Trying Times Needs Cooler Heads

Well, you can't fault The New York Times for trying—that is, trying to move its global warming agenda forward by any means necessary.

On Aug. 26, a routine federal report on climate change research was hailed as "a striking shift" of the Bush administration, and then used as the basis for a masthead editorial on Aug. 27 calling for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions (search).

In reality, the report, "OUR CHANGING PLANET: The U.S. Climate Change Science Program for Fiscal Years 2004 and 2005" (search) resembles a jillion other climate reports with interminable titles emanating from our Washington agencies. University faculty mailboxes groan with this overload. (Whatever became of the paperless office, we ask?)

Doesn't anyone, much less the Times, understand how Washington works? The Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) (search) is in competition with many others for a finite number of our tax dollars. That includes AIDS, cancer, nutrition science, and a host of other science "issues."

The CCSP wants a little more than $4 billion per year. That's still a lot of money, and no one ever jacked this amount of dough out of Congress by saying that their issue wasn't the most important one in history, or that not knowing more about it (about $4 bil per year's worth) will expose us to all variety of harm, potential or otherwise. It's just the way the game is played.

So, no one should be surprised that all issues must be defined as terrible problems—whatever administration is in charge. The scientific actors remain the same, and they will always behave the same when envisioning large amounts of our money.

What the Times found interesting was largely in Chapter 4, the section on 20th century climate, which says that computer models can simulate the climate history of the last 100 years when fed solar variation, greenhouse effect changes (which warm things), and anthropogenerated dust, (search) which cools things.

This is not news. People have been "tuning" computer models with these variables for years to somehow explain why the Northern Hemisphere cooled in the mid-20th century. In reality, we haven't a clue how much cooling is actually caused by human dust, so we select the "right" value that simulates the climate history.

In fact, a substantial portion of the CCSP effort is to quantify this cooling effect. If this were already so well known, why spend dozens of millions of dollars finding the answer? Which means that every computer model that uses dust to explain the climate history is merely selecting one value for cooling out of an unknown and large range.

The same approach can be applied to North American temperatures, as noted in the report. Again, the same problems accrue. We really don't know the cooling effects of human dust. And, in the paper which the CCSP claimed properly simulated the North American climate, two wrongs were added to make a right.

That model underestimates the warming of the early 20th century, which has little or nothing to do with human greenhouse emissions, and overestimates the second warming of the century, which took place in the last 30 years. Add together those two and one comes up with the correct overall trend. If the true value of warming was "4" in both the early and later parts of the century (and they were both equal), adding the two together gives "8". If the model said "2" early on, and "6" later, it would still get a total of 8, but be right for the wrong reasons.

So, our advice to anyone who thinks there's a lot of news here is to cool it. This is the same-old-same-old climate modeling, which works because it picks numbers that work. But the true number for cooling is unknown, as pointed out repeatedly in Our Changing Planet.

And to the Times, keep trying. Last we heard, the big "news" on global warming and the subsequent masthead editorial prompted neither a peep from Mr. Bush nor a squawk from Mr. Kerry.

Patrick J. Michaels, senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of "Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media" (Cato Institute), to be published on Sept. 27.