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Incurious George

Filed under: — david @ 2 April 2006

George Will argues now that no one would have noticed the 0.6 deg. C of global average warming to date, if the irresponsible press had not deliberately produced anxiety by pointing it out. He could be right. I expect no one would have personally noticed the ozone hole either. My grandmother smoked like a chimney and lived to be almost 100. If that nasty press had not deliberately stoked my anxieties about cigarettes and lung cancer, I would never have figured out the connection based on my personal experience. George argues that big crusading journalism is the problem. Ignorance is strength, right, George?

And, oh yeah, the global cooling stories, which appeared 30 years ago in the main-stream press (not the scientific literature). Shall we compare this with Will’s deliberate and repeated distortion of a real warning emerging from the scientific enterprise, continuing to the present day?

He looks like such an earnest man. I just don’t get it.


84 Responses to “Incurious George”

  1. 1
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    George F. Will “looks like such an earnest man,” you conclude, adding, “I just don’t get it.” I don’t get it either, and I’ve been reading and admiring Will’s columns devotedly for over thirty years.

    As I’ve said before in this forum, one of the reasons I admire Will, despite my differences with him on basic outlook, is his intellectual honesty — a claim that will, no doubt, draw derisive laughter in this forum, where Will seems so intellectually dishonest. But just to give one example, Will is no party-line right-winger. His columns have often blasted what he sees as President Bush’s and Prime Minister Blair’s naivete about the prospects for Iraqis not only to love liberty, but to act sensibly to secure it.

    So while I can’t explain the mystery of Will’s mega-puzzling irresponsibility about scientific facts, it seems to me that people who believe it’s important for public opinion leaders to get this stuff right — whatever Roger Pielke, Jr., may think about that — need to think carefully about how to respond in particular to Will, whose columns must surely reach many millions of people.

    I can’t explain the mystery, but I can offer — or at least make public guesses about — what I suspect must be two important clues.

    First, Will believes that environmentalists and most academics, apparently including most scientists, are at the same time fuzzy-headed liberals. Once in December, his newspaper column concluded by asserting that even if geologists decided that there were only three thimbles of oil to be extracted from ANWR, “there would still be something to be said for going down to get them, just to prove that this nation cannot be forever paralyzed by people wielding environmentalism as a cover for collectivism.” In other words, he thinks environmentalism either is, or contains a big component of, nanny-statism, the desire to let the group dominate the individual. In the matter of climate change, I think Will thinks that that bias pollutes interpretations of scientific data.

    Second, it seems to me that the following paragraph is important from the Washington Post column that is in question today. Please note Will’s second and third sentences: “In fact, the Earth is always experiencing either warming or cooling. But suppose the scientists and their journalistic conduits, who today say they were so spectacularly wrong so recently, are now correct. Suppose the Earth is warming and suppose the warming is caused by human activity. Are we sure there will be proportionate benefits from whatever climate change can be purchased at the cost of slowing economic growth and spending trillions? Are we sure the consequences of climate change — remember, a thick sheet of ice once covered the Midwest — must be bad? Or has the science-journalism complex decided that debate about these questions, too, is ‘over’?” My point here is that I don’t think Will has ever before even tangentially allowed that the climate-science consensus could be correct. I suspect that that is progress, and so I hope that instead of writing RC blog comments bashing George Will, sometimes in a bloggish ad hominem way, for all his faults, people will instead read the Will column carefully and then send reasoned, brief, compelling rebuttals to letters@washpost.com. (Roger, why don’t you send one too? Or better, submit an op-ed about Will and climate change.)

  2. 2
    CountryKen says:

    Have you noticed with George Will that when he comes out swinging like he has against global warming. That somewhere down the road we will learn that he has received a big corporate donation for “speaking” fees. If there was real truth in journalism a George Will column would have to start with : The following advertisement is brought to you by …….
    The sad thing about George Will is he can’t even remember when he sold out.

  3. 3
    Leonard Evens says:

    Since George Will seems to value his reputation for intellectual honesty, I think it is worth challenging him vigorously as often as possible. As a non-scientist, he can’t really evaluate everything that is said on the subject, but he has to work pretty hard to ignore all the scientific authorities, e.g., the National Academy of Sciences, which support the consensus view. At some point he may realize that he has backed himself into an corner and he is making a fool of himself. Or perhaps he is just getting senile and he will veer off the deep end.

  4. 4
    Roger Albin says:

    Steven C.
    Will is an intelligent man and has been a thoughtful critic on a number of issues. This is precisely what makes his writing with respect to climate science so irritating. Its clear that he has the capacity to step back from his ideological preconceptions and look at matters objectively. In this case, he hasn’t even tried, as evidenced by his persistent harping on mid-70s ice age business. How much effort would it take for him to look at was actually said by climate researchers in the mid-70s about the prospects for an ice age? There is no excuse for this kind of intellectual laziness.

  5. 5
    Henry Molvar says:

    Will’s column is in my Sunday newspaper today in the Opinion section. The column header is “FROM THE RIGHT”. I read his pieces occasionally to see what the ultra conservatives are up to lately.

    His dogmatic right wing viewpoint always has the tone: I’m right and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong. His writings should appear in the Comics section.

  6. 6
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 1. George Will should use his dollars to learn about the condition of Minnesota’s moose population.

    Although globally averaged annual temperatures warmed about 1 deg F since the early 1900s (viewed as rapid by paleoclimatologists and geologists), regional climate station annual temperatures in northern Minnesota show warming by several degrees F since the early 1900s.

    Warming in summer overnight low temperatures are believed to be adding to steep declines in the populations of northern Minnesota moose herds, 2002 to current.

    See – The melting of Minnesota: http://www.startribune.com
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClimateArchive/message/2956

    View increases in summer overnight summer lows (1890s to 2005):
    http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/patneuman2000/my_photos

  7. 7
    William Bua says:

    nighttime warming is one of the effects predicted by models if I recall. Would make sense that effects would be greatest where long wave (read: greenhouse) processes are most important. Nighttime, and in the polar regions.

  8. 8
    Simp says:

    What Stephen said.

    When I saw the column yesterday, I was just stunned. Even a cursory conversation with one or two published climate scientists would’ve easily dispelled most of the tripe that he laid out in the column. As my wife said: “Yikes. He really tried to fit in every one of the standard lies and obfuscations.”

  9. 9

    Remember Stephen Jay Gould? Did you ever see him speak? The Q & A session was surprising, as it was dominated by creationists heckling him, so much so that Dr. Gould treated even serious questions with hostility.
    Are we passionate enough to do this to climate change deniers? Could we, say, get Mr. Will’s speaking schedule, source invites to the events, and demand that he explain away the evidence for climate change every where he goes?
    Just a thought.

  10. 10
    Steve Latham says:

    From what I just read on wikipedia I don’t think that Will is as honest as advertised. Straying from that topic a bit — I tend toward fiscal conservatism myself, but I can never understand how people who deride climatological models and favour of who-knows-what economic model which suggest that any effort to reduce emissions will cost trillions. Will can claim things might get better with more warming; my counter claim (being ignorant of the economic study he must cite (?)) is that we may be much better off economically.

    In 1997 the Edmonton Sun wrote that climate science is bunk and that Alberta’s economy would be crushed by Kyoto proposals. My letter asked them about what information they used in assessing the relative risks and their comment after my letter was “Kyoto will ruin our economy.” It’s a little early to rub their noses in what’s happened since then but I think I’ll do it anyway….

    PS. I saw Gould in about ’94 in Vancouver and didn’t think he was hostile to creationists’ questions, even those that were extremely hostile to him personally.

  11. 11
    Steve Latham says:

    Whoops, I just read Will’s article now and he doesn’t talk about the costs of reducing emissions. I was making suppositions from other comments. My bad.

  12. 12
    Dennis Sweitzer says:

    I’ve come to think of George Will as a clever commentator, but not particularly insightfull or original. Perhaps sophmoric is the right term: masterful at arraying facts to support his position, but not discerning enough to deal honestly with contradictory facts, nor humble enough to recognize his position might be wrong.
    Sort of a William F. Buckley wanna-be, with enough staff to research issues, find pithy quotes, and meet editorial deadlines.

  13. 13
    Nick Riley says:

    Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! George Will’s article is just trying to overstate and mis-report as much as some of the articles in the press that he criticises.

    In many ways it is encouraging that GW’s article is a kneejerk backlash- and is responding to a much higher level of awareness now in the US public, that climate change is a serious issue and something needs to be done about it (by the USA).

    These are the last days of denial! It is our duty as scientists to communicate the science in the context of what society needs to do in response to the evidence.

    There is no room for careless talk- be it from GW or us.

  14. 14
    Ike Solem says:

    George Will says that carbon dioxide from coal can be buried somehow. These ‘carbon sequestration strategies’ have been floated around for some time now but the idea is just ludicrous – CO2 coming out of coal smokestacks is going to be captured, condensed to liquid form, and piped into ‘underground reservoirs’? “The technology is four years away’? What technology? How much energy would such a process use, for starters? Try hooking a condenser up to your car’s exhaust sometime and watch what happens to engine performance (hint: it’s rather like sticking a potato in the tailpipe). This is just PR intended to make the coal industry look good.

    Mr. Will then goes on with another PR line: “Global warming will be good for us.” First, the PR line was “Global warming isn’t happening”. Secondly, the PR line was: “There is too much confusion to be sure about anything”. Finally, we get down to the last PR position: ‘Global warming is good for you!”. Well – I suppose that’s progress of some kind.

  15. 15
    Nick Riley says:

    Solem,
    Both you and GW are wrong. The technology to capture CO2 from large industrial point sources is already here.

    In N. Dakota the Dakota Gasification Company is capturing CO2 and supplying it to a Canadian oilfield for injection at 5Kt CO2 per day.

    In the N. Sea Statoil have been injecting CO2 from natural gas production for 10 years now at a rate of 1Mt/annum (Sleipner). BP are doing similar at InSalah in Algeria. BP have recently announced their DF1 (Scotland) and DF2 (California) projects- these involve making hydrogen from NG and Petcoke respectively. The hydrogen will be burnt in hydrogen burning turbines to generate power (350MW) in DFI. DFI could be up and running by 2009.

    If surface transport could be electrified or run directly from hydrogen then then CO2 capture and storage could remove over 60% of CO2 emissions. Just applied to electricity generation alone it could remove about 30% of CO2 globally.

    There is no magic bullet- we must reduce emissions rapidly using all practical technologies and energy management techniques available. But CO2 Capture & Storage is the only technology that deals directy with fossil fuel emissions. The sooner it is deployed on a widespread scale the sooner we deal directly with the problem of Co2 emissions from fossil fuels.

    What is sure to me is that we either have deep cuts in emissions globally and quickly or do not bother at all. To have some pain of reducing emissions unsucessfully (because society does not deliver deep enough cuts) and then suffer pain of having to adapt (if we can adapt to everything?) to AGW (beyond the effects that are already being experienced and will impinge on us in the coming decades) would be more expensive than doing nothing.

    You might like to visit http://www.ieagreen.org.uk/ to get an overview and follow web links from there. I would hope that GW does the same.

    [Response: After I published a letter in the NY Times correcting some of the Montana Governor's glib assertions re the glories of burning Montana Coal, I got a call from a group working on energy policy with his staffers. Although the Governor may be over-optimistic about sequestration, the staffers are actually thinking hard about this, even to the extent of looking at the availability of formations for sequestration within Montana. Although IPCC is rather sanguine about the safety of land sequestration, I myself would be hesitant to go for it in a big way until we know more about how long sequestered CO2 stays down there. Still, a pilot project burning Montana coal in IGCC plants and sequestering the CO2 in Montana geological formations would be a very informative and important step, even if only because it would help create more market for IGCC plants and help develop the technology. --raypierrre]]

  16. 16
    gaspezio says:

    Checking Mr. Will’s bio, may provide some insight to his very untenable and very unscientific position. From what I can safely claim, Will’s higher formal education can be labeled humanities/arts and not science – B.A. M.A. and a doctorate from Princeton. Since he taught political science (sic), I am inferring that his PhD. is in political science. C. P. Snow told us. Garrett Hardin’s wonderful label of “wordsmith” applies to Mr. Will’s journalistic hype.

    [Response: A humanities/arts degree is no excuse. I know many poets and comp lit types that have a much better understanding of the science than Will. One year the best score in our undergrad global warming class was by an English major.--raypierre]

  17. 17
    Jim Redden says:

    A clear example of an attitude set determining apprehension, conclusion, and communication. We all live in a Plato’s cave of sorts, I suppose. Caveman Will needs some Dewey pragmatism…

  18. 18
    Hank Roberts says:

    He says the scientists and their journalist ‘conduits’ were lying and wrong 30 years ago when people were

    | … told to be worried, very worried,
    | about global cooling. Science magazine
    | (Dec. 10, 1976) warned of
    | “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.”

    George Will should be apologizing soon if he’s still intellectually honest. I hope he can blame it on editing by some j-school dropout at the newspaper, who they can fire for wilful distortion. Merely reading the whole sentence makes it clear.

    Debunking is easy to find; here’s one, with references to science cites, from “Al” — first Google page, in a Google cache file:

    http://72.14.203.104/search?q=cache:Gc77uNCzRioJ:maconareaonline.com/realtalk/reply.asp%3Fmid%3D8648%26threadid%3D8642%26mPageNo%3D13+Science+magazine+(Dec.+10,+1976)+warned+of+%22extensive+Northern+Hemisphere+glaciation.%22&

    [Response:F.Y.I. this stuff you googled is actually plagerized from RealClimate! See here. --eric]

  19. 19
    Coby says:

    I wonder if he has just coined a new persistent “enemy” label with his phrase “science-journalism complex”. Yuck.

  20. 20
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    During the 1984 presidential campaign, Will produced, ex nihilo, columns praising Bruce Springsteen.

  21. 21
    Adrian JC says:

    Humans may not notice the temperature rise directly, but indirect signs in other more sensitive life forms are easily observable. Doubters should be directed to Jane Kay’s recent three part series “A Warming World: The Difference a Degree makes“.

  22. 22
    raypierre says:

    Columnists of the stature of Will typically have access to well-trained staff whose job it is to check the facts going into columns. In this light, it seems hardly credible that Will would not know that the “global cooling scare” is a myth. His repeated use of this argument to cast doubt on global warming thus borders on journalistic malfeasance. As a RealClimate blogger, I would never ask you to write your Congressman, but it is very much within our purview to do what we can to assure that journalists use scientifically valid arguments. I suggest that perhaps the Washington Post and George Will will get the message if they receive a deluge of mail from the Real Climate readership. I am not soliciting a general indictment of Will’s opinions expressed in the article, but just a plea that the invalid “global cooling scare” argument be put to rest. George Will’s address is georgewill@washpost.com, and questions or comments about the Washington Post Opinions section can be addressed to opinions@washingtonpost.com .

    –raypierre

  23. 23
    Dennis Williams says:

    One has to wonder why a website, which features such eminent scientists, would bother debunking (for the second time) a political commentator (and science hack), who has merely recycled some of the same old (and endlessly debunked) contrarian arguments.

    [Response: It's only worth doing because Will has such a large readership. --raypierre]

    [Response: The idea that no one would have noticed was new to me. David]

  24. 24
    Eli Rabett says:

    This thread is not very “scientific”, but it does bring out the disjunction between those who see climate change as a scientific issue and those who see it first as a policy issue. Of course, it is somewhere between the two, but those on the policy side are much more aware of how to reach the public.

    What Will does is very consistent with his being a political scientist. His entire career has been devoted to constructing a persona which he markets to personal benefit and also to benefit of his political goals. An excellent marker of this is his “devotion” to baseball through which he tries to “regular guy” himself. By doing this he positions himself to attack anyone he disagrees with as an elitist. Of course, he is the most “elitest” sneerer of them all.

    With respect to climate, facts are not important for Will, but his political position is. The only thing he needs is the ability to point to some “scientific” source to justify each of his statements. Thus the value of the Energy and Environments and the Marshall Institutes of the world. Of course, the mighty Wurlitzer will spread Will’s jeremand. It will never be rooted out.

    Political scientists and political commentators and their allies in the think tanks are playing a different game, and if you want to deal with them you have to realize this and shape your response to fit it. People in the climate research community resisted doing this for years, believing that they were only involved in a scientific debate, where, after much back and forth, and a fair amount of snark, reality would eventually win out. It took a long time before anyone was willing to react negatively to the public relations pronouncements of Fred Singer and his merry band, who withing the scientific debate were always afforded the assumption of being hororable. Of course, while the Hansens of the world were publishing in the scientific literature, the Michaels of the world were publishing such tripe as “Meltdown”, “The Satanic Gases”, “Taken by Storm” as well as being constantly marketed to newspapers for op eds as scientific authorities on climate, and of course serving as the justification du jour for the ostrich brigade in various legislatures. Those on the radical right organized themselves for a public relations effort in the late 80s. The “science” was only necessary insofar as it supported political goals. It need not be consistent, it need not be right.

    Chris Mooney has a clue of what is going on and how to deal with it. Thus, the push back against his book, “The Republican War on Science” I suggest you look at where that push back came from to see who is doing what for whom.

    [Response: Although scientists could do a lot better at framing arguments so they resonate with the public, I hope none of us will ever feel tempted to fight back by adopting the kind of deceptive practices used in things like the Singer and Michaels publications you mentioned. I'm sure Roger Pielke would vehemently dispute the suggestion that doing "political science" gives one the license to ignore objective scientific truth. --raypierre]

  25. 25
    David B. Benson says:

    Perhaps George Will is out-of-step with Americans. According to a poll, in the Chicago Sun-Times, 90% of Americans believe global warming is real and about 70% are willing to take small steps to ‘help’.

    [Response: Unfortunately, the steps needed are not exactly small, and many of them are beyond the reach of an individual's control. I can declare that I would be willing to spend 30% more for electricity if it comes from natural gas cogeneration plants instead of pulverized coal plants, but that won't stop Peabody coal from building their state-subsidized coal plants in Illinois. Sometimes, you just really need a government to do things for you. Individual steps are worthwhile and can make a difference, but just relying on virtuous individuals is unlikely to be enough. --raypierre]

  26. 26
    Pat Neuman says:

    I wonder how young people feel about the consequences of global warming being good or bad? Most young people understand that warming of Earth’s land, water and atmosphere will not slow down or stop anytime soon, and can see through many of the weaknesses in George Will’s commentary. Global warming is not rocket science but George Will and a few others make it seem that way.

  27. 27
    S Molnar says:

    I think Eli Rabett is exactly right. The reason David just doesn’t get it is that David is playing by a different set of rules from those of Will and his ilk. Remember that a majority of the population of the United States believes in astrology. Someone who is more interested in money and power than in truth can attain his aims by telling these people what they want to hear. My application of Occam’s Razor suggests that Will (a man of obvious intellignece) knows perfectly well that what he is saying is not true, but he doesn’t care about truth, only persuasion of the gullible. It’s an uphill battle when the other side just makes things up to buttress their arguments, but we can’t adopt their tactics and we can’t give up.

  28. 28
    John L. McCormick says:

    George Will’s cooler head tells him positive feedback is compliments from his fans.

    Climatologists understand positive feedback is release of climate changing gases trapped in Arctic and Siberian permafrost as that region’s temperature continues to rise and thereby trapping earth’s radiant heat and warming the planet even more.

    Mr. Will should stick with baseball. Thus, his opinions will not have any impact on the well-being of my children and future generations.

  29. 29
    Mark A. York says:

    Ray I emailed Will about the cooling issue and linked him here. I doubt he will show, but he may revise his thoughts. Should his mail droid deliver it. Hard to say. It’s the repeated myths already debunked that are the killer here. Overall they just say you guys were wrong then so why listen now? Maybe you should spell it out again because this issue did me in trying to convince the gmroper crowd on the other thread. They just amped it up and snagged a newsweek story from 1975 from a New Zealand naysayer. They only believe the naysayers. That much is clear.

  30. 30
    Britney says:

    I really love that book Curious George found this website by typing that in Googles search to bad its not aboutthe great book!

  31. 31
    Aaron says:

    Anybody who claims that global climate predictions are full of uncertainties without ascribing equal or greater uncertainty to economic forecasts is completely full of ****. George Will falls into that category.

  32. 32
    Eli Rabett says:

    Although many probably monitor Promethius, I recommend a look at the most recent posting “On the Value of â��Consensus”" before you attribute an excess of virtue to him. Roger may not lie a lot, but he does obfusticate and omit to good effect.

  33. 33
    Paul says:

    Much of what informs people, like George Will, is an ideological framework. I wrote a story recently where I uncovered a number of lobbyists who worked on an astroturf group to pass President Bush’s Healthy Forests legislation.

    These same people have all picked up and moved on to form a new front group called Save Our Species Alliance to pass changes to the Endangered Species Act. I was a bit surprised to find that Myron Ebell at the Competitive Enterprise Institute was coordinating some work with them.

    Ebell, as many may know, is the adjunct “scholar” at CEI who does their “global warming isn’t happening” song and dance. You can find him singing this tune on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer and in the pages of the Washington Post.

    Well, before he went to the CEI and refashioned himself into a climate change skeptic, he was doing private property rights stuff for a number of different outfits. Back in the nineties, he was very well known in the wise use movement.

    I was as bit confused at what tied climate change with private property rights until a journalist friend pointed it out to me. It’s just right-wing politics.

    Did any of you know that Fred Singer flirted with “pesticides aren’t bad for you” back in the 90′s?

    Read story here: http://tinyurl.com/zl4ys

    The only reason Ebell has been able to glide effortlessly from a private property rights expert, into an expert on global warming is because many journalists are lazy and are not effectively backgrounding people before they interview them.

  34. 34

    Re #31

    I don’t agree, Eli. I sometimes find Pielke’s positions peculiar, but in the present case I see nothing objectionable in his arguments, or in his conclusion:

    “”"
    Until we have a consensus on the diminishing value of the notion of consensus as the keystone of the climate debate, we’ll continue to see the politicization of climate science and the continued gridlock on climate policy. Climate researchers will continue to array themselves tactically with respect to the consensus, ensuring a continuous stream of research results that shade the consensus to and fro. But the reality is, scientists are in general agreement, and at this point effective action on climate change does not depend on either strengthening or more precisely measuring that agreement. The important questions instead are what actions, when, by whom, at what cost, to whom, how, and why?
    “”"

    There are serious questions raised here.

    I totally agree with Pielke’s concluding statement. The bulk of the work on climate change adaptation/mitigation should be out of the hands of climate scientists for now. What we have to say is not likely to get any more pleasant at this point. The chance of overshooting the mark in political response to climate change is so remote at this point that we really don’t have to participate in the nuts and bolts for quite a while.

    RealClimate is an effort to repair our failure to communicate with the public. We would like it if the public were to stop asking the wrong questions, that is, questions which are essentially closed, questions about whether the earth is flat.

    “what actions, when, by whom, at what cost, to whom, how, and why?” are really the right questions.

    I don’t see contemporary society as well-suited to address these questions, and this makes me pessimistic and sad and afraid. I read the public discourse in books and magazines of fifty years ago and I see a much smarter and more sensible society than we have today. It’s hard to imagine people today, at least in America, taking up Roger’s questions in earnest. But that is part of the problem.

    The solution is for us to be calm and smart and mutually trusting and mutually deserving of trust enough to solve our problems. In our present delirium that’s unfortunately very hard to imagine.

  35. 35
    Mark Shapiro says:

    Will makes the critical assertion that slowing AGW will cost trillions. That is simply not necessarily true.

    This website is about the science of climate. The strategy for abating AGW is a separate set of issues. Clearly we want strategies that are good for the economy (and health and security) as well as for climate stability. That’s what Amory Lovins has been working on a http://www.rmi.org for decades. Economists like William Nordhaus are not as optimistic, but he recommends a worldwide carbon tax in a new article in Foreign Policy in Focus (www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/3167).

    If we think AGW is a problem, we should arm ourselves with some knowledge of solutions, too. I believe that the best solutions will make us wealthier, healthier, safer, and more secure. This is worth getting right. It will be politically difficult, because it would mean ending subsidies for coal, oil, gas, and cars, but political conservatives, like Will, should support that.

  36. 36
    Stefan says:

    I just had a look at Will’s column and noticed that right in the first paragraph, he uses another obfuscation argument cherished by sceptics: “Never mind that one degree might be the margin of error when measuring the planet’s temperature.” I was asked the same after giving a public lecture on Friday. Any experimental scientist of course knows that generally, small differences in a quantity can be measured more accurately than the absolute value. I can measure the height of my desk above the floor easily to within a couple of millimeters, even if I have a one-meter uncertainty in its absolute height above sea level. The same holds for changes in temperature (the one degree Fahrenheit Will refers to), which can be measured more accurately than the absolute surface temperature of the Earth.

  37. 37
    Nick Riley says:

    Raypierre- thanks for your comment on post 15. The evidence so far is that underground CO2 storage will work- provided the geological site is carefully selected and operated to adequate standards. In three separate cases (West Pearl Queen, Frio and Recopol), CO2 injection wells have been left deliberately open and monitored. No CO2 returned to surface. This is because there are various natural trapping mechanisms, some of which happen quickly, that inhibit the movement of injected CO2 back to surface. CO2 has been injected in many oilfields for over 40 years now, for enhancing oil recovery, and none, to my knowledge have reported verifiable CO2 leaks.

    Many of these fields are peppered with thousands of wells. Admittedly few fields have been rigorously monitored- but if there had been dangerous leakage we would know from vegetation stress, and CO2 related effects on livestock and people living over these fields. I m not aware that any of these effects have been reported.

    In the Fall of 2004 an experimental underground CO2 storage site at Nagoaka in Japan actually survived a 6.4 Mag earthquake without leakage or damage. It is still being monitored with the most sophisticated array of downhole and surface monitoring tools available.

    There are some extremely large natural accumulations of CO2 that have remained in the ground for many millions of years (they are deliberately exploited for their CO2). This gives us confidence that CO2 can be securely stored- if nature can do this randomly, we have a far greater chance of succeeding by using the geological knowledge and engineering expereince we have, as well as our experience from storing other gases under ground such as natural gas and hydrogen.

    On a pragmatic note- there is understandably concern over leakage- especially from the non-geoscience community- but this concern needs to be balanced by the fact that each day we delay capturing and storing the CO2 from fossil fuel use we have 100% leakage to the sky.

    I think we have little time left to reduce emissions globally to the level required to avoid the climate and ocean acidification ramifications of continued and accelerated emissions. There will be only a few CO2 capture and storage projects at first, simply because of the time it takes to get them on stream and build the infrastructure- those few projects should give further confidence that the technology will work- provided they are transparent to the scientific community and the public.

    Perhaps it would be good if RealCliamte could revisit this issue with an up to date article about how long have we got to reduce emissions and what are the ideal atmospheric CO2 stabilisation levels needed and compare these scientifically arrived at thresholds with what can pragmatically be achieved with existing or near market ready technologies. I think it is a duty of scientists not just to identify problems but also solutions and give meaty advice that policymakers have to get their teeth into

    My own feel for this is that if we do not achieve global agreement and real action on deep cuts in emissions over the next 10 years or so we will get locked into an inappropriate fossil fuel infrastructure until at least mid-century, that will prevent us from capturing CO2 effectively.

    A fundamental driver here is a significant global price for avoiding CO2 that industry knows is here to stay and at a value to bring about a response in plant design and energy management. I think we need that price at around $30/tonne CO2 or higher. If fossil fuel use pays directly for its external cost, then energy efficiency and alternate low CO2 emitting energy technologies will not be undermined by fossil- which is currently not directly bearing the environmental cost of its use.

    Unfortunately whilst certain political commentators/manipulators and leaders sow confusion about the issue of climate change and anthropogenic emissions, and also state that taking formal action would be “bad for our economy”, the firm policy required at global/regional level, the correct signal to society/industry and the global action needed will not happen. Regarding the skpetic plea that taking action would “bad for the economy”- it would be good to see some economists take that to task using an evidence based approach- the skeptics use the “bad for the economy” argument without any convincing evidence base that I am aware of. One place to start- although I think moniterising always limits things- but we unfortunately have to engage the economic argument, is to estimate global and regional damage cost for each tonne of CO2 emitted. The UK government tried this some years ago- but failed to include ocean acidification effects of CO2. There was a wide variation in estimates but the mean was around £19/tonne global damage cost- so a $30/tonne global price for avoiding CO2 seems a good minimum to start at.

    In the cost/adapt or mitigate debate we have a global choice; deal with fossil fuels and mitigate- this is a finite cost as fossil fuels are finite. Or deal with AGW and ocean acidification by adaptation (if we can adapt which I doubt?)- this is an open cost which will be recurrent for many thousands of years and be of an unknown quantity. Plus there will be costs that cannot be monitorised

    Its a no brainer really. But then few are using their brains.

    [Response: You demand a price of $30/tonne for CO2 emissions. To our non-European readers, it's perhaps worth pointing out that the European Union already runs a compulsory cap and trade scheme for CO2 emissions. The price is of course not fixed but determined by the market according to demand and supply, but right now it happens to be... $30. See the European Climate Exchange. -stefan]

  38. 38
    pete best says:

    We have a bloke in the UK (a motoring journalist) called Jeremy Clarkson who really does have a vested interest in fossil fuel and he lamblasts environmentalists (rightly so in some cases) for their lefty ways when we can all see what awesome things fossil fuels have done for us and will continue to do. He does not believe in the slightest that climate change is real and tells us that he can find many a eminent scientist who would back up his claim.

    He is a funny man and he is also well liked in the main but he does spout a lot of rot when it comes to climate and its science but he continues to find a voice in many a media simply because he sells things.

    People like him and this guy are worrying as they lead joe puiblic astray.

  39. 39
    Ender says:

    Nick Riley – “There are some extremely large natural accumulations of CO2 that have remained in the ground for many millions of years (they are deliberately exploited for their CO2).”

    I appreciate your point of view however the point you made that we can safely sequester and monitor CO2 has a fundamental flaw that is much the same a nuclear waste. How do you ensure that the sequested CO2 is safe for thousands of years? It is quite possible that our civilisation will not be around for this length of time and for you to say that it will be safe forever is a stretch that you, in my opionion, you cannot make. It is quite true that there are geological structures that can safely store that gas however there are others that have burped and released CO2 leading to deaths.

    The other problem is that I do not think that the answer to our problems is to carry on, business as usual, and just bury our waste problem for someone else to deal with. Again, like nuclear power, we are simply shifting the problems until after we are dead while enjoying the fruits of the energy generated now.

    While not saying that CO2 sequestration is not possible it seems to me to be a way of just avoiding the fundamental problems of our society. We use energy with no thought of conservation or sustainability. To me the real solution is to change to a lower energy use society that obtains its energy sustainably from renewable resources.

    Finally CO2 sequestration is still burying waste from a finite resource. Coal and oil, though large reserves remain, are still finite and will not meet demand given a sufficient expansion of our economies over time.

    CO2 sequestration will only be a stop gap at best or at worst a dangerous technology that will allow business as usual and forestall or prevent real change to a sustainable technology.

  40. 40
    Nick Riley says:

    Ender- re my post 37 and your reply 39.

    Thanks for your feedback. This is a complex argument that I will try and summarise- but its worthy of a much more detailed article/debate.

    1)The global energy infrastructure and investment is such that it will be impossible to switch fast enough away from fossil if we are going to meet 550ppm CO2 stabilisation (I actually think we should go for 450ppm but most policy uses double pre-industrial as the desired stabilisation) in time. This is fact; regardless of whether you wish to have fossil fuels or not- we are locked into that choice.

    2)Even if we deploy non-fossil solutions now there is a real risk that this will not stop the fossil fuels being burnt- they will be used elsewhere, they are a commodity transported and traded internationally. Unfortunately, fossil fuels are so abundant that resource depletion is not going to make them too expensive to use, so that emissions fall in time (indeed, resource depletion of oil this side of 2050 will mean coal and gas will be used for synthetic fuels- pushing emissions up even faster that I think the IEA recognise). The only sure way of dealing with fossil is to deal directly with the cause of the problem.

    3)You draw parallels between nuclear waste storage underground and CO2. The issues are separate ones. Nuclear waste is toxic and some of it has half lives of millions of years and exposure to only trace amounts can do severe damage. Many of the radioactive substances do not occur naturally. CO2 is not toxic, it is bioavailable, and essential for life. True that it does have physiological effects that at high concentrations can lead to death (oxygen also has this characteristic). It is also true that very high concentrations, particularly in soil, can lead to plant stress and death (alhough moist soils commonly have CO2 concentrations above 10% just due to respiration of he soil organisms). Raised CO2 in aquatic systems can also lead to physiological stress, difficulty in building calcareous shells etc. (as will happen if atmospheric CO2 continues to build up beyond around 700ppm- the so called ocean acidification effect). But it is quite wrong to compare the risk from CO2 leakage with nuclear waste leakage.

    4)The natural CO2 “burps” as you put it, are associated with volcanic process. We would not store in such regions of high hydrothermal and tectonic activity (having said that- some populations in Italy have CO2 seeping into their houses and gardens, but live with it, and buildings are constructed appropriately to prevent buildup of CO2 indoors; and in Africa even Lake Nyos has now been made safe by the construction of a gas lift siphon to prevent limnic buildup of CO2 in the lake bottom waters (the natural overturning of which caused the “burp” and subsequent deaths- although there were special, unique to that location, meteo. and topo. effects that contributed to the Nyos incident).

    5)The oil and gas and underground gas storage industry has a huge amount of experience regarding accumulations of gas (natural or human injected) in the subsurface and the geological conditions that lead to effective gas trapping; plus the engineering experience of injecting gas into geological formations. Geological traps and reservoir rocks are common in sedimentary basins around the world and we understand them well.

    6)If the correct geology is chosen- leakage should not occur. Most involved in the subject consider man made pathways, not natural ones to be the highest risk for leakage- but that this risk is still very low. We know where those pathways are (e.g. boreholes), we can monitor them, we can fix them if they leak (routine existing technology).

    7) I already pointed out in my post that even immediately there are natual mechanisms that come into play that immobilise the njected CO2- as demonstrated by leaving the injection boreholes open to surface at West Pearl Queen, Frio and Recopol. Indeed, as time goes by CO2 dissolves into the formation waters and makes them heavy (hence they will sink with the CO2 and not rise). Also over 10s-1,000s of years the dissolved CO2 reacts with rock minerals to form carbonates- immobilising the CO2 further (we can do some of these experiments in the lab and we observe them in nature). So the bottom line is; if there is leakage, which will be rare, it would be more likely in the first few decades and the risk diminishes over time- provided the correct site has been chosen and operated effectively.

    8) As I stated before- we already have 100% leakage to sky from fossil- delaying deployment of CO2 capture and storage from fossil fuels because of fear of leakage is not warranted (although the concern is understandable) and is actually making the situation worse.

    You and others interested in knowing more might like to go to the IPCC report published last fall on CO2 Capture and Storage at:

    http://www.ipcc.ch/

    As a final remark- CO2 capture and storage can only be a transitional technology- it can herald the hydrogen economy- it can also give us a choice not to use nuclear fission whilst fusion is still being dveloped. It deals directly with the problem (the fossil fuel emissions), can be integrated easily into existing energy infrastructure and can along with a portfolio of non-fossil solutions, deliver stabilisation levela at or below 550ppm- provided we start now in earnest. Its time for pragmatic and large scale action to reduce emissions. The more we delay the greater and costlier the task.

    Thanks for your comments

  41. 41

    The global cooling stories…Again !

    Climate theology and its exponents – April 3, 2006 – Editorial

    “There are ominous signs that the Earth’s weather patterns have begun to change dramatically,” begins the April 28, 1975, Newsweek article reprinted today on the opposite page. But this wasn’t a prediction of global warming. (…)

    = > http://washingtontimes.com/op-ed/20060402-112827-3449r.htm

    [Response:Their point seems to be that journalists are capable of making the wrong call. Evidently that's true. David]

  42. 42
    Hank Roberts says:

    The Science Magazine article that Will misrepresents as supporting the ‘ice age’ mistake actually debunked it explicitly (says the time scale within which we can expect or predict an ice age is around “20,000 years”) — Will misrepresents it as warning readers the problem is imminent).

    Note the Science Magazine article is from 1976 — the nonsense articles are from earlier years.

    I doubt Will could find any “ice age” nonsense even in entertainment publications, after the Science article debunked the idea — til the ozone-CFC debate came along and the mythmaking started about the competence of the climatologists, anyhow.

  43. 43
    Pat Neuman says:

    re 35. Mark Shapiro wrote … If we think AGW is a problem, we should arm ourselves with some knowledge of solutions, too.]

    I think the number of people who believe that AGW is a problem is now growing by the thousands every day in the US. Now more than ever we need to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The link below shows a proposal which has too long been ignored by everyone. It’s time to give the CN concept a try, nationally. What would we have to loose or gain?

    Conserve, NOW! (CN): Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Other Environmental Costs:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ConserveNOW/message/30

    “For all practical purposes, there is today only one world suitable
    for man. Measured by nature’s standards rather than by those of
    historical man, it is at present a delicately balanced, highly
    perishable world that has evolved over long geologic epochs of
    environmental change. And man, acting as if he owned this world, or at
    least had come into leasehold possession of it, has played his role as
    lessee very indifferentlyâ�¦” (Lyton Caldwell, 1971)

    Summary

    This paper provides the framework for offering temporary positive
    voluntary financial incentives for reducing automobile driving,
    airplane travel, and annual home energy use. While the paper is mostly
    focused on reducing energy use in the State of Wisconsin, the
    methodology could be applied nationally, or even worldwide.

  44. 44
    Tom Cecere says:

    Reading the article left me with the impression that what Will is against is “Crusading Journalism”, and is just using the “Global Cooling/Global Warming” issue to illustrate it. He pretends to an Olympian Gnosis to debunk the Crusaders, allowing readers to thank him for deigning to clear up all this mess with a simple, “So, see, you don’t have to worry about it at all. You’re welcome.”

    His reasons? Think through what Crusading Journalism is doing to his other cherished positions. If you can’t deny the facts, smear the bearer of bad news: Start small, get agreement, move on to something bigger, like, say, Iraq. Same way a used car salesman gets you into that “low milage beauty”.

    We will not succeed by directly challenging his Omnicience. A better approach might be, “What do you need to see in terms of evidence over the next few years to make you more likely to believe the Global Warming hypothesis?” His persona would require a thoughtful response.

  45. 45
    Lewis Cleverdon says:

    I would observe that George Will is unusually valuable as a propagandist of the denial of climate destabilization precisely because he has been careful to provide easy critiques of Western policy in other areas.

    His credibility to the undecided is thus greatly enhanced.

    While I personally welcome Real Climate discussing not only the science of climate change but also the politics of AGW, to focus on such propagandists seems not only to allow them to set the agenda for such discussion,
    but also to submit (as intended) to refraining from discussion of the requisite global treaty to reverse AGW.

    The framework of that treaty, known as Contraction & Convergence, has been gaining democratic, commercial, religious, popular & other support since it’s launch back in ’92. (See http://www.gci.org.uk for endorsements).

    Given that despite the unprecedented joint statement by 11 national science academies, calls for the global treaty have been roundly ignored by the status quo,
    is it not time that climate scientists start discussing this requisite solution publicly, rather than just behind the politicians’ closed doors ?

  46. 46
    Mark A. York says:

    I sent this letter to the editor at the WP and while I’ve had a few in the NY Times in the past on environmental issues I’ve never gotten one in the Post. We’ll see.

    To the Editor,

    It is with a great sadness that I read George Will’s April 2. column Let Cooler Heads Prevail; The Media Heat Up Over Global Warming By George F. Will Sunday, April 2, 2006; Page B07

    First, global warming is real. There is scientific consensus on that and there is no debate in the “scientific” community about this. Human-caused CO2 emissions are the main reason, among others, for the rapidly rising global mean temperatures our NASA scientists are documenting with more accuracy that ever before due to technological advances and scope of the research. We know this because of the ice core analysis from the polar regions both north and south.

    Will’s repeated thesis, which is ideologically driven into the ditch, is this: we shouldn’t believe global warming predictions now, because in the 1970′s they were predicting an ice age and/or cooling. No they weren’t. They were saying we need more study, and sloppy headline seeking journalism in the popular, not scientific press trumpeted a bit of sensationalist hyperbole. The cooling of the 1970s was but a temporary blip in an overall warming trend. The climate science researchers know this now from 25 years of experience, technological advances and solid science. The results are alarming enough to match the current headlines. The idea that this is being passed off as some sort of political “flip-flop” is not a scientific conclusion or methodology.

    What we do about the warming is open to debate, but letâ??s not obfuscate the issue with blatant misinformation.

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/01/the-global-cooling-myth/

    Sincerely,
    Mark A. York, fisheries biologist (seasonal) US Forest Service, BLM and US Fish and Wildlife Service.

  47. 47
    theo says:

    I don’t think it’s reasonable at all to concede that global warming might have gone unnoticed, if not for the journalists. Certainly the enhanced effect of climate change in the Arctic has been noticed by average Inuits with no special connection to science!

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/21/AR2006032101722.html

  48. 48
    Nick Riley says:

    Stefan. Thanks- re your response to my post 37.

    Yes, the European Emissions Trading Scheme price of CO2 is encouraging. Cap and trade linked to direct emissions is a very important route and a world first. However, CO2 capture and storage is not yet recognised within the ETS, nor in the Clean Development Mechansism- although both the ETS and CDM routes are being considered by policymakers and the UNFCC/IPCC.

    Industry though will only go for easy low hanging fruit options at first, which the ETS and other fiscal incentives enables (e.g. the Renewables Obligation in the UK). Deep cuts in emissions will require signals that the CO2 price at $30 or above is here to stay and that the caps on emissions will be imposed and become ever stricter each year over decadal timeframes. A coal burning plant lasts around 40 years- industry needs to know now if it is to invest in clean coal technolgy for a new plant or retrofit. This is crucial for Europe which will have to replace or provide new build of generating capacity equivalent to half that currently installed- all over the next 15 years! Hence the lock in concern in my post (think of China and India too).

    The other issue is that unilateral action by one economic region, e.g. Europe, dis-advantages such economies compared to other regions, which are not bearing the cost of reducing emissions. So we need effective global policy and actions quickly, if deep emission cust are to be delivered. Voluntary and fiscal schemes that can only deliver small reductions- though helpful at first, cannot deliver what is needed. And even if we have the technology to achieve deep reductions it will not be used unless it derives income for reducing CO2- hence trading schemes are one way of doing that. There are other ways too- like how the Australian Gov. is insisting on deep emission reductions, if permission is to be granted for the giant Gorgon Field to be developed by Chevron Texaco and partners in 2009.

    We need clarity, creativity, flexibilty and global engagement/negotiation to solve what is *the issue* of our times. Positional science-journalism-politics will hamper this process.

  49. 49
    Willis Gooch says:

    I remember (possibly inacurately) George Will appearing on televsion lavishing accolades on a speach deliverd by R. Reagan. Undisclosed but later revealed: Will was praising a performance he helped coach. Maybe some of you can vouch to the legitamacy of this. However, any integrity he may possess is for me squandered by the patina of condescension, the Word-of-God certainty and strained patience towards the unenlightened reader that his columns often express, almost as if he dares his audience test his forbearance through disagreement. Someone above used “sophomoric,” and that is descriptive of what this tone of his conveys, for me.

  50. 50
    Matt says:

    I read and re-read GW’s aticle. It semed to me that he was just arguing fom the perspective of a temperate climate region. His main point was that the ice moves as low as the midwest, so we should not be unduly alarmed about warming. To complete his argument, I think he wants us to prepare for the tropics in the midwest.

    I am not persuaded by alarms of mass extinction, horrors of sea rise, expansion of infectious germs; when all these alarms come from educated scientists who routinely study worse epochs.

    I like the science that gets more data, more forecasting, as well as the scientists who find better ways to work profitably in the new climate.

    [Response: Matt, I am one of those who study worse epochs. Like, in the last glacial maximum, temperatures were 4-7 ºC colder (in global mean), and sea level 120 m lower. In the middle Pliocene (3 million years ago), temperatures were 2-3 ºC warmer and sea level 25-35 meters higher. That's simply because in climate history, warm climate means small ice sheets, cold climate comes with big ice sheets, and sea level has changed accordingly. Nothing very bad about that happening 3 million years ago - but are you sure this kind of thing is not going to be a serious problem for, say, New York City? - stefan]


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