Sunday, May 28, 2006

Skeptics on Global Warming

Skepticism about global warming has come to the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. When I first saw the headline and teaser, I was afraid that the skeptics would be airbrushed and thrown softball questions. Then I saw that the author was Joel Achenbach, and I was confident that the position would get the treatment it deserves. (I have to say, sending Gene Weingarten after them might have been more appropriate.)

On Bill Gray:

"I am of the opinion that this is one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people," he says when I visit him in his office on a sunny spring afternoon.

He has testified about this to the United States Senate. He has written magazine articles, given speeches, done everything he could to get the message out. His scientific position relies heavily on what is known as the Argument From Authority. He's the authority.

Achenbach spends relatively little time on the evidence for warming trends and the possible results of climate change. It is really not his strength - which he acknowledges. Rather he looks at the ways skeptics, heavily funded by energy industries and backed by powerful politicians, make their case. They rely in part, on journalists' dependence on expertise to cover their own lack of knowledge. Consulting experts and looking for alternative interpretations can lead to confusing results.

Climate change is generating headlines almost daily -- (e.g., "Peril to Walrus Young Seen As Result of Melting Ice Shelf") -- but it is also abstruse in its specifics, so journalists rely on "experts" to tell them where the truth lies. Someone like Bill Gray seems to be a fully credentialed authority figure. But when you press him on his theory of how thermohaline circulation has caused recent warming of the planet and will soon cause cooling, he concedes that he hasn't published the idea in any peer-reviewed journal. He's working on it, he says.

The Web site Real Climate, run by a loose group of climate scientists, recently published a detailed refutation of Gray's theory, saying his claims about the ocean circulation lack evidence. The Web site criticized Gray for not adapting to the modern era of meteorology, "which demands hypotheses soundly grounded in quantitative and consistent physical formulations, not seat-of-the-pants flying."

The article is long, but worth a look. Achenbach introduces a lot of characters and gives their background information. He also has some useful comments on the state of discourse, specifically with regard to climate change, but with broader application. On important questions there is a tendency to divide into bitterly opposed camps with inflamed rhetoric, such as the Hitler and Nazi comparisons that get thrown around without consideration. Such rhetoric makes evaluation of the facts and progress towards a solution more difficult. In the end that harms everyone, believers and skeptics alike.