Friday, February 27, 2009

George Will Just Doesn't Get It

Last week, George Will published a column on global warming in which he got a few facts wrong. Today, rather than admit any mistakes, Will published a follow-up in which he tried to defend his earlier column, which has been roundly criticized.

One of the things you have to admire about America's over lawyered culture is that no one admits a mistake! Make an error, then go on the offensive.

Speaking of offensive, Will is still quite wrong.

His basic beef on global warming seems to be that in the 1970's a number of media outlets were promoting headlines proclaiming global cooling. He particularly likes to pick on the New York Times.

So his point is that the media are a bunch of hypocrites. But the stories in the 1970's were not accompanied by the kinds of data that animate today's stories. There was no International Panel on Climate Change in the 1970's putting out detailed, consensus reports on global cooling. Instead, the media was, unfortunately, giving play to the types of junk science crackpots you find in any scientific field these days--and who appear to be working with the George Will's of the world today.

Will's secondary point is to isolate a few snippets of data about global climate change to raise doubt about the issue. This is a classic tactic in any scientific "debate"--it was the bread and butter of the Tobacco Institue in its heydey, a playbook copied often since then.

Here's where Will got particularly hung up: citing data from the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, Will stated that "the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began." That part may well be true--it's also irrelevant. The reason for the large increase in sea ice this current winter is because the summer sea ice has gotten so small in past couple of years that when it rebounds in the winter, the increase is larger.

That hardly means there isn't warming. There will always be Arctic ice in the winter, when there is no sunlight for weeks on end at the North Pole. It appears, however, that the ice forming this winter, and in recent winters, is thinner, more fragile ice, more likely to melt in the summer.

Will also stated that Arctic sea ice this winter was at the same extent as it was in 1979. That was not correct. It is about 3% smaller. Now Will is trying to argue that the 3% difference is really so neglible that he was right. While he's wrong, it again doesn't really matter. You can't just pick one year out of the past and compare it to this year. The data is far more robust.

We urge readers to take a look at the following two charts, from the Climate Research Center. The first (actually, the one on the bottom--it's always hard to get Blogger to display them the way you want) shows the extent of Arctic sea ice over the past 365 days. The bottom of the chart shows the anomaly from the mean extent of ice from 1979-2000, i.e, whether there is more or less ice this year than in a typical year during that period.

What you see is that by as late as mid-October, 2008, Arctic sea ice was 2 million square kilometers below the mean. That's a lot of square kilometers and represents about a forty percent reduction in sea ice compared to the mean.

Then, in mid-October, ice finally started growing again. From mid-October to mid-November, the ice grew at a phenomenal rate, almost making up the 2 million square km deficit. So that was a very rapid expansion of ice, but so what. Since then, the ice has formed at about its average rate, but still well below the mean. The big question is what will happen this summer? It looks like the ice has pretty much reached its seasonal peak--below that of last year and nearly 1 million square km below the mean--and is poised for another significant decline.

The second chart below is more instructive, because it shows the long term trends, and thus eliminate peaks and valleys and irrelevant arguments over comparing one particular year to another. What you see, quite unmistakably, is that since 1950 the extent of Arctic sea ice has been declining, with the decline accelerating precipitously in the past few years.

Now maybe that's not from manmade activity--there could be other explanations. But to deny that it is taking place--which is what Will would have his readers believe with his selective citation of data--simply defies fact.

There are some decent arguments to be made against the case for manmade global warming. But George Will appears ignorant of them. As usual, he's just being a conservative blow-hard.

No comments: