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Getting the balance right…

Filed under: — group @ 10 April 2006

We’ve commented before on the “false objectivity of balance”, i.e. the tendency for many journalists to treat scientific issues–for which differing positions often do not have equal merit– in the same “he said, she said” manner they might treat a story on policy or politics.

This approach can appear balanced, but it leaves it to the reader to figure out on their own which position is most likely correct. However, the reader is rarely as well equipped as the writer to determine the bottom line, and in practice this plays into the hands of those who might seek to confuse the public through clever disinformation campaigns.

Thankfully, some journalists “get it”, and take the time (and effort) to assess where the balance of evidence really lies and report it accordingly. Two recent articles discuss what it takes, the first, an interview with Andy Revkin of the NY Times by Paul Thacker and the second a recent Ideas piece in the Boston Globe by Christopher Shea.

Hopefully this attitude is catching on!

78 Responses to “Getting the balance right…”

  1. 1
    Graeme Bird says:

    The bottom line is will the CO2 we are releasing stave off the next glaciation…

    The Scientific community is entirely remiss in keeping the media on-track in this matter. So much so that their motives surely come into question.

    [Response: If there ever was a reason to be concerned about an ice age coming (I don’t think so), then the current CO2 level (380 ppm) is clearly more than enough to prevent it. We’ve already overdone it – the planet is heating up. -stefan]

  2. 2
    Mike Johnson says:

    You ever think that perhaps the warming of the planet hits a particular threshold and kickstarts the next glaciation? Thus, we would be moving the planet thousands of years ahead of schedule?

    [Response: Same answer – no way you can start an ice age with such a high CO2 level. -stefan]

  3. 3
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #s 1 and 2: As discussed previously on this blog, without human intervention the next glaciation would still be many thousands of years off. The intervention we are seeing now would only serve to delay the onset. While warming might result in temporary cooling in some locations (northwest Europe, e.g.) due to shifts in ocean currents, such events would only be temporary blips in the long-term warming trend. Two of the FAQs (linked on the right bar) deal with this issue: “Decrease in Atlantic circulation?” and “Gulf Stream slowdown?”.

  4. 4
    Coby says:

    Congratulations on your 1,000,000th visitor today!!

  5. 5
    Mike Atkinson says:

    For scientist, theory hurricanes will slow doesn’t hold water seems pretty fair reporting as well.

  6. 6
    pat neuman says:

    After reading the interview with Andy Revkin and Viewpoint by Paul Thacker*, I find that neither author blames government for what Lisa Antilla, a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, found:

    … ” the best, most factual coverage actually occurs in the United Kingdom. “Outside of the United States, the scientific consensus is understood” … “.

    Thacker wrote: “Ross Gelbspan says journalist have not gotten the story right because all the lobbyist front groups and industry-funded scientists created a controversy where none exists.” …

    In the U.S., the current administration, NOAA headquarters and NWS management and staff have contributed in large ways to public misunderstanding on climate change and global warming. Government in the U.K. and other places outside of the United States seem to have supported the consensus IPCC findings on global warming, which has kept their skeptics at bay in their countries for the most part (except perhaps in Australia which is heavily influenced by interests in the U.S.).

  7. 7
    Graeme Bird says:

    Steve Bloom. You are making this up as you go along. And this is extremely irresponsible. “As discussed previously on this blog, without human intervention the next glaciation would still be many thousands of years off.” No that is not correct. Prove it!

    “The intervention we are seeing now would only serve to delay the onset.” [insults delted – moderator].
    Actually you do not know this for sure either. But if you are right here then NOT ONE DOLLAR CAN BE SPENT RESTRICTING CO2. That ought to be overpoweringly obvious.

    [Response: I would like to stress that flames, ad homs etc. will be deleted. Please keep it civil. PS. to avoid some pointless back and forth, I suggest you try reading the literature on the subject: for instance. – gavin]

  8. 8
    Graeme Bird says:

    No that is not correct Bloom. The key policy question here is “Do the campaigners against warmer winters in Siberia know for sure that CO2 release will overmatch the natural tendency towards glaciation”

    Until we know that for sure then we cannot spend one dollar holding back the release of CO2. Steve Bloom is making it up. No question about that at all.

  9. 9
    Graeme Bird says:

    Right. Now I’ve read the article before. And its abundantly clear that they are not sure. So one should not put idelogy in the place of science. Furthermore if they are not sure then it is not cut and dried that melting might not be successful in saving the planet from another glaciation. Which is the right thing to do unless you are unbelievably callous.

  10. 10
    Paul says:

    Re #6: I think this is a good point. I can’t speak for why Andy didn’t mention this in the Q&A, but it might be for reasons similar to my own personal experience.

    Blaming Bush for all miscommunication in science is really not fair. The disinformation campaign started long before he was in office and will probably continue once he is gone in 2008, although he certainly made it easier for corporations by employing people such as Phil Cooney at CEQ.

    By the way, NASA and NOAA have gotten a great deal of press due to their PR offices altering press releases and shutting out important scientific voices, but this occurs at other agencies such as EPA and USGS.

    This last week, I spoke with a top official at USGS who explained that the agency now removes references to global warming from press releases. This self-censorship is common at government agencies in the current administration.

    However, this same official expressed dismay that Gore sought to gin up USGS science in support of climate change. So it can swing depending on who is in the White House.

    Bush just does it more often and more insidiously.

  11. 11
    Dano says:

    RE 6:

    I agree that foreign papers are a good source. I have a number of foreign papers bookmarked and I suggest others do the same, and not just for climate change issues. And I’m pretty sure none of these papers takes the view that preventing glaciation is the right thing to do and thinking otherwise is “callous”.



    [Response:I do not think that one can always guarantee that foreign papers are more representative, but sometimes they adopt a different angle. The best source is still in my opinion the scientific literature (eg the IPCC, -rasmus]

  12. 12
    Hank Roberts says:

    Graeme’s position is being debated elsewhere, e.g.

  13. 13
    Murphy says:

    This is on DIGG and will be read by oh so many.
    Global Warming Reportedly Stopped in 1998
    This is one for In The News? This is persuasive to the casual reader and it would be informative for someone to pick it apart.

  14. 14
    Max Schwing says:

    Well, but at the same time, science is nothing you can and should vote on! Good science will prove to be right by evidence and not by votes counted in a National Science assembly.
    And yes, there is merit in showing different positions of science, as long as it IS a scientific debate and NOT a religious or otherwise without factual evidence. One of the main advantages of science is that it can show disagreement (just remember the bet on black holes by Hawking and Kip Thorne) and be proud of it, as long as both sides are willing to give in on superior arguments and evidence. Ironically, Hawking had to give in on that one.

    [Response:About voting, I think you have a point… But on the other side, a consensus is by definition the most credible view. The scientific consensus we are concerned with, is furthermore rooted on empirical evidence and scientific theories. About different positions, yes there should absolutely be vigorous debates – at least within the scientific communities and people who understand what the matter is all about. One problem, however, is that we do not always know whether the debates in the public really is scientific, religious or political. For instance, political debates may masquerade as ‘scientific’ and the public won’t be able to see the difference. -rasmus]

  15. 15
    pat neuman says:

    re 10.


    I blame government not just the G.W. Bush for the miscommunication on climate science. I understand that there was a disinformation campaign before G.W. Bush took office in 2001. Before 2001, NWS headquarters and 5,000 NWS managers and staff contributed in large ways to the public misunderstanding on climate change and global warming. I was at NWS from 1976-2005, and I was trying to do research and have discussion on climate change in the Upper Midwest during year 2000. I attempted to communuicate with people in other state and federal agency but received little or no feedback from people, except from my supervisors who presented two suspension in 2000 and one in Jan 2001.

  16. 16
    Tom Fiddaman says:

    Re 13 Global Warming Reportedly Stopped in 1998

    Presumably this refers to Bob Carter’s editorial in the Telegraph.

    This opinion uses a variety of tricks from the professional skeptic repertoire. The headliner (no trend in temperature from ’98 to ’05) may be technically correct according to the CRU data, but is biased by choosing an arbitrary window, starting with an exceptional El Nino year. It’s almost laughable that Carter seems to argue that no trend for 8 years refutes a trend for 28 years (and even more absurd to think that a trend is the only evidence for AGW).

    Worse, throughout the article he discusses emissions and temperature as if they are linearly related, for example writing, “cooling occurred between 1940 and 1965, at precisely the time that human emissions were increasing at their greatest rate.” (Senator Inhofe made the same observation in a speech last year.) The problem is that the rate of emissions has no direct effect on temperature; it is the accumulated level in the atmosphere that creates a radiative imbalance that causes temperature to rise. Depending on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, temperature could rise or fall irrespective of whether emissions were rising or falling.

    Usually I attribute such gross errors to ignorance, but since Carter claims to be a geologist engaged in paleoclimate research, it looks more like deliberate deception. Until he can produce his “many thousands of independent scientists” it’s hardly worth reading the rest.

    [Response: If Carter actually believes what he says, and is willing to accept that as a predictor of the future, there are people willing to bet on the warming side of cooling-vs-warming with him – William]

  17. 17
    Joel Shore says:

    Re #13: The DIGG article that you are referring to appears to be this:

    Most of the claims made there have been debunked before…and the “title track” about the 7 year cooling period is the sort of thing that one can only try to claim verbally rather than looking at the graph. If you look at a graph ( ), you see clearly that 1998 was a huge anomaly (“the El Nino of the century”) and that in only 7 years the earth has warmed so much more that what was a few sigma anomaly is now pretty much on the current trend line.

    [Response: Anyone who has looked at the actual record (linked by Joel) can only regard the claim that “global warming stopped in 1998” as either ludicrous or a deliberate deception – even more so if one knows about the powerful El Niño that occured in 1998. Lindzen, btw., has made the same claim in the media; in a recent article he phrased it thus: “Indeed, the absence of any record breakers during the past 7 years is statistical evidence that temperatures are not increasing.” (This in response to #23 below.) -stefan]

  18. 18
    John Baltutis says:

    #14. “…a consensus is by definition the most credible view.” Absolutely certain about this are you? If I remember correctly, there was a consensus that the “earth is flat,” one that “the solar system revolved about the earth.” and one that “the entire universe is made up of four elements,” among others which were subsequently deemed incredible and plainly wrong. Merriam-Webster Online gives these as appropriate definitions for consensus:
    1. a. general agreement
    b. judgment arrived at by most of those concerned
    2. group solidarity in sentiment and belief

    None of which talk to credibility. IMHO, the second definition applies to the AGW consensus.

    [Response:Good point, but remember the prevailing view changed into a new more credible prevailing view. We could probably argue about semantics such as what really is the correct definition for the word ‘concensus’. Since this is not a linguistic blog, lets say it’s the prevailing view. You could also call it the current paradigm. And I would argue that when it comes to science (not religion), then most people settle for the most credible view at any time. There is no guarantee that this is the ‘truth’, and it may change when new empirical data becomes available or with new breakthrough theories (such as quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity). But it’s worth mentioning that even after the paradigm shifts that history has dealt us, Newtonian mechanics is still used in construction and in design of many ‘everyday’ applications (I don’t know of many engineers using relativistic considerations for car design…). -rasmus]

  19. 19
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #17: That reference can only be to the infamous “Oregon Petition” of about ten years ago; infamous because it a) was made up to look like an official document of the National Academy of Science, which it most assuredly was not, and b) had hardly any climate scientists as signers, but rather dentists, veterinarians, engineers, etc.

    The plus side of all of this is that Bob Carter was forced to resort to some really old chestnuts for his article. Such deceptive practices are very ineffective.

  20. 20
    William A. Atchley, M.D. says:

    If the piece by Bob Carter in the Daily Telegraph goes around the world, and well it might, he can probably thank Rush Limbaugh more than DIGG. This morning Limbaugh triumphantly announced on the radio that he had been right all along to discredit global warming, and he quoted Carter’s opinion piece declaring that warming had come to a halt. He posted the Telegraph article on his website, A conservative friend of mine has already downloaded the piece and forwarded to me, hoping to cleanse my mind of what he believes is my foolish conviction that global warming is currently the greatest threat to our culture.

  21. 21
    pat neuman says:

    re 15. Paul, for clarification of my comment (15) on before G.W. Bush took office in 2001, … I meant as a whole (5,000 managers and staff) that NWS contributed in large ways to public misunderstanding on climate change and global warming, not necessarily 5,000 individuals.

    I think this excerpt from an interview with Elizabeth Kolbert on global warming suggests how that may have happened, before and after 2001.

    Elizabeth Kolbert on global warming
    … And I suppose there were once enough halfway credible people making the case against warming that journalists felt they had to go to them.

    Also, a reply a month or so ago at a globalwarming yahoogroup by a retired school teacher shows roots of misunderstanding (before 2001) by NWS.

    The retired school teacher said to me … Your conclusions were the exact opposite of what I got when I talked to your NWS colleagues. In conversations they would give me the current line from their powers that be, (Gore was the intellectual guru at the time) Then they would look over their shoulder to see who was nearby and then say they didn’t believe that GW was anything more than a statistical fluke. You in the NWS are not in entire agreement and I have no problem with that but NWS should be as non political agency as there could be. Shame it isn’t.
    … You should be at least trying to seek the truth rather than a political point of view. That is what you are paid for.

  22. 22
    Dan Thompson says:

    Speaking of Bob Carter and his article in the Telegraph, he is a well-known climate skeptic, whose escapades are documented (keeping in mind in the bias of this sourcewatch website, of course) here

  23. 23
    Jerry Fish says:

    I am a first time commenter. Geology major in college, but no climate expert. I’m reading all this discussion to better understand this important issue. As such, I disagree strongly with the idea that those who challenge the current consensus should be ignored in journalistic coverage of the issue.

    Christopher Shea focuses on Time Magazine’s recent headline story, noting that no dissenting voices were cited, even those of respectable scientists like Lindzen who question the “consensus.” Thacker’s “Viewpoint” piece spends more time questioning the motives (aka “sliming”) skeptics by innuendo rather than discussing the substance of their arguments (which realclimate does better).

    I disagree that the Time Magazine approach is represents the “right” way to cover science that affects public policy, that Time is, thank goodness, finally “getting it.” Take just this phrase :” …Science published a study suggesting that by the end of the century, the world could be locked in to an eventual rise in sea levels of as much as 20 ft.” I have an undergraduate degree in geology, and a masters in earth science education. I have taught oceanography to high school students. I know what they will take away from that sentence: “sea level rise of 20 feet by 2100.” I am also a natural resources lawyer, so I know Time can parse the sentence carefully to defend itself: “that’s not what we said.” But it’s one of several ways in which Time spins the discussion away from science toward political advocacy.

    I understand, from reading the discussion on this site, that a sea level rise of from 1 to three feet by the end of this century is more the consensus view. And I’ve looked at the Google Earth maps and appreciate that even this more modest rise would be a very traumatic development. But as noted by Shea, Time “hurt its credibility by lumping together global warming trends (on which there is near-unanimous scientific consensus), human contributions to those trends (very high consensus), and the implications of these trends (much more of an open field).” I would add “by writing sentences (such as the above) calculated to mislead the average reader.”

    I say go ahead (as usually happens on realclimate) and refute the arguments of those who differ. Go ahead and note, in the journalism on the topic, the relative number and weight of those outside the “consensus”. Go ahead and invoke the cautionary principle as a reason not to take chances with the future. We should make every effort to conserve energy and to reduce the use of fossil fuels. But let’s not abandon the discussion. Who knows, the current consensus may have to shift dramatically when we finally develop a more comprehensive understanding of what is driving the glacial roller coaster of the past million years. As a geologist, I can’t help but wonder whether the huge influx of paleoclimate data represented by Vostok and similar ice cores might not drive us to a new consensus, much as new information about the sea floor revolutionized thinking about the movement of continents (and later “plates”) on the surface of the dynamic earth. As Mr. Wegener might have said, being outside the consensus doesn’t mean you aren’t right.

    That’s why I read realclimate, not Time, to get informed.

    [Response: It’s reasonable for Time to cite anybody who has valid scientific arguments. Why should Time cite Lindzen, then? He has opinions on climate change, but it is a long time since he has put forth any valid scientific argument on the subject. This isn’t a beauty contest where anybody with a scientific reputation gets to offer up an opinion and have it count, whether backed up by a scientific argument or not. It’s true that Time may have lost some of the subtleties regarding the remaining uncertainties, but their reporting comes much closer to conveying the true state of the subject than the “false balance” model which would quote Bill Gray one time for each time or two you quote Suki Manabe. –raypierre]

    [Response: See also my response to #17. -stefan]

  24. 24
    tom brogle says:

    Re 14
    “Depending on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, temperature could rise or fall irrespective of whether emissions were rising or falling.”
    But if the CO2 has been increasing for 100 years should not the global temperature continue to rise?

    [Response: Should not you take some time to read the excellent summary in the IPCC Third Assessment report, where the various factors affecting climate are discussed? Should not you have learned by now that the long term trend is dominated by a rise due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases, but can be interrupted by aerosol effects, small flickers in the sun, volcanic eruptions, some short term natural variability (including El Nino). Should you not have learned by now that no theory has yet been put forth which can account for the 20th/21st century pattern without a substantial warming due to GHG increase? –raypierre]

  25. 25
    pete best says:

    Everyone knows that the dissenting voices were those of Big Oil and Coal and other vested interests obfuscating the truth on climate change being caused by man made emissions. Stands to reason that as the science progressed and seemingly showed more and more that it is a real phenomenon then the media can less and less try and show that it is not real even with the backing of the dissenters.

    The Fossil Fuel guys have probably won anyway for the time being as energy decisions for the immediate future are primarily based on fossil fuels and nuclear until 2030 with renewables playing a small role, some 5 % of energy requirements at best I would imagine.

    it is what we do after this round of energy requirements that will matter most.

  26. 26
    Lynne says:

    So, almost on-topic, just out of curiosity, have you folks seen this: — have you dealt with “Prof. Bob Carter” before, and is there a response to him?

    [Response: Tim Lambert has exposed one of the most dishonest of Carter’s claims here. In fact, Tim Lambert has a whole section of his website devoted to debunking the various falsehoods promoted by Carter. – mike]

  27. 27
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #24: It is. The point being made is that the consistency is long-term. In the short term, there are other forcings and feedbacks at work (e.g. aerosols) that can cause the temp increase to be inconsistent with the CO2 increase.

  28. 28
    Alan says:

    Mmmmm, I smell a curious mixture of astroturf and molten keyboards. It can only mean one thing, RC is getting media coverage at the expense of vested interests. Keep up the good work guys.

  29. 29
  30. 30
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #23: Jerry, the basics of what drives the glacial roller coaster have been figured out, the short answer being Milankovitch cycles (i.e., planetary wobbles of different sorts). See for details, although this doesn’t seem to be entirely up to date.

  31. 31
    SteveF says:

    Re #30 and Milankovitch cycles

    You obviously aren’t familiar with Carl Wunsch! ;-)

  32. 32
    Chris Reed says:

    Hello again RC, you say:

    “Thankfully, some journalists “get it”, and take the time (and effort) to assess where the balance of evidence really lies and report it accordingly…. Hopefully this attitude is catching on! ”

    But where does this leave the media and what we should understand from them?

    In the UK the issue of climate change is now being popularly accepted as real, most people I know have a dismissive attitude to people like Crichton. Dr David Bellamy has been reduced to a laughing stock. The Climate Change deniers seem to be viewed by most people as similar to those who claim the CIA did 9/11.

    But because of the necessary caveats that must be applied due to the state of the science I am starting to feel unable to say much about climate change apart from: “The increase in CO2 will very probably cause an overall increase in Global Average Temperature. And that as a result of this process weather patterns will very probably change.” As to it’s likely effects on us in a practical day-to-day sense I am now totally confused. I now find I have to put so many “ifs buts and maybes” into what I say that the whole issue has turned from being one for concern and action, into an interesting test of scientific theory, and our technical capabilities.

    So when it’s suggested to me that the effects will cause little more than famine, war, economic recessions or depressions. I am unable to give a good reason for doing something about Climate Change. After all such events, as undesirable as they are, have been the mainstay of the last century, arguably the whole of human history. This implies that Climate Change means more of the same…

    Essentially I’ve recently had to backtrack on my more alarmist web and media based opinions, largely due to reading RealClimate and numerous scientific papers. But I am left unable to convince anyone else, sometimes even myself, that the consequences of Climate Change are so grave that serious action on Climate Change is really warranted.

    [Response: Thanks for your comments. I think you can take some comfort from the fact that this is a serious enough problem even without some of the wilder scenarios. The likelihood of serious sea level rise under ‘business as usual’, and impacts on water resources may not have the acute drama associated with polar bear population decline or the possibility of massive methane clathrate releases, but they are much more likely to figure on policy makers agendas – just as other long term chronic issues (such as pensions) do. Climate change is a grave concern, but in itself it does not make all other problems go away. While some would like this issue to stand in for all their concerns about modern sustainability, it really can’t. In fact, it is partly because many of the players in the debate, project their more base concerns onto climate change discussions that even no-regrets actions are extremely difficult to get implemented. Hopefully we have been able to keep at least a few people more grounded on this subject. -gavin]

  33. 33
    Lynne says:

    Whoops, thanks! I should have read all the posts in the comments and realised that yes, of COURSE you had seen that article. Thanks for the Lambert links, though.

  34. 34
    pete best says:

    Ah yes the implications of climate change versus the progress of the human race. By the 2100 humankind could be looking at a very different world, 7 metres more water apparantly, a slowdown of the worlds thermohaline system which could plunge northern europe into some canada style winters, a major realignment of the planets hydrological cycle which would mean drought and monsoons where none exist now perhaps, the disapperance of the Amazon rainforest, more extreme el ninos that last a lot longer along with the sister efect (la nina I think.

    All that so people can drive 2 tonne cars called SUV’s that tell other people about their status, live in massive houses that costs a lot in fossil fuels to heat, again because of status mainly and take lots of plane flights to strange places for sight seeing tours that are soon forgotten when you return.

    I can’t think of a reason to do something about climate change either

  35. 35
    Tom Fiddaman says:

    Re 24

    But if the CO2 has been increasing for 100 years should not the global temperature continue to rise?

    Temperature increases when inbound radiation exceeds outbound. All else equal, if CO2 goes up, it affects that balance, and temperature increases until a new equilibrium is reached (which takes a long time as the ocean is a big heat sink). Of course all else is not equal – there are volcanoes, solar variability, etc. – so you wouldn’t expect to see a smooth monotonic increase matching the CO2 concentration. You definitely would not expect to see a monotonic increase matching the rate of emissions. Nor would you expect to see a noticeable effect from small changes in CO2 concentration. Over the period Carter cited, from 1940 to 1965, atmospheric CO2 concentration only rose from 307 to 320ppm. (In the next 25 years concentration grew almost 3x as much even though emssions grew less rapidly.) Because emissions were starting from a small base, they changed the CO2 concentration little in spite of the fact that they were increasing quickly. Thus the high rate of increase is almost totally irrelevant to the behavior of temperature over the same period. Similarly, the fact that temperature rose in the absence of much CO2 increase from 1918-1940 in no way proves that CO2 has no effect on temperature.

    Carter’s thinking is dangerous not only because it’s bad logic, but because it encourages a linear mental model of climate change that implies that as soon as we start reducing emissions, temperature will respond by falling. In fact the large accumulations in the system (CO2 and heat) mean that temperatures can continue to rise for a long time after emissions are reduced.

  36. 36
    Ed says:

    Good point. I am watching the current congressional hearings on the recently proposed Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). It appears as if the scientists providing testimony are slightly in favor of the program, but caution an aggressive schedule and non-transparent decision making. I don’t have the information to agree or disagree either way, but can all those high level DOE labs consulting on the initiative be getting it wrong – or not making scientifically informed decisions? Where’s a guy to go for the ‘balanced’ answers? Any help?

  37. 37
    Jerry Fish says:

    Re 23: Thanks to Stefan and Raypierre for responding. As to citing Lindzen, I didn’t mean to do so myself – I was simply referring to the comment made by Shea. It seems the response has been edited after first posting – I thought the first time I read it there was a mention by Raypierre of Milankovitch cycles being the explanation of the roller coaster of ice ages – I was going to ask whether anyone has explained why the M. cycle produced ice ages during the Pleistocene, but not the Pliocene, Miocene, Eocene, etc…? I saw one TV documentary that suggested that the current positioning of the continents, as well as the recent rise of the Himalayas, might be a critical factor, but haven’t seen much in print on the subject. Also, is there a reason I have the special distinction of my name being linked to a page which says “damn spammer!” ??-

    [Response: The comment about Milankovic must have been by somebody else. I don’t recall having said anything about that, but the standard picture (by no means universally accepted) is indeed that Milankovic cycles are the basic pacemakers of the ice ages. According to the standard story, the recent ice age cycles only set in in the Pleistocene because you need ice to amplify the rather small Milankovic forcing and to rectify the seasonal forcing modulations into a long-term signal. The cooling trend due to reduction of CO2 and changes in climate associated with changes in the geography eventually allowed Northern Hemisphere ice sheets to form, whereafter the strong amplification of Milankovic was possible. Presumably there were Milankovic-sensitive ice cycles in previous cold periods as well, but it’s a lot harder to detect them. Glacial-interglacial cycles are an unfinished story, however, held up primarily by the lack of a good theory for the glacial/interglacial CO2 fluctuations, and a number of uncertainties in ice dynamics. Raymo and Paillard have a good story about the 100KYr cycle arising from the modulation of the precessional cycle by the changes in the Earth’s orbital eccentricity, coupled with some glacial dynamical effects which “rectify” the high frequency precessional signal. Still, what remains to be done in this area amounts to a lot more than just tidying up. –raypierre]

    [Response: I fixed the funky link. Not sure what happened there…. – gavin]

  38. 38
    pat neuman says:

    re 25

    In obfuscating the truth on climate change … , you didn’t blame government agencies, NOAA etc. Other scientists have been quiet about that too. Could the silence be in order to avoid burning bridges for themselves? I hope not.

    Most of the other at RC have moved on to Venus. I’d rather stay here on Earth.

  39. 39
    pat neuman says:

    re 21. Is balanced journalism to blame for the lack of action on global warming?

    No, I blame the politicians and heads of government agencies, particularly the National Weather Service, for poor leadership on global warming.

    From the Boston Globe article by Christopher Shea, … Al Gore, for instance, includes some trenchant journalism criticism in his forthcoming documentary on global warming, ”An Inconvenient Truth.”

    I wrote to Al Gore, before the Nov. 2000 election, urging him to make global warming the highest priority. He did not even come close to doing that, nor did he reply to my concerns.

    I did receive a reply to a similar letter that I sent to President Clinton in 2000, and I appreciated that. I also appreciated President Clinton’s statements on global warming during his Jan. 2000 State of the Union Address, although I thought more could have been said. He certainly had a much better State of the Union on global warming in 2000 than did G.W. Bush, who’s said basically nothing.

  40. 40
    Grant says:

    Re: #23

    I too am a first-time commenter. While I agree in general that it is rational and responsible to report viewpoints which disagree with the consensus, 1. such reporting should be credible, i.e., instead of giving equal exposure to non-consensus views, it should be made clear that they are minority views, and 2. a time comes when the non-concensus view is simply no longer credible. Those who believe the earth is flat should not be given *any* airtime, let alone “equal time.” I think the belief of many persons here, is that denial of AGW is no longer credible enough to merit exposure.

  41. 41
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #40,

    I completely agree. Those who do not support the premise of AGW are trying to grasp for the thing they should tend to dislike (being further to the libertarian-right). Quota systems and political correctness.

    Skeptics who complain about not having their voices heard the same amount as those who know AGW is happening are striving for a system of minority over-representation. For example, it would be like having the Green Party (in Canada or the United States), while receiving 5% of the popular vote, taking a majority of seats in the House and the Senate. It does not make sense.

    However, far less than 5% of climate scientists are skeptical of AGW. That number is likely closer to 0.5%, which makes it seem all the more atrocious.

  42. 42
    Gar Lipow says:

    >So when it’s suggested to me that the effects will cause little more than famine, war, economic recessions or depressions. I am unable to give a good reason for doing something about Climate Change. After all such events, as undesirable as they are, have been the mainstay of the last century, arguably the whole of human history. This implies that Climate Change means more of the same…

    There are of course degrees of all these things. Also maybe there is a reason for being a bit alarmist. I don’t think it is widely appreciated how vulnerable agriculture is to global warming, or how dependent our technical civilization is on agriculture.

    1) Water – Global warming tends to increase intensity of storms, though frequency is arguable (some evidence but not overwhelming). So rainstorms will be more intense – more flooding. On the other hand dry areas will get drier as temperature increases – more floods more droughts – less agriculural production

    2) rice and wheat both respond poorly to higher temperatures, and possibly even to more carbon dioxide – less agricultural production.

    3) pest migration – increases with climate changes.

    4) absolute numbers of insects; most insect sprecies thrive in higher temperatures. And of course wider habitat ranges for insects as well.

    5) rapid climate changes means more variability in weather as well. I sometimes hear climate skeptics claim (in essence – this is not a q quote) that Britain will grow oranges, Canada Bananas and everyone will do the “happy happy” joy joy dance. This raises a number of interesting questions. For example, when exactly does a farmer switch from wheat to oranges. And what if, after planting an orange grove, you get a cold year – because after all climate change is not linear. Also a major switch from grains to fruit would mean a reduction in protein produced, and basically a switch from a staple to a luxury. In a world impoverished by global warming is that really the direction we want to switch?

    6) All these converge with non-warming problems. Right now we produce ~2,800 calories for every human being on this planet (and that is net of grain fed to animals). Hunger at the moment is due to cruelty not to physical shortage. But population growth, reduction in water availability from other sources is likely to change that. So with global warming adding to this, we are likely to start getting worldwide absolute food shortages – maybe big ones.

    7) Our entire technical civilization is based on the fact that we can produce food with so little labor. We have plenty of time do other things – like climate science. Don’t know exactly how big the food shortage is likely to grow if we don’t do something about climate change. But if it gets big enough then we might lose our scientific knowledge and industrialization. Not all at once; but science and technology though enourmously productive live on the surplus of a surplus. Lose agricultural produvity, and more of the population will have to produce food; most of what is left will be devoting their labor to producing other neccisties. You won’t have enough of the next generation with time to be educated enough to pass along our scientific and techical knowledge. Again I don’t know if uncontrolled global warming (“business as usual”) will truly cut production that much. But I suspect when you add up all the consequences of global warming for agriculture (and I have not listed all of them) you really are looking at a threat to our technical civilization.

  43. 43
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    Anyone interested in the present and recent RealClimate postings will likely want to visit the Wall Street Journal’s today, where there’s a link to an op-ed by MIT’s Richard Lindzen that’s headlined this way: “FREE INQUIRY: Climate of Fear: Global-warming alarmists intimidate dissenting scientists into silence.” Myself, I hope the RC scientists do a posting on this one. It jumps right into the center of much that’s been being discussed at RC recently. Unlike most content at the WSJ, this op-ed is freely available to nonsubscribers.

  44. 44
  45. 45
    Tom Fiddaman says:

    Re 43

    Interesting opinion. I keep hoping for more from Lindzen, but this ain’t it. He’s been saying that climate science is alarm-driven for years, but this opinion presents pretty weak evidence of that. For example, he claims that Alfonso Sutera and Antonio Speranza “apparently” disappeared from climate science due to loss of funding, but google indicates that they are still active in climate science and publishing in prestigious journals.

    Lindzen’s contention that alarmism has resulted in increased funding for climate science doesn’t really hold up either. The GAO reports that climate science funding increased only 9% in real terms from ’93 to ’04 – slower than GDP. As I understand it, some of the big increases have been in satellites and infrastructure, where the $ presumably benefit relatively few mainstream scientists. Similarly, there have been big jumps in climate technology (e.g. carbon sequestration) but those are basically energy technologies and don’t enrich climate scientists. Perhaps he’s looking at different data, or there really was a huge jump from pre’90 to ’93, but climate science doesn’t really look like a juggernaut to me.

    Lindzen mentions Henk Tennekes who has a recent opinion here.

  46. 46
    Graeme Bird says:

    “5) rapid climate changes means more variability in weather as well.”

    That doesn’t follow. CO2-based warming is likely to have a more blanketing effect.

  47. 47
    Ike Solem says:

    Re#10 The USGS was walked up to the wall back in the mid 90’s and told in no uncertain terms that if they kept addressing environmental science and failed to sing the oil industry line (on remaining petroleum reserves as well as on the issue of global warming), then they would be dissolved, flushed, kaput – the Congressional funding would be cut off. This is just one example of the ‘War on Science’ carried out by certain interests over the past decades. (Thanks, Chris)

    This led to a shakeup in the political structure of the organization, the firing of some individuals, the elevation of others to positions of power, and as a result we see things like references to global warming being deleted from official USGS press releases. I was able to observe some of this personally – talk about terrified scientists running for cover. It is really sad how some people used this as an opening for personal advancement; they just had to say ‘the right things’.

    Richard Lindzen’s credibility is non-existent. He seems to have abandoned science in favor of political maneuvering, regardless of his MIT credentials. His notions of ‘stable equilibrium’ in climate are completely unsupported. The recent issue of Science magazine has an excellent editorial by Donald Kennedy and Brooks Hanson: here’s an excerpt:

    “Nothing in the record suggests that an “equilibrium” climate model is the right standard of comparison. We are in the midst of a highly kinetic system, and in the past, dramatic climate changes have taken place in only a few decades. ”

    Read the whole editorial here. This issue of Science is a keeper – also see Paul G. Falkowski’s fascinating perspective piece on nutrient cycles.

  48. 48
    pat neuman says:

    re 46. 42.

    Less variability is evident in monthly and annual temperature averages at U.S. climate stations for the warmer and more recent decades… more blanketing effect on temperatures.

  49. 49
    Hank Roberts says:

    Pat, do you have any numbers? I mistrust conclusions based on looking at what’s “evident” from pictures.

    I found a bit that’s relevant, but it’s quite general, just points up the difficulty of drawing conclusions from local information (with a picture that at least suggests some statistics work was done).

    Atmospheric variability arising from internal instabilities is huge on small spatial scales. It is, however, the variability on large scales influenced by interactions of the atmosphere with other components of the climate system that is predictable.

    Figure 1.4
    shows the natural variability of the annual mean surface temperature on several different spatial scales from a climate model simulation for 200 years. This example highlights the much greater natural variability on small scales which makes detection of the small systematic signal, such as that might arise from enhanced greenhouse effect, much more difficult to achieve on regional scales.

    End quote

  50. 50
    Stephen Berg says:

    Re: #46, “That doesn’t follow. CO2-based warming is likely to have a more blanketing effect.”

    Only in terms of comparing maximum and minimum temperatures and summer and winter temperatures. “CO2-based warming”, as you call it, will raise minimum and winter temperatures higher than it will maximum and summer temperatures.

    However, the added energy in the form of heat will make it more likely extremes of both maximum and minimum temperatures will occur, not to mention the increased storms and drought that will likely arise due to AGW.