Wall Street Journal’s Portrait of the Young Climate Scientist

by Bill Chameides | January 31st, 2012
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 18 comments

I broke my New Year’s resolution to stop reading the Wall Street Journal when my inbox was flooded with messages about a January 27th op-ed by “16 concerned scientists.”

There they go again, waxing non-scientific on science.

Breaking My New Year’s Resolution and Opening up the Paper Again

Here it is only the end of January and I am breaking my New Year’s resolution to ignore the Wall Street Journal. The paper’s coverage of climate science in its editorial pages has been appalling for quite some time, but the straw that broke the camel’s back for me came with a letter to the editor published on December 24, 2011, stating that carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbs heat because it is “one of the heaviest molecules in the atmosphere.”

Carbon dioxide’s action as a greenhouse gas has nothing to do with its density but with its atomic bonds, which allow it to absorb infrared radiation.

Now, I know from personal experience that the journal judiciously chooses the letters it publishes. So why would the editors publish one so obviously wrong? Whatever the reasons, its publication does not acquit the paper as a source of information. And so I cancelled my subscription and swore off the journal.

The Best-laid Plans of Ignoring Misinformation

On January 27, my inbox lit up with e-mails about a WSJ op-ed authored by “16 concerned scientists” arguing that there is “no need to panic about global warming.” Some urged me to respond in TheGreenGrok, and hence the early demise of a New Year’s resolution.

Before waxing scientific on the myriad and sundry errors in the op-ed, let me give a shout-out to the powerful statement in Forbes by Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, about what the op-ed’s publication in the journal implies about the paper’s objectivity, and a heads-up about another response soon to come by some three dozen scientists, including me. (Update 2/1/2012: Response now published, see here.) Now, a bit more on the facts.

Not Just the Facts

The WSJ’s “No Need to Panic” op-ed contains a number of places where the facts are twisted and turned in strange ways. One example: the statement that there has been a “smaller-than-predicted warming over the 22 years since the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began issuing projections.”
Not really:

Temperature projections from the first three IPCC assessment reports (1990’s FAR, 1996’s SAR, 2001’s TAR) compared to observed temperatures. Note that the observed average annual temperatures (thick black line) are for the most part within the lower limit of the FAR projections, exceed SAR’s, and are near the top of the envelope of TAR’s projections. (Source: IPCC, AR4, WG-1, Fig 1.1)

  1. The first IPCC climate projection was made in the First Assessment Report, or FAR, in 1990. It did not include a single trend but an envelope of trends. While it’s true that the actual observed temperature trend falls below the so-called central prediction, it falls at the bottom but within the envelope of temperature predictions.
  2. The 16 concerned scientists fail to mention that the observed temperature for the most part exceeds the envelope of temperature predictions from the Second Assessment Report, or SAR, from 1996.

And then there’s the “travesty” bit from Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. His statement about the lack of an adequate observational network to diagnose the climate’s response to interannual variability was decontextualized and thus trumped up (as has been done in the past) to make it appear it’s an admission that global warming has ceased. (Read more on the misinterpreted quotation.)

And there’s the same old ridiculous claim that CO2 is not a pollutant but a natural atmospheric component that, among other things, we breathe out. Well, it’s true that CO2 is a natural chemical. But so is carbon monoxide — it is found naturally in the atmosphere and can often be detected in our breath. But when spewed from a tailpipe it can kill. Is that not a pollutant?

Young Scientist Claim

I find especially appalling the claim that “many young scientists furtively say that while they also have serious doubts about the global-warming message, they are afraid to speak up for fear of not being promoted — or worse.” It is a distortion of the way science works and the way scientists operate.

To bolster their argument, the 16 cite the case of Dr. Chris de Freitas, a former editor of the journal Climate Research, who got embroiled in a fierce debate over an erroneous paper on climate trends that he approved for publication. The op-ed authors claim that: “The international warming establishment quickly mounted a determined campaign to have Dr. de Freitas removed from his editorial job and fired from his university position.”

First of all, lest there be any confusion, de Freitas was and is hardly a vulnerable, young scientist — among other positions, he has served as the deputy dean of science and the pro vice chancellor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

But more important, there is no evidence of an international conspiracy — what is the “international warming establishment” anyway? And how could a group of scientists get the University of Auckland to fire de Freitas? As concluded by the Environmental Protection Agency [pdf] regarding the scientists upset with the paper’s publication: “If anything, their actions aimed to police the peer review process and rectify a problem that threatened its scientific integrity.”

Personal Experience Bucking Accepted ‘Wisdom’

The fact is that rather than fearing going up against accepted scientific thinking, scientists, young and otherwise, dream of it. Why? If correct, their argument is what makes their scientific reputation. How do I know? From my own experience.

As a Ph.D. student, building on some work by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen (see Nobel lecture [pdf]), I concluded that the widely accepted wisdom about the way ozone behaves in the lower atmosphere — wisdom that routinely appeared in textbooks as well as the peer
-reviewed literature — was wrong. My findings indicated that Instead of being controlled by atmospheric winds and currents, ozone is significantly influenced by chemical reactions triggered by sunlight. I published my findings and received a good deal of criticism, including comments in the Journal of Geophysical Research, where my paper was published, and strenuous objections in some seminars. But the kernel of my idea held up, and my bucking of established thought helped set me on my career.

A cartoon by Roger Harvell played on the controversy the smog paper I co-authored stirred. (A signed version of the cartoon hangs in my office.)

Later, I and some colleagues published a paper on the role of natural hydrocarbon emissions in forming smog. Because our conclusions appeared to faintly echo Ronald Reagan’s statement about “killer trees,” some viewed the paper as being politically incorrect.

Many attacked the smog paper. The Greenville Piedmont newspaper even published a cartoon showing a scientist (presumably me) inhaling fumes from a tree with the caption “Georgia Tech scientist becomes the first person to attempt suicide from tree exhaust.” But again the research stood the test of time and was included in the citation for my induction into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

I guarantee that most scientists, myself included, would love to make their reputation by refuting the whole notion of global warming. We have tried and have concluded that we can’t. There are some who appear to be holding on to their dreams of scientific deliverance and a good deal of sour grapes. Sadly, the only recourse they have left is to publish op-eds in a tired old newspaper that has lost all credibility when it comes to science.

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  1. Matt Skaggs
    Feb 9, 2012

    David Appell, Did you read S&B03 prior to your screed? I cannot tell with you either. It looks like you have recycled the strawman claims of others. Most of the strawman claims exploit the one poorly phrased statement about both humidity and temperature, making it seem like S&B were using humidity studies to make statements about temperature. If you read the paper you can easily see that is a strawman. There is absolutely nothing wrong with S&B03 other than that it might not be particularly important. The paper was only intended to address the “C” in CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming), not the “A” or the “W.”

    • David Appell
      Feb 10, 2012

      Matt, yes, I read the S&B paper. And I also spent a few weeks doing reporting on it, talking to a lot of people in the process. I outlined its huge flaws in my August 2003 SciAm article and, recently, on my blog. As I wrote on the latter, among the paper’s problems were: * their work lacked a quantitative foundation (Soon: “I was stating outright that I’m not able to give too many quantitative details, especially in terms of aggregating all the results.”) * they grouped 50-year periods by “wetness” and “dryness,” but didn’t even define those words. When asked they said they “referred to the standard usage in English.” * what they did define was so broad as to include nearly any conclusion. Worst of all was defining “climate anomaly” as any 50+ year period that was wetter or dryer, or warmer (for the MWP) or cooler (for the LIA). So even if the temperature was completely constant in the period, it was considered an “anomaly.” So a 50-year dry period anytime between 800 to 1300 AD, anywhere in the world, counted as evidence for the Medieval Warm Period. Regardless of temperature. So did a 50-year wet period. Regardless of temperature. * By choosing a 50-year window, they excluded anything that happened after 1950.

  2. Matt Skaggs
    Feb 6, 2012

    Blogs are better if the author actually reads the source material. When you wrote: “…Dr. Chris de Freitas, a former editor of the journal Climate Research, who got embroiled in a fierce debate over an erroneous paper on climate trends” you seem to have no clue that the paper in question, Soon and Baliunas 2003, was a meta-analysis. There were a couple sentences in the summary that perhaps went beyond the scope of the meta-analysis. This was the wedge used to attack the paper. “Erroneous” sound like you are unfamiliar with the paper, it just does not fit. Furthermore, you wrote: “there is no evidence of an international conspiracy” There are E-mails in the public domain from Phil Jones (UEA England) to Michael Mann (U of Virginia, USA) describing strategies to get de Freitas sacked. To the extent that words have meaning, that is an “international conspiracy.”

  3. Merlin
    Jan 31, 2012

    Your commentary is absolutely no different than that you purport to detest. As a tenured physicist myself, I shudder to think of my future if I actuctually weighed in with the reality that most of the math Berkley has posited on the subject is wrong. The science of global warming is so complicated than laymen cannot understand it and neither can 99.9926% of the experts. Anecdotal evidence is all that is being offered and none of it is substantiated by unfiltered, unadulterated and unbiased data. I agree that global climate change is occurring and I agree that pollution needs to be stopped; however, there is nothing science has offered that indicates MANKIND is creating global climate change. Anthropogenic global climate change is a conspiracy of consensus and I know of no less than 100 scientists in my field that are sorry they ever supported it now that the data doesn’t support man’s influence on it.

    • Jim
      Feb 1, 2012

      If the evidence is anecdotal, why don’t you write scientifically rigorous papers point this out. If there are actually at least 100 scientists in your field that believe the same, then you should have plenty of support to get the papers published. Presuming that there are all these scientists that don’t support AGW any more, then why don’t they come forth with rigorous evidence, and publish papers to this effect? If none of the journals will publish the papers, then it seems to me by your statements there is enough inertia to start a new journal that would, even though it seems to me that if the papers were scientifically rigorous then it would be unlikely that all journals would refuse publication.

      • Merlin
        Feb 1, 2012

        Unfortunately Jim, you missed the crux of my opening. To do as you say, puts so much pressure on our standing that many are reluctant to do so. The author of the original article writes that most scientists would risk their carreer (in his words, “make their carreer”) by refuting the notion of AGW. He says that from a nice comfy position well situated amongst the consensus; the reality is far less heroic or grand. Further, he goes on to say that, “we tried, but we couldn’t,” as if to insinuate that there was ever an effort to refute the AGW or AGCC theory. The truth falls far short of a “concerted effort to refute the theory.”

        • Mike
          Feb 2, 2012

          I’m actually trying to reply to both who have replied to Dr. “Merlin’s” remarks. In the spirit of full discloseure i find it necessary to state that, I do know him personally, he was a professor of mine many years ago and we work together on several projects. He is a spectacular teacher and one of the most open-minded and militant adherents to the scientific method that i have ever known, however, he assumes that most people he is speaking to understand the basic subject he is discussing. Because of the way he communicates, I think a little insight might be required: He is NOT a AGW or AGCC “denier”. I do not see that he made that clear. He is skeptical of the methods which have been employed to prove what remains unproven. His and, admittedly my greatest fear is that we’re bankrupting economies of countries tackling a problem we do not grasp, wasting money to no effect. I would like to find out what “cog” is in need of service before I buy a new one.

          • A Siegel
            Feb 5, 2012

            1. Such strong communications shouldn’t require an interpreter … he certainly does come off exactly as what you state him not to be. Communicating clearly is a key portion of being a ‘spectacular teacher’ … wouldn’t you agree? 2. Why not, then, lay out a clear “no regrets” strategy for improving economic performance (and, well, gross national happiness (e.g., better measures than GDP)) while reducing human impacts on the climate system? Address heat islands (cool roofing), energy efficiency investments, improving agricultural (terra preta/biochar, for example), and so on all provide paths for reducing emissions / providing amelioration of warming at a ‘profit’ even if the vast scientific work turns out be overturned by the brilliant scientific work to come from Merlin’s 100 unnamed skeptics. About The WSJ 16, for a long list (with links) of substantive rebuttals, see:

            • Merlin
              Feb 6, 2012

              Actually, nothing in what I said would indicate that I am a “denier”, Mike was trying to be nice and just point out that the respondents had leapt before they comprehended; that is pretty typical with the non-logical minds swept up in emotion over this issue. For the other fellow that believes that REAL scientists, operating in academia today would have nothing to lose by voicing a concerned opinion: clearly you have no concept of how academia feeds on one another. Unlike what you see on television, “collaboration” and the feel-good spirit of sharing is never-present here. The truth is slowly coming out, little by little and years from now I suspect that folks will be scratching their heads and wondering why “science” took so long to get this right. Saying, “I told you so,” will have little lasting effect and will help even less. Good luck all.

          • Bill Chameides
            Mar 22, 2012

            Mike, Merlin may be a great teacher in your experience, but he has failed in this instance: he is making statements about climate change that are inaccurate. For example: “models overstate the effects of CO2 by as much as 75%…. CO2 levels were far higher on this planet during the last ice age.” Plain and simply wrong.

        • Bill Chameides
          Mar 22, 2012

          Merlin, Your statement that “nothing science has offered … indicates that MANKIND is creating global climate change”€ is irrefutable evidence that you, who should know better as a “physicist,”€ have chosen to aver in a subject without having read the literature on that subject. That is something no scientist tenured or otherwise should do.

      • Merlin
        Feb 1, 2012

        Furthermore, you have to ask yourself why there are so many scientists not weighing in at all and why only the ones who have nothing to lose question it. The scientific community has witnessed this type of behavior before – during my lifetime. There was a time when splitting the atom was so feared that it almost did not occur. After that, came the issue of detonation of fissile material in the presence of nitrogen (our atmosphere). Beyond that are a veritable cornucopia of other scientific mishaps and missteps that never happened or did happen because of conspiracies of consensus. This is just another one. Remember the massive outrage of quantum chromodynamics? I do. How about dark energy? It exists, right? And yet, we still haven’t PROVEN either. Keep your eyes and mind open, sometimes, the truth isn’t neatly wrapped with a bow on top. Science is ugly.

        • Jim
          Feb 3, 2012

          I find your assertion very difficult to believe. First, there are a few scientists that refute AGW theory openly, and they still manage to get funding and keep their jobs. They just haven’t been able to come up with a good argument against AGW. Just recently, I don’t quite remember his name, Richard Meuller?? at Berkley who did publish some papers on temperature records because he thought the methodologies used were off. Guess what, he found that the rise in the temperature methods were accurate after all. There are examples all through out the history of science of individual scientists upsetting accepted knowledge, I find it almost impossible to believe that as many scientists as you say would all stay quiet. It makes no sense.

        • Bill Chameides
          Mar 22, 2012

          Merlin, 1. I suspect that many individual scientists do not weigh in because they recognize that climate science is not their area of expertise, like my not attempting to speak authoritatively on dark matter. It is not out of some fear of retribution; it is out of humility and recognition that someone who has spent his or her life studying a subject may know more about it than I do. 2. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has concluded that climate change is a serious problem, largely caused by humans and in need of response. Have these scientists, all well beyond tenure and generally recognized to be the cream of our nation’s science crop, been intimidated, or were they simply convinced by a careful review of the literature? Let me just say that the folks I know in the academy are not the sort to be intimidated.

    • Peter G
      Feb 1, 2012

      It’s really not so complicated. CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing due to humans burning forests and fossil fuels. CO2 absorbs infrared radiation that otherwise would escape to space. The land, atmosphere, and oceans are warming as a result. Each one of those statements is backed by years, even decades, of independent evidence. If you argue otherwise, you’re deliberately misrepresenting the facts.

      • Merlin
        Feb 1, 2012

        Peter, if it were that simple – there would be no dispute. Even with CO2 alone, ignoring sulfur, sulfur dioxide and CO, there are many more reports indicating that it does not affect warming to nearly the degree that any of the current IPCC models calculate. The absolute most recent data, from NOAA and NASA (not EXXON or Shell) predicts that the models overstate the effect of CO2 by as much as 75%. Then you have to consider the evidence that archaic CO2 levels were far higher on this planet during the last ice age, for it’s duration. That is a head scratcher if you support AGCC or AGW. The global meteorological conveyor belt is far more complicated than you think and there is a cog out of whack, we just do not know what it is or how it happened. You need to read all of the data, not just the supporting data and make an unbiased determination for yourself.

        • David Appell
          Feb 6, 2012

          Merlin, what NOAA and NASA research says models overstate CO2-warming by 75%? Which papers, etc? Thanks.

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