February 10, 2006

A (Mis)informed Public

Filed under: Climate Politics

In the February 8 New York Times, NASA’s Jim Hansen again complained that his ideas on climate change are being suppressed by the Bush Administration, which is destroying our democracy by censoring climate science. According to the Times:

“On climate, the public has been misinformed and not informed,” he said. “The foundation of a democracy is an informed public, which obviously means an honestly informed public. That’s the big issue here.”

On the other hand, Hansen thinks that lying about climate change in order to get attention is just peachy.

He wrote this in Scientific American in March of 2004:

Emphasis on extreme scenarios may have been appropriate at one time, when the public and decision-makers were relatively unaware of the global warming issue, and energy sources such as “synfuels,” shale oil and tar sands were receiving strong consideration. Now, however, the need is for demonstrably objective climate forcing scenarios consistent with what is realistic under current conditions.

Translation: I buffed this issue in order to get your attention and my schtick was subjective and not scientific.

But, now, he suggests, that the time has come to tell the truth, and he is being censored.

Sorry. Once a distortionist, always a distortionist.

Why should we believe him now? What evidence does he have to offer that his opinions and statements about climate change are suddenly true, when he admits that exaggerations were necessary. Was the public being “honestly informed” then?

And it wasn’t just “the public.” He distorted in front of the U.S. Congress.

On June 23, 1988, the first day of summer, with the corn belt baking in drought and civil war relics being uncovered in the piddling Potomac, he presented a graph of global annual temperatures for the last 100 years and included the January-May, 1988 readings on the same chart.

Hansen Temperature Curve

Figure 1. Average annual global temperature departures as presented by NASA’s James Hansen to Congress in June of 1988. Notice the last point only represents the first 5 months of 1988 (Source: Adapted from Congressional Testimony, June 23, 1988, of James E. Hansen).

He went on to say that 1988 would be the warmest year on record unless there was a “remarkable and improbable” cooling during the rest of the year. In reality, 1988 did not set the record.*

Talk about “extreme scenarios.” Everyone with a modicum of statistical knowledge (which excludes just about every Senator and Congress-person) knows that temperatures vary much more when looking at five months of data versus annual averages. There is no science journal in the world, even ones as global-warming-gaga as Science and Nature are right now, that would allow such a misrepresentation, but there it was, in front of Congress and on national TV. And now he’s crabbing that the Bush Administration wants to vet his pronouncements! The nerve!!

Nor is Hansen is not alone in exaggerating climate change for his own political agenda.

Dr. Stephen Schneider, now at Stanford University uncorked this whopper in 1989 in Discover magazine, at the same time that Hansen was “emphasizing extreme scenarios”:

On the one hand we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but…which means that we must include all the doubts, caveats, ifs and buts.

On the other hand, we are not just scientists, but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we have to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” which we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

This hardly seems like a recipe for how to keep the public “honestly informed.”

Let’s see exactly what Hansen does have to say about global warming and why he perhaps feels that his views are being suppressed. Quoting from one of his recent works (a 2003 article for the on-line journal Natural Science):

Further, IPCC [United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] studies suggest that the Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from developed countries, would reduce global warming by only several percent. Gloom and doom seem unavoidable.

However, are the IPCC scenarios necessary or even plausible? There are reasons to believe that the IPCC scenarios are unduly pessimistic. First, they ignore changes in emissions, some already underway, due to concerns about global warming. Second, they assume that true air pollution will continue to get worse, with O3 and CH4 and black carbon all greater in 2050 than in 2000. Third, they give short shrift to technology advances that can reduce emissions in the next 50 years…

[The] “current trends” growth rate of climate forcings…is at the low end [emphasis added] of the IPCC range of 2-4W/m2 [watts per square meter] The IPCC scenario of 4 W/m2 requires a 4% per year exponential growth rate of CO2 emissions for 50 years and large growth of air pollution. The 4 W/m2 scenario yields dramatic climate change for the media to fixate upon, but it is implausible.

Hansen is saying 1) that the extreme IPCC scenarios are exaggerations without grounding in reality, and 2) that we are currently on an emissions pathway that lies near the low end of the IPCC projections. Who would take offense with any of this? It happens to be true.

The full range of IPCC emissions scenarios predicts a warming between 1990 and 2100 of 1.4-5.8ºC. So, Hansen believes (in this writing) that the future warming rate should lie near the low end of the UN projections. The observed global warming trend established during the past 30 years is amazingly constant (one of the most successful predictions of the myriad of global warming models now in existence) and at a rate of 0.17ºC/decade—confirming that we are indeed following along the IPCC low-end pathway.

What Hansen is complaining about is that the White House thinks his latest fantasy on sea level changes is simply incredible, which it is. He now contends that sea level will ultimately rise 80 feet (!) if the global temperature warms by as little as 3ºC (see http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/keeling_talk_and_slides.pdf). Given that he so craves attention, is this just another exaggeration?

Here’s Hansen’s dilemma: Like everyone who is at all knowledgeable about this issue, he knows warming is going to be modest, but he needs a Schneider-style “scary scenario” and “simplified dramatic statement” to manipulate the political process.

Otherwise, it would be “case-closed” and time to worry about something real, like poverty or terrorism.

We know that global temperatures will continue to increase moderately (as they have been doing for 30 years) as long as fossil fuels are the world’s primary energy supply (which they will be for decades to come) and that modest impacts will be felt as the climate warms. Some of these changes will be beneficial, others will be detrimental, but, by and large, humans and the rest of the global ecosystems will adapt as necessary. Eventually, new technologies develop that are more efficient. That’s what free economies and markets necessitate. So let’s grow up and move on.

But obviously, this solution doesn’t sit well with the throngs of scientists, environmental organizations, and all their courtiers who have made a big business out of scaring us in an effort to advance their own agendas and livelihoods.

So, while Hansen can continue to draw attention to himself and to his personal opinions about climate change and how they are being suppressed, it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to think that some folks may want to try to make sure that the public is truly being “honestly informed.”


* (updated Feb. 13, 2006) NASA’s Gavin Schmidt points out to us (on Yahoo! Groups climatesceptics group) that in the NASA GISS meteorological station temperature history (the one used by Hansen in his 1988 testimony) that 1988 did go on to become the warmest year on record (see here) just nosing out 1981. And he was nice enough to admit that in the Hadley Center temperature history, 1988 ended up coming in second (behind 1987). However, what Gavin didn’t tell us, was that 1988 didn’t become the (then) record holder until more than 10 years later, after the folks at NASA GISS tweaked their dataset. As evidence of this, see Figure 4 from Hansan’s 1998 PNAS paper (reproduced below) and notice that 1988 fell below 1981. Admittedly, NASA GISS didn’t do this to make Hansen’s 1988 prediction come true, but instead it was a by-product of their efforts to take into account data quality issues (to the extent that they are best understood). As it is not uncommon for the keepers of the data to change data inclusion and adjustment procedures from time to time as warranted by new ideas, it is not out of the question that at some future date, 1988 loses its 0.01ºC edge on 1981, and no longer continues to be the (then) record holder.

In any case, the point that we are making is that it is not good practice to compare 5 months worth of data to annual data. And 1988 serves as a good point why. The anomalies averaged over the last 7 months of the year were a good couple of tenths of ºC lower than the average anomaly during the first 5 months of the year. The result was that ultimately 1988 fell much more in line with the spread of points in Hansen’s graph than originally depicted in front on Congress that June.

In this Figure taken from Hansen’s 1998 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the temperature anomaly for 1981 exceeded the one for 1988.

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