucitelli is on the honor roll of climate journalists that we depend on, I depend on. No question.

    That said, I think we have to start seriously addressing whether, and how much, climate journalism of this caliber is, on the whole, reaching beyond the choir and actually changing the balance of power in climate politics.

    The reason for a lengthy analysis of Lindzen’s unsupported arguments? Presumably it’s thought that, even now, statements from the likes of him, appearing in the WSJ are influential and can’t be allowed to pass unchallenged. Maybe so. Over at the original Skeptical Sci post comment #2 said:

    “You have the patience of Job cranking out all these counters to WSJ crap. Keep up the good work.”

    But how necessary would Job’s task of countering disinformers be if we had a direct channel to the voting public for discussion of the issues on the merits, rather than one-by-one reactions in blogs (however illuminating) to the minority rants?

    So, one Margarita into it, I recommend once more that without a coordinated national media campaign that brings the science and the options to the ill-informed millions of mainstream television viewer/voters, the target is not getting hit and the political results we hope for, but are not really trying to control in the media arena, will NOT be realized.

    Here I am, make that 2 Margaritas, contributing much less than others with more capable voices, saying that the climate leaders with institutional clout and big scale media savvy are not doing enough to take over the conversation. But that’s what I believe. The climate movement itself has got to establish the credibility of climate science and the critical arguments for saving what’s left of the future. There has to be a grand coalition of the willing with a budget big enough to do whatever it takes to accomplish this.

    The alternative is that our best & brightest are left with the endless task of singing to the choir and just hoping that the message will migrate to the ballot box.

    Pass the Tequila.

  13. Steve Bloom says:

    “Richard Lindzen is of course a climate scientist, but quite possibly the most consistently wrong climate scientist on climate issues on the planet.”

    Nah, it’s Christy, but Lindzen is firmly in second place.

  14. Andy Lee says:

    Mike Roddy, WSJ/Fox “journalists” probably *are* doing their jobs! :(
    There doesn’t seem to be any legal requirement for a journalist to be honest or impartial.

    According to whom and by what metric can truthfulness be judged?

    Educate the people and give them unfettered access to real information and hope they can decide truth for themselves?

    When news becomes a market-driven commodity, it becomes news that consumers *want*, not that which consumers *need*, and risks creating alternative and incompatible realities:
    What happens if the readership becomes so indoctrinated they don’t want to give up the alternative reality their news provides?

    Whoever it was that directed the Republican party to take up such an unconscionable and untenable anti-science and AGW denialist position has made a truly monumental mistake. This monster lie will backfire by force when reality inevitably hits home and blows away the delusion.

    The unusual droughts, heatwaves and wildfires around the northern hemisphere now, together with the shocking news coming out of the Arctic should be in all mainstream media and be a campaign issue in the US, but it seems very quiet on that subject. Perhaps there’s a pact between the media and parties to keep climate change off the table during the fight? However, the elephant in the room is growing and threatens to sit on someone…
    or maybe it’s just being kept in reserve for a coup de grâce?

    As records tumble and new territory is being exposed, the message is unambiguous and irrefutable:

    Arctic Ice Volume 1979 to July 2012:

  15. dana1981 says:

    Lindzen has been wrong for a longer period of time than Christy, and probably on a wider range of subjects, so I think he deserves the prize.

  16. Gasman says:

    Can someone point me to the link, I think from climate progress, that compares how often WSJ publishes denier editorials vs accurate climate change editorials. I have a friend who is a WSJ fan, and I wanted to show it to him.

  17. Chris Winter says:

    Paul Krugman has said exactly that. So has Joe Romm. And so have I:

  18. Chris Winter says:

    Brian R. Smith wrote: “But how necessary would Job’s task of countering disinformers be if we had a direct channel to the voting public for discussion of the issues on the merits, rather than one-by-one reactions in blogs (however illuminating) to the minority rants?”

    That’s why ScienceDebate 2012 is so important.

    But we’re not hearing much about that in the major media’s campaign coverage, are we? The reason is not hard to understand.

  19. Brian R Smith says:

    Shawn Otto’s Fool Me Twice is an excellent resource on the intersection of science & politics, Jefferson to the present. And he is a speaker and organizer I hope more people will be hearing. But Science Debate 2012 is the last venue the candidates, especially Romney, want to show up for and as far as I know they have ignored it as the did with the 2008 attempt. I’m skeptical that a “debate” between policy-waffling Obama and the newly minted opposer-in-chief Romney would have a helpful outcome. Instead it could perpetuate the “debate” for the public by allowing critical science realities to be vetted by politicians, not scientists, leaving us with potentially even more public confusion. He-said/he-said.. and we just abdicated authority on the science to a pair of political performers.

    But check out the thousands of supporters of SciDebate, there because they believe that clarity and truth for the public is paramount:

    Steering committee
    Thought leaders
    Business leaders
    Academic & Scientific leaders
    College & University leaders
    Organization leaders
    Government leaders
    Nobel & Crafford laureates

    This is the grand alliance that could go directly to the public, establish authority and frame the challenges. Pray with me.

  20. Rob says:

    Amazing how quick, easy profit can be a justification to the destruction of the resources both of nature and American worker without conscience or second thought by a great many business interests in this country.