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This And That On Climate

by Rudy M. Baum
May 17, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 20

The American Association for the Advancement of Science and several other science-oriented organizations including the American Chemical Society held a congressional briefing on climate science last week. Hosted by AAAS Chief Executive Officer Alan I. Leshner, the briefing featured a panel made up of Warren M. Washington, a senior scientist and former head of the Climate Change Research Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research; Richard B. Alley, a geosciences professor at Pennsylvania State University; and Richard L. Smith, a statistics and biostatistics professor at the University of North Carolina.

In his opening remarks, Leshner said that the large number of cosponsors of the briefing was a "measure of the seriousness with which we take climate science." Leshner made a point of reading the names of all 13 cosponsors, which in addition to AAAS and ACS included the American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, American Statistical Association, and University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.

"Climate and energy are among the most pressing issues facing the global community," Leshner said, and he decried recent efforts to "tarnish climate science." The point of the briefing, he noted, was to review "what we know and what we don't know" about climate science.

Well, what we know, Washington, Alley, and Smith made pretty clear, is that climate change is happening and humans are driving it. Alley, in particular, in a point-by-point presentation showed that incontrovertible data exist showing that atmospheric CO2 concentrations are rising, the increase is due to burning fossil fuels, Earth's temperature has increased in the past 100 years, and that, so far, the changes in climate have been small compared with what will happen if we continue on the path we're on.

"No single mistake, or small set of mistakes, could possibly change these results," Alley said.

Smith, the statistician, showed convincingly that two of global-warming skeptics' principal arguments—that global temperature has decreased since 1998 and that the "hockey stick" graph of global temperature developed by Michael E. Mann and coworkers was inaccurate—are without statistical merit.

Both Washington and Smith made the point that climate-change skeptics should be allowed to publish their research. Skeptics regularly claim that their research is being suppressed. However, when I asked the panel—which had spent an hour skewering just about every argument advanced by skeptics—if they knew of any such research that ought to be published, they were unable to cite any current examples.

Meanwhile, C&EN reported in last week's issue that Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II has initiated a probe of Mann, now at Penn State, for possible fraud in carrying out his research (C&EN, May 10, page 10). This is an attempt to use raw political power to suppress science, no more, no less. As C&EN reported, scientists on both sides of the climate-change debate criticized the action.

Not S. Fred Singer, the University of Virginia emeritus professor of environmental sciences who leads the charge of the climate-change skeptics. The Hook, a Charlottesville, Va., weekly newspaper, also reported on Cuccinelli's action. Among the 194 comments on the online version of the article is one from Singer, who wrote: "We know from the leaked e-mails of Climategate that Prof. Michael Mann was involved in the international conspiracy to 'hide the decline' [in global temperatures], using what chief conspirator Dr. Phil Jones refers to as 'Mike [Mann]'s trick.' Now at last we may find out just how this was done."

Singer knows that what he wrote is untrue, that there was no attempt to hide a decline in global temperature, and that the "trick" Mann employed was a legitimate approach to reconciling two data sets (contemporary temperature measurements and tree ring data that deviated from them). Singer has long since left any shred of scientific integrity far behind him. There is no longer any reason for scientists or anyone else—especially the media—to pay any attention to him.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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