Wall Street Journal Offers a Skewed Climate Perspective from Judith Curry

October 10, 2014
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

The Wall Street Journal has published an op-ed from Dr. Judith Curry, a researcher who is often at odds with many of her colleagues when it comes to both the severity of future climate change, as well as how policymakers should view climate risks.

Arguments like this are all too typical for the Journal’s editorial page. A previous analysis we conducted found that the paper’s opinion pages offered misleading views on climate science about 80 percent of the time.

Like other op-eds, Dr. Curry’s is framed as “contradicting” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and suggests that any reduction in potential risks from climate change can justify delay in reducing emissions. More broadly, Dr. Curry has argued that the existence of scientific uncertainty in climate change lets policymakers off the hook for responding to climate risks to some degree.

I asked my colleague Peter Frumhoff—our chief scientist, a former IPCC lead author, and the co-author of a recent study on climate science and policy—if I could share his reaction to Dr. Curry’s argument.

Here’s what he wrote:

The ocean is absorbing much of the excess heat from human emissions. If the model Curry and colleagues discussed had incorporated the latest ocean heat content data, their relatively low best estimate for climate sensitivity would have been more in line with previously reported, higher estimates.

It would be a mistake to set policy based solely on low estimates. That’s why we have advisory bodies like the IPCC and National Climate Assessment that examine all the available science, including higher estimates. The risks of far greater climate sensitivity can’t simply be discounted or dismissed.

The bottom line is that we know enough about where we’re heading to reduce emissions even as scientists grapple with homing in on precisely how much the Earth is expected to warm.

It’s also worth pointing out that current emissions are currently on track to be higher than any of the scenarios the IPCC examined. Further, the path we are on does not take into account the amplification of carbon release to the atmosphere from Arctic permafrost that is likely to dramatically accelerate over the next decades.

It would be great if climate sensitivity were as low as Curry thinks it is. But we can’t base climate policy on wishful thinking. Using arguments about low climate sensitivity to delay action is like refusing to treat a patient because you can’t tell if their fever is 103 or 104 degrees. The risks are clear, even if we’re still figuring out just how big they are.

RealClimate has also published a more in-depth examination of Dr. Curry’s recent research. Dr. Frumhoff also reminded me of a good Scientific American piece from Dr. Michael Mann that tackled some of these issues, too. Finally, my colleague Dr. Brenda Ekwurzel wrote about the “speed-bump” in surface temperatures, which is a partial focus of Dr. Curry’s op-ed.