It is not worthwhile for RealClimate to post a response to each misinformed newspaper commentary on climate change that we come across. However, George Will’s recent article in the Washington post (in which he praises Michael Crichton’s State of Fear) perhaps deserves special attention because Will is so widely read and respected. We find it disappointing that Will appears not to have bothered looking up the most basic facts before writing his article. See also our earlier post on the George Will article.
We have already posted detailed responses to State of Fear. Here, we respond briefly to the points Will tries to make. The italics are direct quotes from his article.
1. The villains [in Crichton’s book] are frustrated because the data do not prove that global warming is causing rising sea levels
This is a particularly strange example for Will (and Crichton) to choose, since even the most ardent “skeptics” do not question that sea levels are rising, and that this is almost all due to the warming of the planet. The rate of sea level rise (about 1.5 mm/year over the last century, and 2.8 mm/yr since 1992) is well established from direct measurements and its primary causes (thermal expansion of the ocean, and melting of glaciers) are well known. See also the US Geological Survey’s report, National Assessment of Coastal Vulnerability to Future Sea-Level Rise and references therein.
2. So they concoct high-tech schemes to manufacture catastrophes … the calving of an Antarctic iceberg 100 miles across…
High-tech schemes to create such catastrophes might be possible, but are hardly necessary. Icebergs much larger than this have broken off the Antarctic Peninsula, and there is good evidence that warming of the surface air temperature is responsible for at least some of these (though warmer water temperatures, and simply the internal dynamics of ice sheets also play a role). There are photographs and films that document this.
3. “greenhouse gases,” particularly carbon dioxide, trap heat on Earth, causing . . . well, no one knows what, or when
The absorption of infrared radiation (the main way that the Earth loses heat to space) by greenhouse gases is a very well understood phenomenon. This is easily demonstrated in the college science laboratory, and is also illustrated by measurements from space that show diminished intensity of outgoing radiation (“light”) at particular (infrared ) wavelengths. This is the reason the Earth’s average temperature is about 15 degrees C, not well below freezing, as it would be without the existence of greenhouse gases. What Will probably is trying to say is that we do not know what will happen because of the increased greenhouse effect that results from anthropogenic increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Yet scientists have worked very hard to answer precisely this question, and they have done so in a precise way: “The globally averaged surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.4 to 5.8°C over the period 1990 to 2100” (IPCC Third Assessment Report, Summary for Policy Makers, 2001; See e.g. Figure 5).
4. the decline of global temperatures from 1940 to 1970
This is one statement that we can agree with — there was cooling in the 1940s to 1970s. But the cooling is a small variation superimposed on the overall warming of the last century. As many of us have explained many times over, no one is claiming that CO2 is the only influence on climate. Indeed, far from being an embarrassment to climate scientists, this short period of cooling is in good agreement with model calculations that include the other natural and anthropogenic influences (see e.g. the IPCC assessment report Figure 12.7, and the paper by Delworth and Knutson in Science).
5. since 1970, glaciers in Iceland have been advancing.
According to NASA, all but one of Iceland’s major glaciers are receding. Will (and Crichton) would have been on firmer ground if they had used the example of Norwegian glaciers, which almost uniquely in the world have been growing because the increase of precipitation during winter is larger than the increase in melting in summer.
6. Antarctica is getting colder and its ice is getting thicker.
Actually, there is still too little data to say whether Antarctica, on average, is getting thicker. Thickening ice in Antarctica has been predicted by climate scientists for a long time, as a consequence of the greater moisture-carrying capacity of warmer air, so evidence for a thickening ice sheet would actually support, not negate, other evidence for global warming. In any case, there is abundant evidence that the ice sheet is getting thinner (and quickly) along the margins. It is true that some parts of Antarctica have cooled but only in the last two decades; Will neglects to mention that the Antarctic Peninsula is the fastest warming region on earth. More details on the question of recent Antarctic climate change is addressed elsewhere on this website.
7. while Earth’s cloud cover “is thought” to have increased recently, no one knows whether this is good or bad.
Cloud cover is very difficult to quantify, and because different cloud types have different effects, their influence is hard to quantify as well. It is well recognized that our inability to accurately simulate clouds in computer models is the largest uncertainty in climate change projections. This doesn’t change the fact that even the most conservative of these projections – with clouds creating a large negative feedback – nevertheless show significant warming over the next century.
8. Climate-change forecasts … are like financial forecasts but involve a vastly more complex array of variables. The climate forecasts, based on computer models analyzing the past …
This is apples and oranges, and is not a very useful comparison. The question of how many variables are involved is not as important as whether the models represent reality. Climate models vary in complexity from simple 1-dimensional energy balance models to full-fledged general circulation models. Climate forecasts are not based on analyis of the past, but on the principles of physics. Past data is often used to validate models, and these comparisons show, for example, that climate models correctly predicted the cooling of the planet after the Pinatubo volcano eruption.
9. “30 years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling.”
We find it especially disapponting that Will repeats this historically inaccurate statement.
The “panic” about cooling in the 1970’s is an urban myth. In particular, the Science article from 1976 is totally misrepresented by Will. That article qualified its predictions by “in the absence of human perturbation of the climate system” as did many papers at the time. It is also telling that Richard Lindzen, a well known critic of other climate scientists, happens to agree with us on this. Writing for the Cato Institute, he says: “But the scientific community never took the issue [global cooling] to heart…” (see full text here).
10. [Crichton’s book] has lots of real scientific graphs, and footnotes citing journals.
If Will is trying to make the point that Crichton’s book, while fiction, is nonetheless worth listening to because it draws on real scientific knowledge, it is a rather weak point, since as we have discussed elsewhere, State of Fear is notable mostly for what it leaves out.