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The Wall Street Journal and Global Warming

Today is February 1st in Dallas, Texas.  I just returned from a bicycle ride in 70-plus degree weather, and among people walking outside in shorts and teeshirts.  It’s a bit like summer, or least it’s not like  the Texas winters I remember from when I was a kid.  That’s only local weather, but I had also thought that science was reasonably settled that the earth in general is getting warmer.  The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (see our blog’s 12/1/11 post “Healthy Skepticism on Climate”) is compelling  evidence that global surface temperatures have increased since 1800, and that the increases have accelerated in recent decades.  Nonetheless The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece on January 27th titled “No Need to Panic About Global Warming.”   The piece was signed by several scientists who stated that “a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are necessary”  and also pointed to a “lack of warming for more than a decade.”

The Journal then, to its credit,  published on February 1st a reply comment by climate scientists which encouraged the Journal to “Check with Climate Scientists for Views of Climate”  That letter started out:

 Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.  You published “No Need to Panic About Global Warming” (op-ed, Jan. 27) on climate change by the climate-science equivalent of dentists practicing cardiology. While accomplished in their own fields, most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. The few authors who have such expertise are known to have extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other climate expert. This happens in nearly every field of science. For example, there is a retrovirus expert who does not accept that HIV causes AIDS. And it is instructive to recall that a few scientists continued to state that smoking did not cause cancer, long after that was settled science

I’ve tried cases as an attorney where there was conflicting expert testimony, and I know, as most attorneys do, that it’s almost always possible to find an “expert”  to testify to whatever the attorney wants said.  The expert’s conclusions in court testimony are slanted by the needs of the lawyer’s client.  That’s  to be expected to a lesser extent in climate science, where there are huge economic consequences to remedial actions.  And that’s good.  The scientific method itself assumes that all scientific “facts” are open to constant challenge, and there will often be dissidents who challenge existing consensus.   For years there were scientists who were “lung cancer deniers” challenging mainstream science which linked tobacco smoking and lung cancer.  The deniers were frequently on retainer to one or another tobacco company, just as the lawyer’s testifying expert is usually paid by the lawyer.  But their challenges produced research which sharpened the public’s awareness of the dangers of smoking.

There’s another, somewhat darker, rational pathway to denying or ignoring that human activity is changing world climate.  I had lunch with a nuclear physicist today who opined that we had already passed various “tipping points.”  (This is a view shared by intellectuals like James Lovelock.) Passing those “tipping points” has committed the world to cataclysmic climate change which will make  our civilization more difficult.  I have believed for many years that human-caused climate change is our most important challenge, and I’ve sometimes compared work on other political issues to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”  But if the good physicist is right, and the boat’s going down anyway, maybe it’s best for the First Class passenger to get a comfortable chair and finish her gin and tonic.

My own take is that we call it the “future” because it hasn’t happened yet, and there’s always reason for optimism. Scientists have legitimate, honest disagreements about the pace and course of climate change – the Earth’s systems are very complicated and we are constantly moving into unknown territory. Sometimes I think my father had it right in 1980 when I talked with him about environmental problems. Always the optimist, he waved his hand and said, “Aw, they’ll find some technological fix.” Meanwhile, the rest of us can be scientists; we can look honestly at what is happening in our world, and then decide what to do.


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