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Documentation > Readings > "Skeptics" > The Wall Street Journal of april 2001

The Wall Street Journal and the climate

september 2003 (french version : april 2001)

website of the author : www.manicore.com - contact the author : jean-marc@manicore.com

 

This page offers a - very critic ! - reading of an article published in april 2001 in the Wall Street Journal.

For the pedagogy of the statement, two versions of this text are offered : the first is the article as it was published, with no remarks, and the second is the same text, but with my commentaries [in red and enclosed between square brackets] inserted in the text, as answers to incoherences, wrong ways of thinking, factual errors and other mistakes included in this article according to me. These remarks only reflect my opinion, susceptible of course to be wrong, and even to change !

 

***

****Original article****

Hot Air + Flawed Science = Dangerous Emissions

By Philip Stott, a professor of biogeography at the University of London and co-author of "Political Ecology : Science, Myth and Power" (Oxford University Press, 2000).

When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman told reporters last week, "No, we have no interest in implementing the Kyoto treaty," she unleashed a hysteria in Europe unmatched even by the United Kingdom's current troubles with foot-and-mouth disease. It was as if George W. Bush had pressed the nuclear button. Why?

The reason is simple. In Europe, "global warming" has become a necessary myth, a new fundamentalist religion, with the Kyoto protocol as its articles of faith. The adherents of this new faith want Mr. Bush on trial because he has blasphemed.

 

Emotional Energy

Nobody will understand this in the U.S. if they fail to grasp that "global warming" has absorbed more of the emotional energy of European green pressure groups than virtually any other topic. Even biotechnology fades into insignificance by comparison . Americans must also understand that the science of complex climate change has little to do with the myth. In the U.S., the science is rightly scrutinized ; in Europe, not so.

"Global warming" was invented in 1988, when it replaced two earlier myths of an imminent plunge into another Ice Age and the threat of a nuclear winter. The new myth was seen to encapsulate a whole range of other myths and attitudes that had developed in the 1960s and 1970s, including "limits to growth", sustainability, neo-Malthusian fears of a population time bomb, pollution, anticorporate anti-Americanism, and an Al Gore-like analysis of human greed disturbing the ecological harmony and balance of the earth.

Initially, in Europe, the new myth was embraced by both right and left. The right was concerned with breaking the power of traditional trade unions, such as the coal miners -- the labor force behind a major source of carbon-dioxide emissions -- and promoting the development of nuclear power. Britain's Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research was established at the personal instigation of none other than Margaret Thatcher.

The left, by contrast, was obsessed with population growth, industrialization, the car, development and globalization. Today, the narrative of global warming has evolved into an emblematic issue for authoritarian greens, who employ a form of language that has been characterized by the physicist P.H. Borcherds as "the hysterical subjunctive." And it is this grammatical imperative that is now dominating the European media when they complain about Mr. Bush, the U.S., and their willful denial of the true faith.

Interestingly, the tension between science and myth characterizes the "Third Assessment Report" of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to which Europe always turns for legitimation. The whole feel of the report differs between its political summary (written by a group powerfully driven by the myth) and the scientific sections. It comes as a shock to read the following in the conclusions to the science (italics added): "In sum, a strategy must recognize what is possible. In climate research and modeling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear system, and therefore that the prediction of a specific future climate is not possible."

Inevitably, the media in Europe did not mention this vital scientific caveat, choosing to focus instead on the political summary, which Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-nology, has described scathingly as "very much a children's exercise of what might possibly happen," prepared by a "peculiar group" with "no technical competence." This is a damning statement from a scientist with impeccable credentials.

And here we come to the nub of the difference between Europe and the U.S. For the past few years, the media in Europe have failed to acknowledge the science that does not support and legitimize the myth. In Britain, liberal newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent have consistently ignored virtually all the evidence pointing to complexity and uncertainty in climate change, preferring instead to present "global warming" as Armageddon, a catastrophe produced by corporate American gas-guzzling greed.

Yet, just in the past three months, there has appeared a whole suite of hard science papers from major scientific institutions in major scientific journals, including Nature, Climate Research, and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, all raising serious questions about the relationship between gas emissions and climate.

The focus has been on the role of water vapor, unquestionably the most im-portant "greenhouse" gas (not carbon dioxide) ; the palaeogeological rela-tionships between carbon dioxide and temperature ; the many missing, or poorly known, variables in climate models ; and the need to correct certain temperature measurements fed into the models, especially those taken over the oceans. One paper, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, even concludes that "our review of the literature has shown that GCMs [global climate models] are not sufficiently robust to provide an understanding of the potential effects of CO2 on climate necessary for public discussion."

Warming Waffle

The science of "global warming" is thus deeply flawed, but its caution and ra-tionality are drowned in the warming waffle now emanating so shrilly from Europe. Yet, because the science is so flawed and uncertain, why should anyone sign up to a treaty that clearly will not work? To put it simply : The idea that we can control a chaotic climate governed by a billion factors through fiddling about with a couple of politically selected gases is carbon claptrap.
Kyoto, however, is ultimately more dangerous than this. It has taken our eye, internationally, off the true way by which humans have always had to cope with change, whatever its cause, direction or speed -- namely, adaptation. Above all, we need a new international agenda for constant technological adaptation to environmental change, whether gradual or catastrophic, remembering always that it is the poor who suffer the most from change.
The Kyoto protocol is not the answer.

 

****Article with my commentaries****

Hot Air + Flawed Science = Dangerous Emissions

By Philip Stott, a professor of biogeography at the University of London [at the time, he was, now he is professor emeritus, that is "sort of" retired] and co-author of "Political Ecology : Science, Myth and Power" (Oxford University Press, 2000).

When Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman [when this article was written, Mrs Whitman had just been appointed] told reporters last week, "No, we have no interest in implementing the Kyoto treaty," she unleashed a hysteria in Europe unmatched even by the United Kingdom's current troubles with foot-and-mouth disease. It was as if George W. Bush had pressed the nuclear button. Why? [so far he discusses on the magnitude of a reaction, that has been strong in Europe. The style is his, but facts are not false].

The reason is simple. In Europe, "global warming" has become a necessary myth, a new fundamentalist religion, with the Kyoto protocol as its articles of faith. The adherents of this new faith want Mr. Bush on trial because he has blasphemed. [there we go : if we are against M. Bush, it can be only in the name of morality !]

 

Emotional Energy

Nobody will understand this in the U.S. if they fail to grasp that "global warming" has absorbed more of the emotional energy of European green pressure groups than virtually any other topic. Even biotechnology fades into insignificance by comparison [in France this is not true, but let's continue]. Americans must also understand that the science of complex climate change has little to do with the myth. In the U.S., the science is rightly scrutinized ; in Europe, not so [Globalization has stricken here too : it's been a long time since science was national ! Today there is no more "US science" than they is "european science", there is just "international science" : as an author self-declared familiar with scientific matters M. Stott seems to be of a surprising ignorance of how science (any science) works. Every author writes in English, and his article is reviewed by peers all over the world. In addition, unfortunately for our friend, it happens that in this specific case - global warming - the IPCC, that has precisely the task to assess the climate change science, and that cleary points to the dangers, has more authors coming from the US than from any other country in the world. Let's also recall that its assessment reports are unanimously approved in general assembly, where every country - including the US - sends a competent representative to speak in its name].

"Global warming" was invented in 1988 [global warming theories are a century old !!], when it replaced two earlier myths of an imminent plunge into another Ice Age and the threat of a nuclear winter [the threat of a nuclear winter will exist as long as there is a massive nuclear arsenal. The fact that we are less preoccupied by this possibility today has not erased the threat : mixing up the risk (which can be objectively qualified) and the perception of the risk (which is something subective) is a gross mistake - unless it is voluntary]. The new myth was seen to encapsulate a whole range of other myths and attitudes that had developed in the 1960s and 1970s, including "limits to growth" [Any function growing of x% per year is an exponential, that cannot last indefinitely in a finite world. No ideology there, just maths. Denying the existence of a limit to growth, even if we can't know easily where it is, is nonsense. See here a little prolongation of trends just for energy], sustainability, neo-Malthusian fears of a population time bomb [population is also someting that can't become infinite. Affirming that earth can sustain 6 billion people without damages will be possible only once we have verified that earth has sustained them for a couple centuries or millenia. Otherwise, it's that part of the damages are future but non avoidable, and not taking them into account today is a gross mistake], pollution [denying pollution, that is qualifying of "myth" the impact of human activities on the environment is obviously not serious], anticorporate anti-Americanism, and an Al Gore-like analysis of human greed disturbing the ecological harmony and balance of the earth [it seems suprising that Al Gore had such an influence in Europe in the 60's and 70's... In addition the author does not explain why Al Gore would have proven wrong - which is possible, but not established here].

Initially, in Europe, the new myth was embraced by both right and left. The right was concerned with breaking the power of traditional trade unions, such as the coal miners [I wonder whether "in Europe" is not, in fact, "in Great Britain" : coal minors trade unions that made a lot of noise in Europe in the late 90's are mostly located in Great Britain. In France and Italy there are almost no more mines, spanish coal minors if any did not appear in the press, and I don't recall that german coal minors had a fight with the right] -- the labor force behind a major source of carbon-dioxide emissions -- and promoting the development of nuclear power [75% of the installed nuclear power in the world (in 2001) was built before 1985, hence decided in the 70's. The greenhouse effect - basically unheard of at the time - was a very minor reason to go nuclear - if any reason at all, it was the energetic independance that was at stake]. Britain's Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research was established at the personal instigation of none other than Margaret Thatcher.

The left, by contrast, was obsessed with population growth [without being obsessed, and without being necessarily on the left, one can wonder whether earth might indefinitely bear several billion human beings : why would such a question be illegitimate ?], industrialization, the car, development and globalization [he could have added that right and left share the common obsession of growth, which should rather rejoice him]. Today, the narrative of global warming has evolved into an emblematic issue for authoritarian greens [considering that being worried about the environment necessarily makes you a Green, or, to put it another way, that Greens are the sole owners of any worried considerations on environment is a sophism], who employ a form of language that has been characterized by the physicist P.H. Borcherds as "the hysterical subjunctive." [though most of this article is nonsense, on this particular point I don't disagree !] And it is this grammatical imperative that is now dominating the European media when they complain about Mr. Bush, the U.S., and their willful denial of the true faith [a fact and his transcription in the press might somewhat differ, it even happens quite frequently ! One cannot seriously say that science is not good because the journalist or activist that invokes it in the press exposes it or interprets it wrongly, which is by the way exactely what this author is doing (wrong interpretations)].

Interestingly, the tension between science and myth characterizes the "Third Assessment Report" of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to which Europe always turns for legitimation [this report was not made public at the time M. Stott wrote this article, but just the summaries for policymakers. Either this article publicly criticizes a non yet published document, on which nobody can have his own judgment, which is a debatable way to proceed, or he got confused and mixed up a published document (the summaries for policymakers) and the full report, the second hypothesis being the most probable]. The whole feel of the report differs between its political summary (written by a group powerfully driven by the myth) [there are three summaries for policymakers : which one is he talking about ? the rest of the article allows to guess that he probably discusses the working group 2 report, that tries to assess the consequences of climate change. This document has been approved by the full assembly of the IPCC, that includes the representative from the USA (and also the one of Saudi Arabia, Iran, China and Venezuela). Are those also "powerfully driven by the myth" ?] and the scientific sections [bis : these sections have not been published yet. How can he know what they include ? And anyway I doubt very much that he has read much - or will read much - of the full sections, that represent almost 1000 pages, so that his advice on how well the summary reflects the full report is more flawed than the underlying science !].

It comes as a shock to read the following in the conclusions to the science (italics added): "In sum, a strategy must recognize what is possible. In climate research and modeling, we should recognize that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear system, and therefore that the prediction of a specific future climate is not possible." ["the prediction of a specific future climate is not possible" means : we are not able to predict the exact temperature that Hong Kong will know during the summer 2058. Does this mean that the indications on the fact that the mean temperature in Hong Kong will probably rise by X ot Y degrees are totally worthless ? Can anybody pretend that the author doesn't know how much money he owns is he not able to give the exact sum to the penny ?]

Inevitably, the media in Europe did not mention this vital scientific caveat [what is published in the paper depends more on the journalist that on the scientist !], choosing to focus instead on the political summary, which Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Tech-nology, has described scathingly as "very much a children's exercise of what might possibly happen," prepared by a "peculiar group" with "no technical competence." [Lindzen is indeed a very competent scientist in his field (physical processes of climate). But I doubt he has advanced knowledge on the adaptations possibilities of natural ecosystems, of human societies, or of fish populations to a modification of the environment, all things that are discussed in the group 2 report. In addition, if he criticizes - with a reasonnable dose of bad faith, as far as I could judge through an interview of him I read on the Internet, that he nevertheless said he did not review - some conclusions of some simulations, Lindzen does not contest that the atmospheric CO2 has strongly increased since the beginning of the industrial era, nor that enhanced carbon dioxide emissions will lead to a climate change (he even signed a paper to Bush explicitely stating this, and explicitely declaring that the IPCC group 1 work was "admirable"). What Lindzen is doing is publicly asking questions - that are comprehensible only by his peers - regarding the pertinence of such or such way to reproduce reality in such or such climate model, but these questions regard our aptitude to predict quantitatively the consequences of a process that he does not deny the least. Quoting him here is therefore surprising] This is a damning statement from a scientist with impeccable credentials [What lindzen criticizes, basically, is the way clouds are taken into account in models (it is a technical discussion that does not imply the denial of the main conclusions, that he does not deny). I have some doubts on the fact that M. Stott is more competent than me, my butcher (quite good, incidentally), or my 4 year old daughter to dicuss the equations and representations chosen by physicists].

And here we come to the nub of the difference between Europe and the U.S. For the past few years, the media in Europe have failed to acknowledge the science that does not support and legitimize the myth [what the media possibly fail to do is not the problem of scientists. Deducting from here that science is "flawed" is definitely a very bold move !]. In Britain, liberal newspapers like the Guardian and the Independent have consistently ignored virtually all the evidence pointing to complexity and uncertainty in climate change, preferring instead to present "global warming" as Armageddon, a catastrophe produced by corporate American gas-guzzling greed [Again a non justified assimilation of scientists and journalists].

Yet, just in the past three months, there has appeared a whole suite of hard science papers from major scientific institutions in major scientific journals, including Nature, Climate Research, and the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, all raising serious questions about the relationship between gas emissions and climate [I could not read these articles, since M. Stott prudently omitted to quote them. More seriously, the IPCC precisely exists because there are lots and lots of articles, and that it is necessary to read them all and write a comprehensive view - what it does !].

The focus has been on the role of water vapor, unquestionably the most important "greenhouse" gas (not carbon dioxide) [that water vapour is the first ranking greenhouse gas has been known for a century at least. Actually if there were no water on earth, a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would lead to a 1,2 °C temperature increase only ; it's precisely the increase of the water vapour in the atmosphere following a beginning of warming that is susceptible to push the temperature up to 4 or 5°C] ; the palaeogeological relationships between carbon dioxide and temperature [this point is also investigated since the beginning of the study of man induced climate warming] ; the many missing, or poorly known, variables in climate models [Here is typically a vague - therefore convenient - accusation ! This sentence may target "the large amount of physical processes poorly or not represented in the models" (what model designers say themselves, it is therefore no news), or "the instrumental data missing to feed the models" (see next remark). But...one has to be a specialist of climate models to know if it's impairing the results or not, and so far it has been considered that it was not the case because models correctly reproduce the main trends of the past climate] ; and the need to correct certain temperature measurements fed into the models, especially those taken over the oceans [Indeed there are less temperature measurements made over the ocean than over the continents. An interpolation is therefore required to attribute initial values to the nodes of the grid, that are not necessarily located where the instruments are. But once again one has to be a climatologist himself to know whether this is leading to significant errors or not]. One paper, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, even concludes that "our review of the literature has shown that GCMs [global climate models] are not sufficiently robust to provide an understanding of the potential effects of CO2 on climate necessary for public discussion." [what is the appropriate level of understanding which is suited for a "public discussion", and what "public discussion" are we talking about exactely ?].

 

Warming Waffle

The science of "global warming" is thus deeply flawed [one more sophism : deducting from an open debate on a specific and technical point, that no scientist is denying, that the whole file can be thrown to the paper basket], but its caution and rationality are drowned in the warming waffle now emanating so shrilly from Europe. Yet, because the science is so flawed and uncertain, why should anyone sign up to a treaty that clearly will not work ? [what will not work exactely ?] To put it simply : The idea that we can control a chaotic climate governed by a billion factors through fiddling about with a couple of politically selected gases is carbon claptrap [M. Stott has no credits whatsoever to discuss the relative importance of the "billion factors governing climate". If he thinks he has proofs that the human action is of no effect on climate, why doesn't he publish in the scientific litterature an article demonstrating it, quoting precisely the scientific work that enables to conclude that way, which of course he hasn't done ? We're just like in court : statements are not worth a cent without the corresponding evidence].

Kyoto, however, is ultimately more dangerous than this. It has taken our eye, internationally, off the true way by which humans have always had to cope with change, whatever its cause, direction or speed -- namely, adaptation [if we can adapt to anything, which is what this man seems to say, I could deduct that it is not dangerous to jump from the Empire State because I will always be able to adapt when arriving 5 meters above the ground !]. Above all, we need a new international agenda for constant technological adaptation to environmental change [Amazing scientists and engineers, incompetent when they study the future climate, but on who we will rely to find the technologies enabling us to adapt to anything !], whether gradual or catastrophic [a technology enabling to avoid a catastrophic change without any damage seems of a doubtful feasability to me, and anyway I wouldn't invest my savings in the stock of a company claiming it has found it !], remembering always that it is the poor who suffer the most from change [this is true, but what link with science ?].

The Kyoto protocol is not the answer.[Well, if he says so....].

Would M. Stott feel legitimate to indicate that all neurologists are good for nothing because one of them made a diagnosis error one day ? It's about the way this article is built : from the remark of one person, discussing a technical point on a subject I doubt M. Stott is familiar with (the way models are built), he deducts that the whole filed is "flawed". Curious logics, but quite representative of people that contest the scientific file, just as all the logical errors that it is possible to find in this article are of current use among the other "skeptics".

 

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