September 22, 2004

Science Fiction Lobbyist

Filed under: Climate Politics

National Geographic joins the climate change fray with an issue dedicated to misinformation on global warming, past, present and future.

This isn’t your father’s National Geographic anymore. Once a coffee-table staple with gorgeous photos of people, places, and things, it now more resembles the host of other Washington-slick lobbying mags, pushing today’s popular issues.

Last month’s cover story was on “fat.” What’s that have to do with geography– that some people are skinny, some are large, and they all don’t live in the same place? What’s more, obesity turns out to be a pretty slippery subject, given that what’s fat today was considered healthy a century ago.

This month cover is global warming, a subject that actually lends itself to quantitative fact-checking. Of which National Geographic apparently did very little.

Dispassionate objectivity and virtue are the claims of every lobby. So, in his editor’s letter, Bill Allen informs us that what’s inside isn’t “science fiction,” and that “We’re not going to show you waves swamping the Statue of Liberty” (referring to this summer’s ludicrous global warming flick, The Day After Tomorrow). Allen realizes that what’s inside may not jibe with the perceptions of some of us unfortunates who live outside of Georgetown, but remarks that he “can live with some cancelled memberships” to tell what he calls “the biggest story in geography today.”

His overview must have been completed before the final copy came in, because in the fourth paragraph of the first article, written by Daniel Glick, says the effects of global warming indeed are “like watching the Statue of Liberty melt.”

This massive rhetorical gaffe is unfortunately typical. Let’s start with the misrepresentation of facts (at least, the big ones; the article is so replete with errors it would be impossible to cover all of them in brief).

The piece begins with a picture of a flooded rice field in Bangladesh, with the comment that “as global temperatures and sea level climb—[rice farming] becomes an ever more precarious means of support.” Here’s the truth: In 2001, Cecile Cabanes calculated sea-level rise for the last half-century around the world. In Bangladesh, there was a net fall in the 1990s. In the last 50 years it has risen there—a infinitesimal seven-tenths of an inch–and an amount far too small for anyone to notice, in Bangladesh or anywhere else. People in North Carolina adapt and prosper, living with sea level rises of 12 feet in 10 minutes, or a decent hurricane storm surge. If seven-tenths of an inch in 50 years is a problem, it’s a social one, not a climatic one.

Two pages later, we read that “Human activity almost certainly drove most of the past century’s warming.” That’s not true either. There were two warming periods in the 20th century—one early and one late—and they are both of the same magnitude. There is little dispute that the first one was “natural,” caused by a warming sun. It occurred before humans could have influenced climate much with industrial emissions.

Talking of human influence, then next paragraph says, “warming may not be gradual.” Yet double-digit billions of dollars of scientific research comes to this central tendency: Once human warming starts in the atmosphere, it takes place at a constant rate. At least that’s what the average of all our climate models for the future indicates. And, if the warming trend of late 20th-century temperatures is caused by humans, which is reasonable, then that rate has already been established. And indeed, what is remarkable about it is its constancy, and that it is at the absolute low end of the computer projections.

The first article starts with the melting of Sperry Glacier, in Montana’s Glacier National Park, saying, “A trailside sign notes that, since 1901, Sperry Glacier has shrunk from more than 800 to 300 acres.” Indeed it has. And according to data from the National Climatic data center, which you can download, summer temperatures averaged over Western Montana show absolutely no warming trend whatsoever in the 20th century. Glaciers melt in the summer. So why the melting? Changes in precipitation patterns related to climate swings in the Pacific Ocean—swings that have been naturally occurring for at least hundreds of years—are the primary contributor (for more details see:

Next column: “The famed snows of Kilimanjaro have melted more than 80% since 1912.” Again, indeed true. In the “natural” warming of the first part of the 20th century, Kilimanjaro lost 45 percent of its cap. From 1953 through 1976, another 21%. That occurred while the planet cooled. Since 1976, in the era of “human” warming, another 12%, or the slowest melt rate of the last 100 years. National Geographic forgot to tell us that. Or that, from 4,000 to 11,000 years ago it was much warmer in Africa than it is today, and Kilimanjaro’s cap was much larger than it is now. Again, the extent of Kilimanjaro’s glacial coverage tends to be more moisture driven than temperature driven (see:

That’s seven misleading statements in three pages of the first article. There are 28 more.

When the truth gets stretched so thin, that’s more than one person’s work. Instead, it’s a process, where scientists tell editors what they want to hear, editors don’t check the facts, and, ultimately, we all pay with very bad policies. Regrettably, it’s all predictable. Different scientific communities compete with each other, lobbying for a finite (but large) amount of our tax dollars, and no one ever won that competition by saying that his or her issue was not the most important problem in the world. Which makes great copy for Washington’s other lobbies, like the National Geographic Society, now crusading against obesity and global warming.

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