WSJ columnist rejects climate criticism

March 2, 2009

The following guest blog is by Holman Jenkins, a Wall Street Journal columnist and member of the WSJ editorial board, in response to a blog (here) by Stuart Gaffin, a climate researcher at Columbia University who is a regular contributor to these pages. Thomson Reuters is not responsible for the content — the views are the author’s alone.

By Holman Jenkins

Several of my emailers in response to my WSJ column were also perplexed what I meant when I wrote that climate science has managed to yield on the most important issue -– namely mankind’s actual impact on the climate — only a “negative finding.” In fact, clarification appears in the next sentence: Science hasn’t been able to how “an increase in the atmosphere’s component of CO2 is impacting our climate, though the most plausible indication is that the impact is too small to untangle from natural variability.”

I use “science” here to mean what most people mean by science: systematic study of the world in hopes of drawing reliable conclusions. I use “climate” the way everyone uses “climate.” Mr. Gaffin seems to read “climate” as “atmosphere” and my statement as suggesting we know nothing of any kind about how the atmosphere might behave in response to rising CO2 levels. But that’s not what I said. I’m talking about what everyone actually cares about, whether the net result is a warming climate that will continue to warm in detriment to the presumed interests of humanity.

I don’t need to rehearse how much of current claims about a human contribution to warming are based on climate models. Many scientists have pursued actual empirical results (i.e. from the world, not from computer models) to show the human contribution, but results have been maddeningly elusive or indeterminate. Speaking for myself, that’s information I would very much like to have — I would not impose large, costly adjustments on society based simply on predictions of computer simulations created by scientists eager to affirm their intuitions about climate and CO2.

But there’s no satisfying people like Mr. Gaffin that skepticism is not a willful resistance to their metaphysical certainty. Here we verge on the real source of my dissatisfaction with, and even distrust of, many of the self-appointed spokesmen for climate science, who seem to be engaged in a collective exercise of begging the most important questions.

Mr. Gaffin cites some (uncited) authority that “current research [has] concluded with 90% confidence that current warming is due to human activities.” I assume he’s referring to the UN’s IPCC, but he doesn’t say. Those double “currents” are peculiar as well -– since warming is “currently” not taking place by the most relied-upon temperature records (i.e. current research). I suppose, though, he can define “current” however he wants.

But here’s my larger gripe: How much more useful it would be if climate scientists could say (for instance) that the warming experienced in the 20th century coincided in systematic fashion with rising man-made CO2 levels and is unprecedented in the behavior of earth’s climate. How much more helpful if they could show that past climate history yields strong evidence that previous warming episodes were caused by rising CO2 levels.

How much more helpful if they could say this or that particular feature of climate warming accords precisely with what is known about CO2’s behavior in the atmosphere and is inconceivable in the absence of rising CO2.

That Mr. Gaffin instead relies on unnamed authorities supplying faux-certain probabilities that a factual proposition is true is an example of everything wrong with much public presentation of climate science (and richly ironic since Mr. Gaffin’s whole objection to my column is that it  expresses uncertainty about the human role in climate change.)

In a pedantic quibble, Mr. Gaffin also complains that I refer to mankind’s contribution to rising CO2 levels. To be as pedantic as Mr. Gaffin but more accurate, “contribution” allows for a human contribution in a range of 0% to 100%. More importantly, presumably he knows that the atmosphere isn’t a sealed container and that the oceans, volcanoes and biosphere all play a role in CO2 levels.


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Mr Jenkins,

You ask,
“How much more useful it would be if climate scientists could say (for instance) that the warming experienced in the 20th century coincided in systematic fashion with rising man-made CO2 levels and is unprecedented in the behavior of earth’s climate.”

This has been said and proven. There is no question about the statistics – CO2 levels have increased to an unprecedented level in mankind’s history during the past century and global temperatures have followed that same upward trend. There are large amounts of historical and proxy data available which shows the variability of our climate over the past 600,000 years and the matching variations in CO2 levels – only once in that time have CO2 levels approached 300 ppm whilst global temperatures were never as high as they are today.
I suggest you get hold of a copy of Dr Ian Stewart’s documentary called “The Climate Wars”, produced by the BBC. In this 3 part documentary he shows beyond any doubt how CO2 is aiding in the increase of global warming.

Posted by Patrick Jones | Report as abusive

Mr. Jones,

I have no intention to radically alter my life based on “proxy data”. Lobotomies once had the blessing of the same group of learned folks.

“Science” is the most dangerous cult of all. What else would you call something capable of producing followers so rock-headed that they stand in a foot of snow crying about a “warming trend”?

Posted by LovingMySUV | Report as abusive

Leave aside, for just a moment, the whole debate over CO2.

Now consider, the OTHER impacts of burning coal and oil: air pollution, oil spills and spills of coal waste.

Air pollution from fossil fuels — from coal-fired power plants to dirty cars and trucks — is linked to thousands of premature deaths from heart disease and cancer, not to mention other health impacts such as asthma, birth defects, and respiratory problems.

Now add in the problem of energy security for oil: The US sends hundreds of billions of dollars abroad, a portion of which go to hostile regimes, and the price volatility of oil and natural gas put as at the mercy of foreign nations.

Looking only at these impacts, should we move as quickly as is possible to cleaner sources of energy?

The fact is that the clime “skeptics” are almost all funded by big oil or propelled by narrow-minded ideologies.

If you look at the security and health impacts of fossil fuels alone, you would have to be an idiot to want to continue to power society by burning carbon.

Posted by EcoLA | Report as abusive

People once believed the Earth is flat,too – but the cult followers proved them wrong.

Using many words, Mr. Jenkins says very little. He did say, however, that he would hate to impose large, costly adjustments to human society (the global economy)based on computer models…did he mean like the “financial instruments” used by Wall Street, the hedge funds and the banking industry that have caused a global financial and economic collapse?

How could 7 billion breeding, CO2-exhaling humans possibly have an effect on the climate? Mr. Jenkins represents those interests in America that don’t want to make any sacrifices. This is another spinjob geared toward the emotional, short-term memory crowd. How dare anyone suggest that we curb our gluttonous ways! Non-renewable resources like air, water, and the rest of the biosphere are ours to exploit and deplete – just ask LovingMySUV. This carbon dioxide business just doesn’t gel with neo-classical economic theory.

The last time CO2 levels were this high there were no humans on earth. With the current birth rate there will likely be 12 billion people on this planet by 2050. That requires basic math skills to calculate that drastic CO2 cuts must be made…but alas – Americans are suffering from a loss in Math and Science skills.

Not to worry – maybe that asteroid that missed Earth by 41,000 miles this morning will get us on one of it’s next orbits.

Posted by Ginger Dennis | Report as abusive

Investment, investment, investment…. This principle is lacking in our nation when it comes to education, manufacturing, sustainable resource development, science and research. We have no problem however investing in a failed financial system, and Empire. We put our leaders in charge. According to Locke, Jefferson and the Constitution we can remove them.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive