November 8, 2004

One plus one equals three

Filed under: Climate Politics

WCR Chief Editor Patrick J. Michaels, Ph.D., explains how and why pollsters and climate modelers cook the books.

I’m a news junkie. I’ve bookmarked Drudge. And when he put up the results of the morning exit polls, showing Kerry way ahead in every battleground except Iowa, I decided not to bother voting. Fortunately, I changed my mind. But how many others did not?

What does this have to do with my usual beat, global environmental issues? Plenty.

It shows how authority and science can be misused to provoke a political response.

We “expect” scientists (pollsters being applied mathematicians) to be both correct and savvy. So, when I read that the morning sample was based upon a sex ratio of roughly 60-40 (female/male) I automatically figured that whoever did the polling simply adjusted the results to the expected sex ratio of the electorate. After all, the Rasmussen Group even had an adjustment for the fact that the Sunday before Election Day was Halloween!

In other words, I trusted what I saw and (almost) acted accordingly.

Which is what most people, understandably concerned about their environment, do whenever they hear about some forecast of dire climatic changes made at some prestigious university of federal laboratory: They assume that the people who put the thing together are so smart that they would have compensated for any systematic problems with their methods.

Hint: Scientists and pollsters behave alike. We don’t necessarily assume the right thing.

Here’s an example from global warming: As a matter of convention, most of our computer models for our climatic future increase carbon dioxide—the main global warming gas—at 1% per year. The concentration of carbon dioxide in today’s atmosphere is roughly 375 parts per million (ppm). An increase of 1% in a computer model for next year’s climate would raise it to 378.8ppm and 382.5 the next, etc….

But, in reality, that’s not going to happen. In the last three decades, the percent change has been 0.39, 0.41, and 0.51 respectively. What the computer does is more than double the rate of increase that is actually occurring.

Not surprisingly, the amount of warming produced by these models is directly proportional to the rate of carbon dioxide increase. In other words, these models are compelled to calculate twice as much carbon-dioxide related warming as could possibly occur.

Back in the Clinton era, climate scientists produced a so-called “National Assessment” of the effects of climate warming for the 21st century. They used models that did exactly what I describe above. The document was then excerpted, virtually verbatim in parts, for a Bush Administration report on climate change. That document, in turn, was used as an initial “finding,” serving as the basis for legislation authored by John McCain (R-AZ) to compel Americans to reduce our net emissions of carbon dioxide, something that can’t be accomplished without actively discouraging consumption, i.e., raising the price of gas.

McCain is a consummate political animal, positioning himself for his 2008 presidential run. He authored that legislation for one simple reason: he sees political advantage. After all, most of his Republican competitors are going to be on the other side, against regulation. And it is profoundly easy to demagogue any climate anomaly into global warming.

Remember September’s hurricanes? A coalition of scientists—“Scientists and Engineers for Change”—plastered central Florida with billboards claiming that President Bush would make hurricanes worse. Their basis? A computer model with the wrong increase in carbon dioxide.

In that case, they failed. Not enough voters were turned to eke out a Kerry win for Florida. And, for that matter, the exit polls failed too. And anyone who thinks those poll results weren’t leaked with the knowledge of the political effect they could have, thinks, well, that scientists and pollsters correct all their known errors before going public.

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