Dismal Science at the Wall Street Journal

, director of science & policy | January 27, 2012, 4:10 pm EDT
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UPDATE January 30th 2:50 PM (see at bottom of post)

The Wall Street Journal today published an opinion piece from 16 scientists urging candidates for public office to ignore the looming threat of climate change. While it’s entirely appropriate for scientists, like all citizens, to voice their personal opinions on public policy, the op-ed repeated a number of deeply misleading claims about climate science.

To take just one example, the authors claim there has been a “lack of warming” for 10 years. Here’s what we know: 2011 was the 35th year in a row in which global temperatures were above the historical average and 2010 and 2005 were the warmest years on record. Over the past decade, record high temperatures outpaced record lows by more than two to one across the continental United States, a marked increase from previous decades.

So where should decision-makers and the public turn to understand what the vast majority of scientists with relevant expertise really think about climate change?

They should start with the US National Academy of Sciences, established by President Lincoln to advise our nation’s leaders on matters of science. In May 2010, a major NAS  report requested by Congress concluded  that  “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for—and in many cases is already affecting—a broad range of human and natural systems”.

They might also turn to the nation’s leading scientific societies for their perspective. In 2009, the leaders of 18 scientific societies wrote to the U.S. Senate to state that

“Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science…If we are to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change, emissions of greenhouse gases must be dramatically reduced.”

And they might turn to the United States Global Change Research Program, which represents the work of 13 federal agencies and independent academics. It explores the consequences of a changing climate all across the country. In a 2009 report, developed under the Bush Administration, it concludes:

“Observations show that warming of the climate is unequivocal. The global  warming observed over the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), with important contributions from the clearing of forests, agricultural practices, and other activities.”

For scientific advice on climate change, our nation’s leaders should turn to respected sources of credible science. That’s what the leaders of our nation’s military have done. That’s what forward-looking business leaders such as Nike, Starbucks, and other members of the Businesses for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy are doing.  And that’s what my home state of California has done, with both its former Republican governor and current Democratic governor accepting the robust findings of climate science  as a starting point for policies aimed at  spurring clean energy innovation and preparing the state for some now unavoidable climate change.

Isn’t it about time for the Wall Street Journal to do the same?

UPDATE January 30th 2:50 PM:  The WSJ op-ed has unleashed a torrent of further criticism from scientists (see, for example here and here). More are forthcoming. Most notable, in my view, is the response from Yale economist William Nordhaus, whose work was described in the WSJ piece as follows:

“ A recent study of a wide variety of policy options by Yale economist William Nordhaus showed that nearly the highest benefit-to-cost ratio is achieved for a policy that allows 50 more years of economic growth unimpeded by greenhouse gas controls. This would be especially beneficial to the less-developed parts of the world that would like to share some of the same advantages of material well-being, health and life expectancy that the fully developed parts of the world enjoy now. Many other policy responses would have a negative return on investment. And it is likely that more CO2 and the modest warming that may come with it will be an overall benefit to the planet.

Here’s Nordhaus’ response, published in Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog:

“The piece completely misrepresented my work. My work has long taken the view that policies to slow global warming would have net economic benefits, in the trillion of dollars of present value. This is true going back to work in the early 1990s (MIT Press, Yale Press, Science, PNAS, among others)…I can only assume they [are] either completely ignorant of the economics on the issue or are willfully misstating my findings.”

I haven’t seen any responses from the business community yet – but they need to be heard as well. The Journal’s editorial board has completely over-reached here, and dangerously so – pieces like this provide continued high profile and faux respectable cover to those who wish to claim the fog of uncertainty as an excuse for inaction.

Editor’s note 2/7/2012: With all the response that this issue received, we wanted to offer people a chance to contact Wall Street Journal owner Rupert Murdoch about this critical issue.

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  • Derrick F.

    “On this basis, I do not frankly need scientists to convince me that there is human induced global warming. Rather, the burden of proof should be placed on business interests to show me that there isn’t. ”

    Oh WOW, this is ridiculous. “We’re going to assume you’re guilty of murder, so the burden of proof is to show us that you’re not.” Spoken like a true communist.

    Could you be any less logical….ugh.

  • Derrick F.

    This is ridiculous. There is no concrete link to carbon emissions and the increased temperatures. This is no longer science but faith. People are willing to believe this junk science in order to allow themselves to be controlled. If they tell you that you’re responsible for the poor polar bear floating on an iceberg, then the gov’t can tell you what to drive, what temperature you must set your house at, etc etc.
    Again, if the scientists pushing this junk really believed it, they’d engage in a real debate over the facts. But they won’t. And the ones that refute it using actual science and logic are scorned.

    Go ahead, believe it all you want. But last time I checked the temperature on Mars was increasing at the same rate as earth and there are no factories, cars, or people there.
    It couldn’t possibly be the sun that’s causing an increase in temperatures could it??? nooo, just believe Al Gore and turn your brains off. Much easier that way.

  • Walter Horsting

    For the past 10,500 years it has been warmer for 9,800 years than today’s modest warming from the recent little ice age. The world really should worry about the Sunspot cycles 24 & 25 driving us into another little ice age. As to CO2, it is plant food and we could use more of it for robust plant growth. Cut CO2 in half and plants start to starve, without plate tectonics forcing volcanic action on land and under the sea, this planet would be dead. CO2 trails warmings by 800 years. The world needs clean energy and it seems like the Thorium LFTR reactor has the best offering to cut pollution and be safely located near where the power is needed.

  • Jerry Brown

    Hi Peter,

    I think that the link between burning fossil fuels and warming is even simpler than that between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. One can remind skeptics that there is no controversy about the following basics:

    *Humans are burning large quantities of fossil fuels.
    *The carbon dioxide (as well as water) products of burning fossil fuels are very simple molecules that are well known to be greenhouse gases.
    *The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing significantly every year.

    On this basis, I do not frankly need scientists to convince me that there is human induced global warming. Rather, the burden of proof should be placed on business interests to show me that there isn’t.

    Moreover, the case for government intervention (i.e. taxes) in this matter is actually much more compelling than the now well accepted government intervention in the cigarette industry. Cigarette smoking predominantly harms the user of the product, and does very little harm to almost any other person, save those in the immediate vicinity of the smoker. In contrast, burning fossil fuels affects every other person in the world as much as the user of the fossil fuel. Although large and intrusive government is not so much in vogue nowadays, the one basic function of government supported by even the most libertarian among us is to limit the liberty of one’s actions if those actions intrude into the lives of others. Taxing carbon, much more than taxing cigarettes, fits this bill.

    -Jerry (Brown)

    • Marshall

      I expect you will encounter some pushback, Jerry, from the libertarians among us when you begin forcing your taxation strategy. Follow the money — it becomes clear most rabid proponents of this man-made global warming scare are only using it to forcefully redistribute wealth, and that only within developed nations.

      • Jerry Brown

        Hi Marshall,

        Whatever redistribution of wealth that you are referring to is already happening with the taxation of cigarettes, but I don’t see any efforts to repeal this. There is also redistribution of wealth whenever we tax income, but only Ron Paul is calling for the abolition of income taxes.

        I understand that it is human nature to want to preserve the status quo, even if the status quo is clearly inferior to an alternative. You may think that burning fossil fuels is not harmful to others, but I have even more confidence that the work of nurses and teachers and plumbers and other American workers are not harmful to others — and yet we tax their income! I vote for an alternative: a significant increase in taxes on burning fossil fuels and a significant decrease in the taxes on earned income, fashioned in a way that preserves current overall progressivity and governmental revenues.


      • Ian Dickson

        Low wages, shipping jobs offshore is a redistribution of wealth. Taxing carbon pollution is an effective way to fund alternative energy strategies and assist those effected by GW who gained the least by burning the fossil fuels. The community rightly should place a “dumping” fee on those who want to use our atmosphere as rubbish dump.

  • Patrick49

    To read the originating article for the previous post go to :
    So where are the data that refute the evidence that global warming stopped 10 years ago?

  • Patrick49

    So what are the unschooled to make of the latest CRU little reported,no fanfare release “http://times247.com/articles/global-warming-trend-ended-in-1997-new-data-shows”?

    • shaunac

      This is the typical problem with a lack of scientific understanding. Instead of reading the actual report, you decide to read only the article in the Times. The Times, just like the Daily Mail, report their interpretation of the data. Climate scientists are no longer arguing this issue, the media is.


      There is no scientific evidence that global warming ended in 1997. The global surface and lower atmosphere warming trends have remained very steady in recent years after removing ENSO and volcanic activity, which must be corrected for in order to get an accurate measurement. Add to that rising ocean temperatures and dramatic melting land and sea ice, and you have global warming.

  • Cogent comments, folks. Unfortunately, what should be a coming together of humanity to solve a common problem — global warming — has become a “battle for hearts and minds” because of narrow vested interests.

    This is not a fight that I think most research scientists wanted, but it has come to them, and those of us who are not climate scientists but have chosen to align with those who see the truth(s) of the global warming crisis need to pick up the mantle on their behalf.

    A good first step is exposing the BIG LIE that the planet isn’t warming up. Just keep pounding in the idea — on your blogs, in letters to the editor, in conversations — that the planet indeed is warming up, as established by the real measurements and even by the skeptic’s research at UC Berkeley.

    Next, argue the cautionary principe — we’ve got pretty good evidence that things are going kerfluey, so it makes sense to act on that.

    Follow that up by peak fossil-fuels: we’re going to run out of the stuff sooner later, so best to start adjusting now.

    And finish up by pointing out that far from hurting the global economy, converting to a green energy economy (including green agronomy) will create trillions in wealth and endless opportunity.

    That’s four points — all easy to make and understand — even by politicians.

    • Marshall

      “…converting to a green energy economy will create trillions in wealth and endless opportunity”.

      Seriously? Endless opportunity? Maybe for paid dreamers making a career of searching for the holy grail of alternative energy, paid propagandists hyping the hope perpetual motion will be discovered after all. All your renewable energy put together accounts for less than 5% of energy consumed globally. If the green energy segment had accomplished any more than that it wouldn’t risk all this repulsive cheerleading and hyperbole. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose by attempting a scam. That is what we are witnessing with the man-made global warming hoax.

      • Doug

        Read Amory Lovins’ new book Reinventing Fire. Eminently readable, extensively footnoted – how to save $5 trillion by 2050 with gains in energy efficiency, transportation, manufacturing, and renewable energy.

        All Lovins’ modeling is conservative, for example no cost is assigned to coal externalities, which were found to add between 9.4 and 26.8 cents per kwh, in this 2011 study by the NY Academy of Sciences: http://solar.gwu.edu/index_files/Resources_files/epstein_full%20cost%20of%20coal.pdf

      • David

        Oh Please,…If renewable energy was subsidized by 10% of what fossil fuel companies receive we probably would have switched years ago.

        Fossil fuel companies spend a great amount of time and money to ensure the security of their industry. And I’m not even talking about the wars and coups that western countries have sponsored in the last 100 years to ensure access to oil.

        The other factor you are ignoring is that even without climate change, the health and waste costs of fossil fuels are almost entirely ignored and inasmuch as they aren’t ignored they are subsidized by our tax dollars.

        The biggest problem with Libertarian solutions is the fact that the folks who are successful in the marketplace go to great lengths to ensure their own marketplace dominance. The biggest problem with the “free market” is the fact that no marketplace is ever even approximately close to being free. The marketplace will never deal with the problems associated with pollution of most any kind because the biggest producers of pollution work so hard to ensure that there is a zero cost (to them) for creating pollution.

  • kilingtonskier

    Global warming will not be abated–we have passed the point of no return. Our consumptive society will eventually find out that oil is going to run out, prices will soar, we will be forced to change our ways along with living liethe dinosaurs did on limited land, and plenty of solar power.
    And what part of our population reads this kind of publication? A very small smart-part that is frowned on by the not-so-smart majority and politicians.

  • Ieuan

    The difficulty is believers of man-made global warming rashly insist we expend billions of dollars and sacrifice billions more in economic growth in a futile attempt to control climate to their whim

    Sorry but this is NOT how economies work.

    Money spent is NEVER wasted when you look at a big enough scale, it is simply distributed and regurgitated.

    Investment in renewable technologies and climate studies moves money from the sponsors to the research institutes, which in turn then pay employees who buy produce and pay taxes.

    In fact the argument could be made that it doesn’t really matter where public monies is expended in economic terms, so long as it is expended in a manner which sees it continue to circulate (as opposed to sat in a bank account/reserve somewhere).

    Onto the article itself, I actually find myself sympathising with the WST article in some ways. The evidence for CO2 being the major factor behind global warming is convincing yes, but it is not and should not be considered incontrovertible. Certainly not at the expense of research and investment into other aspects, which is what is happening right now.

    Reducing CO2 emissions is a good thing for numerous reasons but for me the most important is that CO2 is generally created via the burning of fossil fuels, which are of course running out. This is a much more important and immediate threat to us as a species than climate change in my opinion.

    • Frank Weigert

      There is no real need to reduce CO2 emissions. The correct statement of the problem is that we must reduce emissions from burning FOSSIL FUELS. Burning biomass can be global warming neutral if done sustainably.

      For more details see:


    • Erwan

      You should say that to the folks living on drowning islands in the Pacific… or what about people of north Russia who see their road damaged and building rendered unusable due to never-seen melting permafrost ?

  • Car Free

    I respectfully suggest that we use the phrase “Global Warming” instead of “Climate Change” for the later is a euphemism created by a GOP propagandist to fog the issue. This tactic of deception has been successful and we are only increasing mass ignorance by using their terms.

    • LynneB

      Car Free: “Global Warming” refers to the trend int he total heat content of the atmosphere. “Climate Change” refers to the result of Global Warming. I can find papers using the terms in this manner going back to at least 1982.

    • Jeffrey Levine

      Car Free,

      I’ve looked previously for a definition of “Global Warming” in the IPCC reports, and unless I’m badly mistaken, it has NEVER been used in these documents. “Global warming” is a largely vernacular term for climate change that we are now obliged to use owing to its overwhelming popularity.
      Climate scientists don’t like the term “global warming” for a variety of reasons, including the fact that warming is not strictly “global” in scale, but is greater in some regions than in others. Moreover, heat continues to be sequestered in the oceans, even when not evident in surface temperatures. (The heat MUST go somewhere, even if our inadequate database does not allow us to fully account for its distribution (to wit, the “travesty” referred to by Kevin Trenberth)).
      What’s more, you may have misinterpreted the Denialist straw man argument regarding this term. In their convoluted view, many have alleged that the term “climate change” was introduced by climate scientists in an effort to obfuscate the issues. (You cud look it up!)
      Bottom line… “climate change” is a better term, but we’re stuck with “global warming”. That’s not a huge problem, assuming everyone understands what is actually meant. Unfortunately, denialists seize every opportunity to generate confusion and doubt, so careful use of terminology is a necessity.

  • DC

    No matter how I look at it, “An Inconvenient Truth” is a brilliant name that completely summarizes the whole unfortunate situation.

  • Tom T

    It is an unfortunate consequence that money and politics have overtaken climate science and have created a “climate industry” to be attacked and defended by powerful entities and lawyers. I’m afraid that sooner or later this will whittle down to what scientists are willing to claim under oath and under cross examination because there is so much money at stake that it is inevitable that climate science will be dragged into court.

  • If you would like to read the WSJ piece side by side with the Science article you can do so here:

    Keep in mind that politicians don’t need facts, they are just a bunch of lawyers, very few are scientists. They only want to spread reasonable doubt, we need to figure out how to spread the truth.

  • In this context, simple statements work best. And the simple, hard fact is it has never been good to fill the place you live in with muck, and never will be.

    • John Haigh

      Completely true.

      We should continue to strive to minimise toxic effluents; and also to conserve energy.

      But what has muck got to do with atmospheric CO2 concentrations rising by about 100 ppm?

  • Martin Vermeer

    The obvious thing to point out is that temperatures haven’t significantly increased since last week either… statistics illiteracy is a terrible thing.

    It’s the gambling addict’s argument: if this ‘lucky run’ continues, I’ll get back all the money I lost so far, and finally make the break. Yeah, ‘if’. The house wins in the end as it always does. Gamble your own money away, dammit, not our children’s future.

  • Edward.

    Er, you miss the point Peter, you always do – alarmism is all about worrying the public.
    Added to the fact that, though atmospheric CO2 is rising and since 98, correspondingly T has not risen, even Prof Jones of the CRU at the UEA admitted as much. But then quoting; warmest years’ and sequences is fiddlesticks and remember we are in a warm period, awaiting the next ice advance!
    Then, the T record is rather chronologically limited wouldn’t you say?
    Furthermore, the IPCC [who actually believes them any more?] Computer models predict that World T may rise by 2 deg’ C by the end of the century or by 4 or even 6 deg’ C – scurrilous and scaremongering rubbish and you all know it.

    BUT, the point is, whilst the world is on the verge of a financial meltdown [scuse the pun] do we borrow trillions of dollars more to spend on flawed and useless renewable boondoggles, sending trillions more ‘west’ and added to the billions which has been already wasted, to combat a non existent phenomenon?
    How logical is that? Not very, I would posit and that’s the point.

    • JMurphy

      Edward, where do you get your information from ?

      I ask because, firstly, all temperature trends (using the WoodForTrees Temp Index explained here) for 1998 (0.00254479 per year), 1997 (0.0054586 per year), and 1999 (0.0104155 per year) are positive. Does that not mean that Temps HAVE risen ?

      Secondly, Phil Jones did not say that Temps had not risen. From the actual interview in question, he said (in reply to the question – Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming ?) :

      “Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.”
      (Anyone can read it here, if they want to know the facts).

      In a later interview, however, he said this (which many seem to miss) :

      “The trend over the period 1995-2009 was significant at the 90% level, but wasn’t significant at the standard 95% level that people use.
      Basically what’s changed is one more year [of data]. That period 1995-2009 was just 15 years – and because of the uncertainty in estimating trends over short periods, an extra year has made that trend significant at the 95% level which is the traditional threshold that statisticians have used for many years.
      It just shows the difficulty of achieving significance with a short time series, and that’s why longer series – 20 or 30 years – would be a much better way of estimating trends and getting significance on a consistent basis.”
      (Again, anyone wanting to know the facts can read more here)

      Furthermore, your opinions on the IPCC, models, renewables, spending and logic are just that : Opinion. Why don’t we all stick to facts ?

  • Ben Lieberman

    I don’t know: is it entirely appropriate for a major newspaper to print a piece that is demonstrably inaccurate? Why is it acceptable to push climate denial?

  • caerbannog

    OK, so how can we distill this down to a sound-bite that anyone can appreciate?

    Well, on the pro-global-warming side, we have the USA National Academy of Sciences (as well as the science academies of all the other major industrialized nations).

    And what do the deniers have on their side? Well, consider the fact that the #1 denier web-site (wattsupwiththat.com) is run by someone who attended college for seven years but never graduated. Hmmm…. who *else* burned up seven years in college without accomplishing anything? Well, here’s a youtube hint: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjIH1jdx2_A. Why, that would be Blutarsky, of Animal House!

    So, folks — we have the National Academy of Sciences on our side. And as for deniers? They have Animal House.

    So the global-warming vs. denier war boils down to a contest between the National Academy of Sciences and Animal House. Is there anything more that needs to be said?

  • LynneB

    I would suggest that it has to be rebutted, publicly, and ideally in the same or a similar venue. Is it possible, do you think, for a group of scientists to lobby WSJ for “right of reply”?

    • It’s important for scientists to rebut high-profile misrepresentations of science, and detailed rebuttals of the WSJ piece are being prepared. Whether the Journal will agree to publish them is anyone’s guess.

      But it’s hard to imagine that the WSJ will change its editorial policy of publishing misinformation on climate science unless and until business leaders who buy advertising revenue insist they do so. Perhaps we’re getting closer to such a day.

  • G. Miller

    “The fact is that CO2 is not a pollutant.” But that doesn’t mean CO2 is harmless. No, CO2 is not a pollutant if pollutant is defined as a toxic substance. However, CO2 causes atmospheric warming by absorbing, then re-emitting in all directions, infrared radiation. It is shamefully misleading for so many scientists to make this misleading statement about CO2 instead of explaining *why* CO2 is implicated in climate change. If they have an argument with the physics, let them make it. They all surely know from taking physical chemistry in college why CO2 absorbs infrared. The general public does not have this knowledge, and the authors of this letter took advantage of that.

    • John Haigh

      It’s not so simple.

      CO2 absorbs infra red. True.

      The pertinent questions are:
      How much difference does the changed amount of CO2 make to the absorption?
      How does that compare to water vapor?
      How does that compare with changes of albedo effect from clouds?
      How accurate are the computer models predictions?
      How accurate are global temperature records?
      And on and on…

      For 99.9% of people it comes down to, “I believe this group more than that group.”

      Don’t fool yourself into believing you are in a position to judge the accuracy of the science and support that with high school physics.

      The physics and chemistry are incredibly complicated. People of good will have reached different conclusions on the AGW issue. Remember there is no correlation between the intensity of one’s beliefs and their accuracy.

      • John – Good points. But for issues of technical complexity and importance, which groups to believe? Most of us don’t have time and expertise to dig into the literature on, say, the links between tobacco and lung cancer – instead we rely in the judgment of the Surgeon General and the relevant expert community that smoking poses high risks to our health. We came to accept that science despite decades of efforts to sow confusion by the tobacco industry. Sure, many “people of good will” today may have widely divergent views on the risks of global warming. But scientists of good will and relevant expertise are in firm agreement on the major risks of human-caused warming. Our task ahead is to help build that understanding as a shared starting point for an informed and vigorous American response.
        BTW, for those who DO want to access technically sound response to pertinent (and sometimes impertinent) frequently asked questions about climate science, an excellent source is http://www.skepticalscience.com.

  • Laura Hinkelman

    Soooooo…. what can we do about this? Just because we know the truth doesn’t mean that lawmakers won’t take the opinion piece seriously.

  • LynneB

    When the letter starts with a complete untruth like “there has been no evidence of warming for ten years”, the rest loses its credibility right off, no matter who signed it. And I note, that although there are a few big names in there, only a single one of them is a practicing (not retired) scientist in a relevant field.

    The data are there, and the recent skeptic-run Berkeley Group confirmed: the data are sound, the world is warming, and CO2 is implicated. That outweighs the fact that in any field of tens of thousands of people, a few will inevitably hold contrarian opinions.

  • Also, the hottest “year” on record was the 12 months ending May or June 2010.