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See Inside October 2006

Fiddling While the Planet Burns

Will the Wall Street Journal's editorial writers accept a challenge to learn the truth about the science of global climate change?
Another summer of record-breaking temperatures brought power failures, heat waves, droughts and tropical storms throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. Only one place seemed to remain cool: the air-conditioned offices of the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. As New York City wilted beneath them, they sat insouciant and comfortable, hurling editorials of stunning misdirection at their readers, continuing their irresponsible drumbeat that global warming is junk science.

Now I have nothing against the Wall Street Journal. It is an excellent paper, whose science column and news reporting have accurately and carefully carried the story of global climate change. Even the corporate advertisements that surround the editorial page tell of BP's commitments to renewable energy and General Electric's commitments to environmentally sound technologies. The editorial page sits in its own redoubt, separated from the reporters¿ and from the truth.

One recent editorial, "Hockey Stick Hokum" (published July 14, 2006), epitomizes the editorial approach of recent years. The climate change "hockey stick" is a graph first published in 1998 by Michael Mann et al. that attempted to reconstruct the mean surface temperature on the planet during the period A. D. 900 to the present, using multiple proxies, such as tree rings, to measure temperatures before formal instrumentation was in use. The conclusion of that study was that we are now in that interval's warmest range of temperatures, therefore adding support to the overwhelming evidence from other sources and models that man-made climate change is already well underway.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has for years railed against these scientific findings on climate change, even as the global consensus has reached nearly 100 percent of the scientific community, including the reports commissioned by the skeptical Bush White House. Thus, the hockey stick became the b¿te noire of the editorial page as well as of the dwindling "climate skeptic" community, and right-wing Congressional officials such as Representative Joe Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Air Quality, took up the attack.

In response to these growing political pressures, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences conducted a major independent scientific review and updating of the hockey stick data and analysis. While acknowledging a range of uncertainties, that report came down squarely on the side of the Mann study. The NRC noted that "presently available proxy evidence indicates that temperatures at many, but not all, individual locations were higher during the past 25 years than during any period of comparable length since A.D. 900." It went on to say "the committee finds it plausible that the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period over the preceding millennium." They noted significant uncertainties that remain for global temperatures before 1600, but emphasized "surface temperature reconstructions for periods prior to the industrial era are only one of multiple lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that climatic warming is occurring in response to human activities, and they are not the primary evidence."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page completely ignored this report. Instead, it cited a report commissioned by Congressman Barton from three statisticians with no background in climate science, who quibbled with aspects of Mann's methodology. Yet climate scientists quickly showed that addressing the criticisms has no practical effect on Mann's conclusions. Nonetheless, on this thoroughly flimsy and misleading basis, the editorial page declared that "there's no reason to believe that Mr. Mann, or his 'hockey stick' graph of global temperature changes, is right," called the research "dubious," and said that the climate science community "often more closely resembles a mutual-admiration society than a competitive and open-minded search for scientific knowledge." In other words, it hid the evidence and trashed climate science.

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