The Magazine

Scenes from the Climate Inquisition

The chilling effect of the global warming consensus.

Feb 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 22 • By KENNETH P. GREEN and STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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North declined our invitation on account of an already full schedule. Schroeder shared our letter with one of his Texas A&M colleagues, atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler. Dessler posted our complete letter on his blog in late July, along with some critical but largely fair-minded comments, including: "While one might be skeptical that the AEI will give the [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report] a fair hearing, the fact that they have solicited input from a credible and mainstream scientist like Jerry North suggests to me that I should not prejudge their effort."

Dessler's story was linked on another popular environmental blog (www.grist.org), after which someone in the environmental advocacy community (the Washington Post suggests it was Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Group) picked up the story and tried to plant it, with a sinister spin, somewhere in the media. Several reporters looked into it--including one from a major broadcast network who spent half a day talking with us in November about the substance of our climate views--but reached the conclusion that there was no story here. In particular, AEI's recent book Strategic Options for Bush Administration Climate Policy, advocating a carbon tax and criticizing Bush administration climate policy, clearly didn't fit the "Big Oil lobby corrupts science" story line.

So instead, the story was taken overseas and peddled to the Guardian, which, like some of its British competitors, has a history of publishing environmentalist hype as news. (In December, Guardian columnist George Monbiot offered the view that "every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.") Add a Matt Drudge link and a credulous recycling of the story by NPR's "Morning Edition," and a full-scale media frenzy was on. Even Al Gore jumped on the bandwagon, calling us "unethical" in an appearance in Silicon Valley and a CNN interview.

We were deluged with calls, but--unlike the reporters who had looked at the story last fall--none of our interrogators last week evinced any interest in the substance of our views on climate change science or policy, nor did any news story that we have seen accurately report the figures we supplied regarding ExxonMobil's share of AEI's funding.

The Guardian story, it should be noted, appeared the very day the IPCC released its new summary on the science of climate change. This was a transparent attempt to discredit an anticipated AEI blast at the IPCC. But no such blast was ever in the offing. As our letter to Schroeder makes clear, our project was not expected to produce any published results until some time in 2008, long after the headlines about the IPCC report would have faded.

Meanwhile, the IPCC's release of a 21-page summary of its work a full three months before the complete 1,400-page report is due to be published is exactly the kind of maneuver that raises questions about the politicization of the IPCC process. Why the delay? In the past, official summaries of IPCC reports have sometimes overstated the consensus of scientific opinion revealed later in the fine print (though, to be fair, it is more often the media and advocacy groups that misrepresent findings or omit the IPCC's caveats and declarations of uncertainty on key points). Is the full report going to be rewritten to square more closely with the summary? The Scientific Alliance in Cambridge, England, noted that it is "an unusual step to publish the summary of a document that has not yet been finalized and released into the public domain."

One possible reason for the timing is that there appear to be some significant retreats from the 2001 IPCC report. The IPCC has actually lowered its estimate of the magnitude of human influence on warming, though we shall have to wait for the full report in May to understand how and why. Only readers with detailed knowledge of the 2001 report would notice these changes, which is why most news accounts failed to report them.

This reining-in has led some climate pessimists to express disappointment with the new summary. Environmental writer Joseph Romm, for example, complained about "the conservative edge to the final product." Which returns us to our starting point.