Friday, July 21, 2006

If You're Going to be Wrong... might as well be really wrong, I suppose.

At least, that would seem to be the approach of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). I'll ignore for a moment his comment that Al Gore is "full of crap" about global warming. Comments like that might be appropriate in a feedlot in Oklahoma, but they don't belong in a national policy debate.

But as a U.S. Senator, let alone the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe has a responsibility to get the facts right. Heck, if you watch the video link above from CNN, he says just that: when he became committee chair 3.5 years ago, he believed in global warming (I'm dubious about that, but I'll take him at his word.), but wanted to justify the cost of implementing the Kyoto accords. Great. So he checked into the science.

Then he cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which he says "used one scientist," who he then goes on to disagree with. Oh, my. Where to start with this?

As one might suppose just from its name, the Intergovernmental Panel, set up up the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is not one guy. It is, in fact, thousands of scientists, representing scores of countries, and includes scientists who are skeptical about climate change, or at least about the human influence on climate change. Here is part of the IPCC's description of how they prepare their reports (PDF):
IPCC reports are written by teams of authors, which are nominated by governments and international organizations and selected for a specific task according to their expertise. They come from universities, research centers, business and environmental associations and other organizations from more than 100 countries. Several hundred experts from all over the world are normally involved in drafting IPCC reports. In addition, several hundred experts participate in the review process.
So I have no clue how Sen. Inhofe gets that this report is the work of "one scientist." But let's be generous for a moment and assume that when he says "they used one scientist" he wasn't suggesting that the whole report was the result of one person's work, but rather objects to the inclusion of that one.

How influential was that one piece of work? The work in question is that of a Professor Michael Mann, and it's shorthand description is the temperature "hockey stick," suggested by a graph of global temperature that is fairly flat, followed by a rather sharp upturn. Inhofe suggests that this is invalid, because it ignores some warming in the middle ages. Two things here:
  1. Although Mann is cited often in the IPCC 2001 report, it is never the only study cited for any given conclusion. It is part of the data included in the analysis.
  2. A recent analysis (PDF) by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that Mann's work is, in fact, accurate.
The NAS said, among other things, that
[Mann's] conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on icecaps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years.
This NAS analysis, made at the request of the U.S. House of Representatives, came out over a month ago. Yet Senator Inhofe is still trying to discredit the "one scientist" he disagrees with. Furthermore, he's not taking issue with all of Mann's conclusions, just one statement which is not particularly critical to the conclusion that human activity is contributing to global warming.

Oh, and did I mention the IPCC also has a review process (same PDF)?
To ensure that they are credible, transparent and objective, the IPCC reports must pass through a rigorous two-stage scientific and technical review process. For the first review, the drafts are circulated to specialists with significant expertise and publications in the field. Revised drafts are distributed for the second review to governments and to all authors and expert reviewers. After taking into account the expert and government comments, the final drafts are presented to plenary for acceptance of their content.
It's been kind of fun today to put on my environmental science hat. I don't get to do that very often. But I do have a degree in environmental science with an emphasis on public policy, so I feel reasonably qualified to discuss Senator Inhofe's statements.

I'll leave off with a comment on his last words:
So in all of the recent science, as I've mentioned on your radio show, it confirms that I was right on this thing. This thing is a hoax.
Inhofe has used the "hoax" line many times before. He famously called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" in a speech to the Senate in 2003. This is curious on a couple of levels:
  1. He claimed just moments before that he came into this believing that global warming was a human-caused problem. So how does discrediting one of the inputs to a huge scientific analysis that agrees with his stated earlier position confirm that he was right?
  2. "Hoax" is a very strong word, especially when we're talking about science. It's one thing to disagree with someone's conclusions, but to call something a hoax suggests that someone has, with intention, either falsified or misrepresented evidence.
Making a statement like that is highly irresponsible and malicious, particularly when the overwhelming judgment of scientists around the world confirms Mann's conclusions.

I'll conclude with a link to a site run by climate scientists, including Michael Mann. They have lots of things to say about Senator Inhofe. It is hard to conclude that Inhofe is doing anything besides representing the energy interests. Or perhaps he has invested in some future oceanfront property in his home state of Oklahoma. One can only wonder.

1 comment:

Laura E. Goodin said...

The phenomenon of fundamentalism fascinates me. Is it out of fear of the unknown? Fear of other people? Desire for fame, power, or wealth? Or the deep, pathological need to be right? Or all of these?

Really, I don't see a lot of difference between environmental fundamentalism (pro- or anti-Kyoto brands) and religious fundamentalism. I am deeply afraid of certainty.