George Will, Now With Misleading Links!

By Carl Zimmer | April 2, 2009 9:39 am

There’s a lot of dismally wrong coverage of global warming these days (see some recent examples chronicled by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum at The Intersection, for example). But the way global warming gets treated on the op-ed pages of the Washington Post–particularly by George Will and his enabling editors–is particularly exquisite. For my little Ahab-like obsession with the editorial process there, check out this string of posts. Many other observers have made similar points, so you’d think that somebody over at the Post might have learned something from the experience.

Today, we see that they haven’t.

One of the more egregious lines from George Will’s recent columns on global warming is the claim that real data shows that warnings about a rise in the average global temperature are wrong. He writes: “According to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.”

The secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization himself, Michael Jarraud, decided he had to write to the Washington Post to tell them George Will is wrong.

Here’s the nut of Jarraud’s letter from March 21:

It is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record — as was done in a recent Post column [“Dark Green Doomsayers,” George F. Will, op-ed, Feb. 15] — and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects.

The difference between climate variability and climate change is critical, not just for scientists or those engaging in policy debates about warming. Just as one cold snap does not change the global warming trend, one heat wave does not reinforce it. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit.

Evidence of global warming has been documented in widespread decreases in snow cover, sea ice and glaciers. The 11 warmest years on record occurred in the past 13 years.

While variations occur throughout the temperature record, shorter-term variations do not contradict the overwhelming long-term increase in global surface temperatures since 1850, when reliable meteorological recordkeeping began. Year to year, we may observe in some parts of the world colder or warmer episodes than in other parts, leading to record low or high temperatures. This regional climate variability does not disprove long-term climate change. While 2008 was slightly cooler than 2007, partially due to a La Niña event, it was nonetheless the 10th-warmest year on record.

Today, George Will is back on the subject of global warming. The occassion for his column is the alleged uselessness of energy-efficient light bulbs. The column is basically a cut-and-paste job on a recent New York Times article on the bulbs–the same newspaper that Will claimed in an earlier column is “a trumpet that never sounds retreat in today’s war against warming.” Somehow, a paper Will knows is nothing but a climate propaganda machine can publish an article related to global warming that he relies on as absolute authority.

But let’s leave internal logic aside. Let’s just deal with fact-checking. At the start of Will’s column today, he argues that all this worry about light bulbs is supremely pointless because…you guessed it…

Reducing carbon emissions supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring even though, according to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization, there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998.

Does the Post read its own letters? Does it remember them? Do they think if you add the phrase “stastistics” you can continue to mislead on the exact same point emphasized by Jarraud? Perhaps Will’s editors think if they put a link in Will’s misleading statement, it somehow makes it right. Did they actually look at the linked document? If they did, they’d find stuff like this:

The global average temperature for 2007 is statistically indistinguishable from each of the nine warmest years on record.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74°C, but this increase has not been continuous. The linear warming trend over the past 50 years (0.13°C per decade) is nearly twice that for the past 100 years.

Every time I think this sorry tale of fact-checking woe can’t get worse, it does.

Comments (24)

  1. Mark Siddall

    Will’s recidivism makes ya wanna pull your hair out. Seems to me that George deserves a “Four Pinocchios” from the Post’s own rating system ( http://blog.washingtonpost.com/fact-checker/2007/09/about_the_fact_checker.html#pinocchio )

  2. larrydalooza

    Oh my AGW. How in AGW’s name can he get away with this. AGW bless you for bringing light to this AGW damn liar.

  3. With this third infraction, I now wonder if there is something more fundamental tying the Post’s hands, something reflective of real or perceived political (and therefore economic) pressure on news media companies. News media are sometimes charged with being falsely even-handed in the climate discussion, presenting “both sides” even when the only side that counts is that of replicable empirical data — an interest without much of a lobby in Washington. Allowing George Will to perpetuate these falsehoods seems to me an instance of structural, cowardly even-handedness. Will is a widely syndicated thought-leader. If the Post wanted to take some kind of corrective action, called for by Joe Romm (http://tr.im/i9rp) for example, Will’s audience might forever brand the Post, at least rhetorically and grossly unfairly, as liberal-MSM central. Will would run off and find employment on a platform that would target his audience more directly and possibly win some kind of martyrdom among them. I wonder if Fred Hiatt’s problem — for his sake — is that Will’s ego is holding him, and the whole paper, hostage. Is he too influential to be fact-checked? Does the Post op-ed page need him so badly that he can skewer facts? Apparently so. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but now I’m convinced that Will is an aptonym (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aptronym).

  4. Back when Woodward and Bernstein were practicing actual journalism at the WaPo, the saying was “follow the money.” You might want to consider who pays for this serial lying.

  5. Vern

    It seems like you’re perpetuating what Will is warning against. Take a deep breath. That’s better. In five or ten years we’ll still be fine (and a little cooler based on the data I’ve looked at). Enjoy the warmth while you can… It’s already slipping away. In about 30 years, it will start warming again. No big deal, the climate has been fluctuating for eons. Enjoy the ride.

  6. Kevin Ward

    In our forum on Science and the Media, we spoke about “even-handed” and “fair and balanced” as disingenuous terms used by news organizations to eliminate any need to respect scientific fact. Having legitimate disagreements within the context of proven, peer-reviewed good science is balance–having to add a tinfoil-hat “skeptic” with his own “countervailing theory” so an article is “fair and balanced” is so ridiculous it shouldn’t merit our attention–except that every TV, and radio newspaper does it.

    We are currently having an Energy Summit with top scientists and policymakers, and someone suggested that we should add a “contrarian” to stir discussion–a certain Republican senator who does not believe in global warming. Our answer was that we are trying to accomplish something substantial in a short time with very knowledgeable scientists, and we did not need a bonehead to “balance” out the group, any more than scientists plotting the course of a shuttle trajectory need someone who doesn’t believe in gravity to “represent the other side”.

    I’m sorry, but it’s time to (unapologetically) let the A students take back the classroom. We have had 8 years to experience what happens when we let the smug, anti-intellectual C- bullies-in-the-back run the show. They have delivered disaster on a global scale, driven by “gut-instinct”, mendacity, and Orwellian doublespeak. It’s time for committed, educated, conscientious people, thinking critically and respecting good science, to undo the horrendous damage that has been done. And we don’t have time to entertain the disingenuous calls for “bipartisan” or “even-handed” or “fair and balanced”. They are just attempts to lure us into re-wrestling a pig. And we know what happens there. Hopefully media outlets will tire of presenting fact-free punditry and get back to what used to be called the news.

    ….but I’m not hopeful.

  7. Wayne Whig

    talk about misleading.

    I notice in your commentary about Will’s quoting from the New York Times, you don’t actually REFUTE anything he has to say about the menace of those `climate safe’, crappy light bulbs, only to say that he shouldn’t quote from a newspaper that (you allege) Will believes only publishes `climate propaganda’ (again, this is Carl Zimmer’s term, not Will’s).

    But where was the scepticism about `climate variation vs. climate change’ when unusually warm winters and cool summers in the early century were touted as definite evidence of `climate change’?

    Before you attack Will’s journalist skills, you need to improve on your own, Mr. Zimmer. Or better, go on with your global-warming hysteria, but don’t attack others who have a different opinion. You’re not the sole guardian of `science.’

  8. Wayne:

    1. George Will calls the Times, “a trumpet that never sounds retreat in today’s war against warming.” Will’s terms. Not mine.

    2. Whether or not the light bulbs are bad affects is irrelevent to the veracity of Will’s statement about the World Meteorological Organization.

    3. Since you don’t say who touted warm winters and cool summers as definitive evidence of climate change, I can’t make any particular comment about them. I certainly agree that one warm winter on its own is not evidence of long-term climate change.

    4. George Will is entitled to his opinions, but I’m entitled to point out demonstrably false statements he makes–especially after the scientists that he invokes as his authority explain that he’s wrong. That’s not being a “guardian.” That’s basic fact-checking.

    [Edited for grammar]

  9. Ed B

    You reprint Jarraud’s erroneous claim that “the 11 warmest years on record occurred in the last 13 years”. This is a spectacular example of the scientific equivalent of Gresham’s Law (bad money drives out good, in this case fake facts drive out true facts).

    That claim rests on a Y2K bug in NASA’s climate programs unearthed by Steve McIntyre of Climateaudit.org. The details are here:

    http://digg.com/d1BOTG

    The short summary:

    NASA has now silently released corrected figures, and the changes are truly astounding. The warmest year on record is now 1934. 1998 (long trumpeted by the media as record-breaking) moves to second place. 1921 takes third. In fact, 5 of the 10 warmest years on record now all occur before World War II.

    I expect better from this magazine.

    [Carl: The warmest year on record for the United States is 1934. Jarraud is referring to global average temperatures. Big difference. More details here]

  10. Brian

    It seems pretty clear to me that solar activity explains all (or something like 99%) of the “global climate” change. I get a kick out of the alarmist’s move from using the words “global warming” to using “global climate change”, just after the peak of the latest solar activity cycle. Someone knew that we were going to be heading into a decade-long cold weather “snap” (as Mr. Jarraud dismissively refers to it). The problem with the new language is that it is silly and obviously opportunistic. Note to you alarmists out there: there is nothing alarming about “global climate change” because there is no such thing as global climate stability. The climate is variable: always has been, always will be.

    You alarmists may be hoodwinking the masses (presently) but you cannot tell me that comparing climate data from the time when human beings had just managed to invent the internal combustion gasoline engine and the automobile with climate (temp) data from today and honestly tell me that you can precisely (or accurately?) identify a .73 or 1.33 increase. It is comparing apples to oranges. There simply was not enough precise instrumentation or data back then to make such a comparison. It has to be well within the range of likely error. Moreover, even assuming the increase is correct (a big assumption) it is the height of arrogance (given the reactivity of earth temps to solar activity) to assume that this is not caused by some other influence or cycle (solar or otherwise – but not man-caused). We simply do not know (and likely will not know for a long time) all the influences (other than man) that may effect long term climate changes.

    A final point, if you want to be intellectually honest and win the “the world should be alarmed about global climate change” argument on the merits you would do well to treat your task in a manner like a business man seeking an enormous loan from a bank for a new business venture. You are, after all, demanding that society spend a nearly incomprehensible amount of money on a “problem” that has not yet had any obvious cost. Businessmen do not go to the bank and say “prove my business model wrong or lend me the money”. So, first remember that the burden of proof is on you. Second, the more money you want – the higher the burden of proof (the less risk the bank will take that your model is wrong). You want a sh_tload of money – you need to make your case with a very high degree of certainty. So far, your best case really amounts to the argument that “releasing a lot of CO2 into the air has to be having some greenhouse effect”. I don’t think that is nearly enough. Lastly, you have to show that your proposed solutions make the most sense. A bank is not going to give you a loan to make a widget factory if there are others out there who have a plan to make a better/cheaper widget. If you can prove global warming is happening, that that the warming is going to be significant enough to matter, that the results of the warming will be bad for mankind, and that man is causing it, you need to show that reducing CO2 emissions is the best (least expensive and disruptive) way to approach the “problem”. Sometimes the most effective solution is to address the symptoms – rather than addressing the cause.

  11. brooks

    it’s highly amusing how many deniers mix phrases such as “it seems pretty clear” and “intellectually honest” in with massive doses of hand-waving and ‘scientifical’-sounding sophistry. it’s quite possible you are earnest, relatively intelligent, and largely well-intentioned, but those words you keep using, i do not think they mean what you think they mean.

  12. Richard

    It would be great if some writer could master the task of writing objectively about the climate change debate, fairly presenting both sides, or all sides, of the debate. Instead of throwing chairs at the climate skeptics, why not provide a vehicle for better understanding of both sides?

    There certainly is a plethora of data which could be openly reviewed and discussed. Unfortunately, writers are afraid to take the middle path, to summarize and explain the major viewpoints regarding the earth’s climate.

  13. Todd

    George Will doesn’t want us to do anything about global warming because he believes that global warming will benefit him and his wealthy friends. The effects of global warming will be felt most strongly by the poor. For Oligarchs and their propagandist’s, like Will, relative wealth is more impotant than absolute wealth. Also, oligarchs need extreme poverty, since it creates individuals and subcultures that can be used as scapegoats and sources of fear.

  14. brooks

    Richard:

    there’s not always a middle path to take. the “major viewpoints”, i.e., the preponderance of evidence from the people actually doing the science, support the case that our weather has averaged warmer as the 20th century progressed, and secondarily, that human-generated greenhouse gases likely play a significant role. science is *not* a democracy: like it or not, the only voices that matter – moderate or no – are the ones with data backing them up.

  15. Eric Roston
    Just want to let you know how much I enjoyed your book “The Carbon Age”. I’ve been recommending it widely.

    For me, a layman, your explanation of the carbon cycle and how coal is carbon removed from the carbon cycle for 60 million years, till we started putting it back into the cycle in a few hundred years, really put it all in perspective. It fit what I knew intuitively, but not being a scientist, it helped to have it spelled out. I have been using it in blogs because it simply states the problem in a way that cuts through a lot of the denier nonsense, IMO. I don’t think most of the public has even heard of the carbon cycle. It’s old hat to scientists, but maybe should be emphasized more.

    How many other newspapers carry these articles by Will? I sometimes see his editorials in the San Francisco Chronicle, including ones calling all environmentalists socialist etc.
    He is syndicated, but are these articles in the Post also printed around the country? Last time I read one of his hatchet jobs in the Chronicle, I wanted to call the newspaper and encourage them to drop his column like a stone.

    Brian

    Scientists have been using the terms climate change and global warming interchangably since the late 70s. Ever hear of the Intergovernmental Panel on CLIMATE CHANGE? It was named 20 years ago. Climate change more accurately describes the effects that will be experienced from global warming. If only 1.4 F change in 100 years or so is causing arctic sea ice to melt, species migration, feeding, breeding schedules to be screwed up, ocean acidification, sea level rise and more, just from 1.4 F change, then climate change is indeed an appropriate name for it.

    “You alarmists may be hoodwinking the masses (presently)”

    It never ceases to amaze me that people think the entire world scientific community is out to hoodwink them, while they totally ignore or rationalize the fact that the biggest economic enterprise in the history of the world, with the most to lose from a clean energy transition might have the motivation to dispense propaganda and muddy the debate.(correction -continue to make it seem like there still is a debate)

    Don’t you understand that some of the same propaganda mills that were created to defend the tobacco industry claims that tobacco was safe are now used to confuse the global warming issue?
    Heartland Institute has sections for both on their website still.
    The whole strategy of creating phony astro-turf networks of organizations to give the impression of a large movement, was created by the tobacco industry and picked up on by the global warming denier crowd. They even use some of the same scientists, like witness for tobacco, Fred Singer, who also helped the chemical companies claim that CFCs didn’t deplete the ozone layer. That’s well established science, for which three people got Nobel Prizes. Singer clung to his claims even after the Montreal Protocol banned CFCs and the whole in the ozone mostly
    closed up. (CFCs haven’t been eliminated entirely and other gases contribute to the problem)

    Yes, I think you have been hoodwinked. Or does your political ideology prevent you from accepting anything that threatens it?

    I recommend this article:

    “Why Climate Denialists are Blind to Facts and Reason: The Role of Ideology” by Johnny Rook

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/5/12/143145/743/173/513430

    Your comment is typical, throw out a whole litany of arguments, as if they are all true. It’s like you think you have thought of all these factors that the thousands of scientists somehow missed in the last 30 years of research. If only they had the benefit of your wisdom. And you believe that?

  16. SLC

    Re Richard Mercer on Fred Singer

    It should also be noted that Prof. Singer denied for a long time that cigarette smoking was a cause of lung cancer.

  17. Jud

    Wayne writes: I notice in your commentary about Will’s quoting from the New York Times, you don’t actually REFUTE anything he has to say about the menace of those `climate safe’, crappy light bulbs….

    I read the article in the Times. It’s of a piece with several other anecdote-as-data pieces that have been appearing in the Times lately (not restricted to global warming). What it essentially says is that some folks who’ve bought these bulbs in the past few years have noticed some of them have given out long before their advertised life spans are over, and that manufacturers/retailers have admitted to quality control problems with early versions. This equals “uselessness”?

    I saw nothing in the Times article saying CFL bulbs were using nearly as much electricity as the incandescents they replace. Using less energy is the characteristic of CFL bulbs relevant to combating CO2 production and global warming. Thus, Will exaggerates the article’s conclusion (the article never said the bulbs were useless, just that some purchasers, particularly of early versions, were dissatisfied) in support of a point regarding global warming that the article never made. Mr. Will appears to be reaching near-O’Reilly levels of accuracy and journalistic integrity.

  18. Thanks for the update, Carl. I posted on a relevant study that attempts to show the difference between climate “noise” (decade or two) and a climate trend: http://bit.ly/dotCool .

  19. FUBECABONECA

    Your treatment of Will’s article is incorrect. He wrote that only one year in the last 10 has been warmer than 1998. This is true.

    Also, Jarrud’s letter doesn’t debunk Will’s statement. Instead it points to data trending over the last century that support the notion of global warming.

    Will isn’t a liar. Jarrud seems threatened by his pointed, factual assertions.

    Why can’t we discuss the issue for what it is? What is the best course of action for our nation to combat (or ignore) Global Warming?

    The responses to Will’s column here are emotional wastes of time.

  20. Although Will made serious mistakes, the criticism of Will is not mistake-free either. The global temperature rise of 0.74 degrees C in the past century is not what shapes policy. What shapes policy is the prediction that global warming will be much worse in the 21st century.

    While it is certainly correct that one cannot cite the coolness of 2008 compared to 2007 as proof that global warming has ended, a better question is whether the global temperature rate from 2002-2009 is a statistical anomaly, or whether global temperature rise is slowing down. If you plot data from NASA GISS or NCDC.gov, the least mean squares linear trend from 2002 to February 2009 is flat or even a little negative. Certainly below 75 degrees lattitude the trend is unmistakably cooling. So while there is little question that global average temperature is higher now than in 1900, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change believes that the rate of warming will accelerate and threaten a climate crisis in the 21st Century. This is the real crux of the matter. Is the recent data skewed because of a few La Nina events? That would be the view of the majority of climatologists. Or is seven years of contrary data long enough to establish a new trend? That would be the minority view. I DON’T THINK EITHER VIEW SHOULD BE RIDICULED. THIS IS TOO IMPORTANT TO TRIVIALIZE.

    The second point of fact is the association of polar ice coverage with global warming. If global warming is real, we might very well see a temporary INCREASE in glacier size and extent, because of the increase in snowfall that could occur with warmer temperatures. Snowfall is what feeds glaciers, not colder temperatures. This possibility I think is well understood by the IPCC, but is badly garbled up by many popular commentators. By the same token, the polar ice conditions are influenced by the thermohaline system among other things. If the Arctic ice cap regenerates itself, that does not mean that global warming is over or reversed. People need to listen to the meteorologists on this issue.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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