The Why Files The Why Files --

Politics vs science: round 2


Cooling to warming
The issue of global warming is the paramount scientific-political dispute in America today. Global warming is caused mainly by burning fossil fuels, and the obvious solution is to burn less of them, a step that has frightened many oil, coal and gas companies.

Graphic of earth seen from space, orange arrows show sun's rays entering atmosphere and heat being trapped in atmosphereThe "greenhouse effect" is the climate warming caused by gases in the atmosphere that trap heat radiating from Earth toward space. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) act like glass in a greenhouse, allowing sunlight to enter but blocking Earth's heat from escaping. Image: U.S. EPA

When the specter of global warming due to the greenhouse effect arose in the 1980s, a gang of skeptics began to question climate records, climate models, and the idea that climate was any more predictable than weather. The big cheese among the doubters was the Global Climate Coalition, a creature of the fossil-fuel industry.

But after years of publicly disparaging the notion of global warming, the industry seems to have changed its tune. The climate coalition turned belly-up in 2002. And according to Bill Bush, a public relations source at the American Petroleum Institute, "Oil and natural gas companies agree that climate change is a serious challenge that needs to be dealt with. Developing better technologies is probably the best approach."

IFederal agencies may squirm, but the facts about global warming are still coming out -- through federally funded climate researcht's hard to know if the White House agrees. President Bush long ago forgot his campaign-trail promise to limit carbon dioxide emissions, and even after decades of rapid greenhouse warming, you see little sign of concern on the energy page of the White House website. On Oct. 16, 2006, this page failed to include two handy terms for discussing a warming climate: "warming" and "climate".

How we doin'?
With the top dog non-committal about warming, how are the agencies handling the issue? As its name implies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a key player in global warming research. Soon after Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast in 2005, journalists began asking agency scientists about a possible link between hurricanes and global warming. (It's logical: hurricanes are powered by warm sea water, and warmer water transfers more energy. And NOAA, by definition, should know something about oceans and the atmosphere).

Several researchers who were either employed or funded by NOAA had been finding inconvenient truths suggesting that hurricanes were getting stronger due to global warming. One of them, Stanley Goldenberg, had linked warming seas and hurricanes (see "The Recent Increase in Atlantic Hurricane..." in the bibliography). The Why Files wanted to talk with Goldenberg, who agreed by e-mail -- if we could get clearance from the NOAA press office. That didn't happen, as we wrote at the time:

"We tried to talk with [Stanley] Goldenberg, but got intercepted by a helpful government PR minder, who directed us to Chris Landsea, another NOAA scientist, to speak about the subject. But Landsea apparently had better things to do; we never heard from him."

Two men in shirtsleeves and one man in khaki suit stand behind a wooden deskNow we read that other reporters also got the NOAA run-around while trying to interview taxpayer-funded researchers. We contacted helpful government PR minder Frank Lepore at NOAA for comment, but he did not respond.

President George W. Bush talks with Max Mayfield, center, director of NOAA's Tropical Prediction Center and National Hurricane Center, and Chris Landsea, the science and operations officer at the National Hurricane Center, in Miami Monday, July 31, 2006. In 2005, NOAA tried to steer The Why Files to Landsea when we asked to interview a different NOAA researcher; Landsea never called back, even though he's closer to the company line than the expert we originally contacted.Photo: White House photo by Kimberlee Hewitt.

On Sept. 28, 2006, Nature reported a similar effort at thought control:

"Details have emerged of what critics interpret as government attempts to control media access to Tom Knutson, a NOAA researcher who has published papers suggesting that global warming may make Atlantic hurricanes more intense. E-mails obtained by the online news magazine Salon show that Chuck Fuqua, a press officer at the Department of Commerce, enquired about Knutson's views on global warming when considering an interview request from CNBC television. He then asked whether other NOAA researchers who dispute the warming link might be interviewed instead. One such researcher, Chris Landsea, is described in another e-mail as the 'best source' to explain why climate change is not increasing hurricane activity" (see "Is US Hurricane Report Being Quashed" in the bibliography).

Getting heated about global warming
In the torrid summer of 1988, NASA climate modeler James Hansen put his reputation on the line when he told the U.S. Senate that he was "99 percent confident" that warming had started, and that a human element was likely involved.

At that time, the extent of warming was still arguable, and many of the warming warnings relied on climate models -- gigantic computer simulations of how climate will change as greenhouse gases begin reflecting more heat back to Earth. Back in 1988, you could still make a scientific case that the globe was not warming, so a policy position of "Greenhouse effect, what me worry?" still had some legitimacy.

Map with areas in northern hemisphere covered in dark reds, rest of planet yellows and oranges
After 30 years of rapid warming, Earth is reaching the warmest temperatures in 12,000 years. Dark red indicates greatest warming; purple, the greatest cooling. Map: NASA GISS

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, through a long, review-heavy process, fingered human activity in the warming. Today, it's difficult to find a credible climate scientist who does not believe that A) Earth's climate is warming fast, and B) human activities have played a chief role in causing the warming (but stick around; we'll talk to one of them on the next page).

Still warning about warming
Hansen, having seen his bold (or fool-hardy?) senatorial statement supported by 18 years' subsequent study, has continued to focus on global warming as director of the prestigious Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In September, he and some colleagues reported that temperatures are approaching the highest level in 1 million years: "The Earth has been warming at the remarkably rapid rate of approximately 0.36 ° Fahrenheit (0.2 ° Celsius) per decade for the past 30 years."

Over recent years, scientists have warned that feedback mechanisms could ramp up the planetary broasting: When land in the artic warms, snow melts, the land turns dark, and it absorbs more sunlight. Simultaneously, warming permafrost releases methane, a titanically potent greenhouse gas. In positive feedback situations, 2 + 2 = 6: warming begets more warming.

Hansen warns that we may be near a "tipping point" in greenhouse warming. If we wait too long before getting serious about shutting off the greenhouse gases, a runaway warm-up may already have begun.

Chart demonstrates upward spike in global temps
Earth has been warming about 0.2 ° Celsius (0.36 ° Fahrenheit) per decade for 30 years. Global temperature is within about 1 ° Celsius (1.8 ° Fahrenheit) of the maximum estimated temperature during the past million years. Chart: NASA GISS

And yet even as Hansen denounces cuts in NASA's earth-science budget, he writes that NASA continues to play a key role in the study of global warming, documenting, for example, the meltdown of Greenland's huge ice cap: "Two small satellites that measure Earth's gravitational field with remarkable precision found that the mass of Greenland decreased by the equivalent of 200 cubic kilometers of ice in 2005. The area on Greenland with summer melting has increased 50 percent ... and the area in the Arctic Ocean with summer sea ice has decreased 20 percent in the last 25 years" (see "Swift Boating, Stealth Budgeting..." in the bibliography).

Pioneering climatologist: "Climate models are bunk. Show me the data."


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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