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The truth about global warming

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  • Mike Neuman
    Sunday, October 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:53 AM The truth about global warming By Sandi Doughton Seattle Times staff reporter John M. Wallace tried to steer
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 10, 2005
      Sunday, October 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:53 AM
      The truth about global warming
      By Sandi Doughton
      Seattle Times staff reporter

      John M. Wallace tried to steer Al Gore away from global warming.
      The year was 1994 and the vice president was convinced rising
      temperatures were responsible for recent floods in the Mississippi
      River Valley.

      He invited Wallace, a distinguished climate researcher from the
      University of Washington, to join a small group of scientists for a
      breakfast discussion in Washington, D.C.

      As Gore sipped Diet Coke, Wallace nervously left the eggs on his own
      plate untouched.

      "It was one of the more awkward audiences I've ever had," he recalled
      with a chuckle. "I was trying, in a polite way, to tell him he was
      coming on too strong about global warming."

      Like many of his peers, Wallace wasn't convinced greenhouse gases
      were altering the world's climate, and he thought Gore was straining
      scientific credibility to score political points.

      More than a decade later, Wallace still won't blame global warming
      for any specific heat wave, drought or flood — including the recent
      devastating hurricanes. But he no longer doubts the problem is real
      and the risks profound.

      "With each passing year the evidence has gotten stronger — and is
      getting stronger still."

      1995 was the hottest year on record until it was eclipsed by 1997 —
      then 1998, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Melting ice has driven Alaska
      Natives from seal-hunting areas used for generations. Glaciers around
      the globe are shrinking so rapidly many could disappear before the
      middle of the century.

      As one study after another has pointed to carbon dioxide and other
      man-made emissions as the most plausible explanation, the cautious
      community of science has embraced an idea initially dismissed as far-
      fetched. The result is a convergence of opinion rarely seen in a
      profession where attacking each other's work is part of the process.
      Every major scientific body to examine the evidence has come to the
      same conclusion: The planet is getting hotter; man is to blame; and
      it's going to get worse.

      "There's an overwhelming consensus among scientists," said UW climate
      researcher David Battisti, who also was dubious about early claims of
      greenhouse warming.

      Yet the message doesn't seem to be getting through to the public and

      Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and
      Public Works Committee, calls global warming "the greatest hoax ever
      perpetuated on the American people." Novelist Michael
      Crichton's "State of Fear" landed on the best-seller list this year
      by depicting global warming as a scare tactic of diabolical tree-
      huggers. A Gallup Poll in June found only about half of Americans
      believe the effects of global warming have already started.
      At the G8 summit of world leaders this summer, President Bush
      acknowledged man is warming the planet. But he stood alone in
      opposition to mandatory emissions controls, which he called too

      "There's a huge disconnect between what professional scientists have
      studied and learned in the last 30 years, and what is out there in
      the popular culture," said Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at the
      University of California, San Diego.

      Fuel companies contribute to that gap by supporting a small cadre of
      global-warming skeptics, whose views are widely disseminated by like-
      minded think tanks and Web sites.
      Most scientists don't know how to communicate their complex results
      to the public. Others are scared off by the shrill political debate
      over the issue. So their work goes on largely unseen, and largely
      pointing toward a warmer future.

      The consensus
      Researcher finds that 1,000 studies all point to the same conclusion
      Oreskes decided to quantify the extent of scientific agreement after
      a conversation with her hairdresser, who said she doesn't worry about
      global warming because scientists don't know what's going on.
      "That made me wonder why there's this weird public perception of
      what's been happening in climate science," Oreskes said.
      Preparing for climate change

      King County plans a one-day conference on climate change on Oct. 27
      at the Qwest Field conference center. For information:
      She analyzed 1,000 research papers on climate change selected
      randomly from those published between 1993 and 2003. The results were
      surprising: Not a single study explicitly rejected the idea that
      people are warming the planet.

      That doesn't mean there aren't any. But it does mean the number must
      be small, since none showed up in a sample that represents about 10
      percent of the body of research, Oreskes said.

      The consensus is most clearly embodied in the reports of the 100-
      nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established
      by the United Nations in 1988. Every five to six years, the panel
      evaluates the science and issues voluminous reports reviewed by more
      than 2,000 scientists and every member government, including the
      United States.

      The early reports reflected the squishy state of the science, but by
      2001, the conclusion was unequivocal: "There is new and stronger
      evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is
      attributable to human activities."

      Stunned by the strong language, the Bush administration asked the
      prestigious National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the
      international group's work. The UW's Wallace served on the academy's
      panel, which assured the president the IPCC wasn't exaggerating.
      The next IPCC report is due in 2007. Among the new evidence it will
      include are the deepest ice cores ever drilled, which show carbon-
      dioxide levels are higher now than any time in the past 650,000 years.
      In the history of science, no subject has been as meticulously
      reviewed and debated as global warming, said science historian
      Spencer Weart, author of "The Discovery of Global Warming" and
      director of the Center for History of Physics.

      "The most important thing to realize is that most scientists didn't
      originally believe in global warming," he said. "They were dragged —
      reluctant step by step — by the facts."

      A reluctant convert
      Thawing Russian deer carcasses trigger scientific inquiry
      Few were more reluctant converts than Wallace. A self-described
      weather nut who built a backyard meteorology station as a kid, he has
      spent his career trying to understand how the atmosphere behaves on a
      grand scale. By analyzing a decade of global climate records, Wallace
      was among the first to recognize El Niño's effects in the Pacific

      He was recruited to the UW's fledgling meteorology program in 1966
      and has helped build it into one of the world's top centers for
      atmospheric and ocean research.

      His first foray into climate change came in the early 1990s after
      Russian friends told him deer carcasses stored in their "Siberian
      freezer" — the porch — were thawing out.

      Some scientists blamed global warming. Wallace examined the
      meteorological records and concluded natural wind shifts were blowing
      milder ocean air across the land.

      He briefly thought he had debunked global warming.

      Then he realized winds could account for only a small fraction of the
      warming in the planet's northernmost reaches, where average
      temperatures have now risen between 5 and 8 degrees in the past 50

      "It was an evolution in my thinking," said Wallace, 64. "Like it or
      not, I could see global warming was going to become quite a big

      That's pretty much how the science of global warming has progressed.
      Researchers skeptical of the idea have suggested alternative causes
      for rising temperatures and carbon-dioxide levels. They've theorized
      about natural forces that might mitigate the effects of greenhouse
      gases. But no one has been able to explain it away.

      "You would need to develop a Rube Goldberg-type of argument to say
      climate is not changing because of increasing carbon dioxide," said
      Battisti, 49, who directs the UW's Earth Initiative to apply science
      to environmental problems.

      Global average air temperatures have risen about 1.2 degrees over the
      past century. The warming is also apparent in the oceans, in
      boreholes sunk deep in the ground, in thawing tundra and vanishing

      Earth's climate has swung from steamy to icy many times in the past,
      but scientists believe they know what triggered many of those
      fluctuations. Erupting volcanoes and slow ocean upwelling release
      carbon dioxide, which leads to warming. Mountain uplifting and
      continental drift expose new rock, which absorbs carbon dioxide and
      causes cooling. Periodic wobbles in the planet's orbit reduce
      sunlight and set off a feedback loop that results in ice ages.
      All of those shifts happened over tens of thousands of years — and
      science shows none of them is happening now.

      Instead, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are increasing at a
      rate that precisely tracks man's automotive and industrial emissions.
      "The process is 1,000 times faster than nature can do it," Battisti

      Climate reconstructions show that average global temperatures for the
      past 2 million years have never been more than 2 to 4 degrees higher
      than now. That means if greenhouse emissions continued unchecked,
      temperatures would likely be higher by the end of the century than
      any time since the human species evolved.

      Skeptics often dominate discussion
      Geochemist bridges the gap between science and popular perception
      Eric Steig looks for answers about global warming in some of the
      Earth's most frigid spots. His walk-in freezers at the University of
      Washington are stacked with boxed ice cores from Antarctica and
      Greenland kept so cold he wears a parka and gloves to retrieve them.
      Steig, a geochemist, analyzes air bubbles and isotopes in the ice to
      reconstruct past temperatures and carbon-dioxide levels. He planned a
      career in physics until an undergraduate field project on the Juneau
      glacier fields kindled his passion for snow and ice.

      At 39, he belongs to a generation of climate researchers more open to
      global warming than the older guard, including Wallace and Battisti.
      Steig is also more frustrated by the way a handful of skeptics has
      dominated public debate.

      "Many of us have felt our voices are drowned out by the very well-
      funded industry viewpoint."

      He and several colleagues set out this year to bridge the gap between
      science and popular perception with a Web log called RealClimate.org.
      Researchers communicate directly with the public and debunk what they
      see as misinformation and misconceptions. By giving equal coverage to
      skeptics on the fringe of legitimate science, journalists fuel the
      perception that the field is racked with disagreement.

      "You get the impression it's 50-50, when it's really 99-to-1," Steig

      Over the past decade, coal and oil interests have funneled more than
      $1 million to about a dozen individual global-warming skeptics as
      part of an effort to "reposition global warming as theory rather than
      fact," according to industry memos first uncovered by former Boston
      Globe journalist Ross Gelbspan.

      From 2001 to 2003, Exxon Mobile donated more than $6.5 million to
      organizations that attack mainstream climate science and oppose
      greenhouse-gas controls. These think tanks and advocacy groups issue
      reports, sponsor briefings and maintain Web sites that reach a far
      wider audience than scholarly climate journals.

      Of course, there's nothing wrong with business questioning whether
      global-warming science justifies actions that may have profound
      economic impacts. And science can't advance without an open exchange
      of ideas.

      But climate researchers say skeptics are recycling discredited
      arguments or selectively using data to make points. And as Oreskes
      showed, few skeptics publish in peer-reviewed journals, which check
      for accuracy and omissions.

      Industry funds some skeptics
      An Oregon climatologist finds a niche challenging global-warming

      Oregon State Climatologist George Taylor is a featured author on the
      Web site Tech Central Station, funded by Exxon and other corporations
      and described as the place where "free markets meet technology."

      He has a master's degree in meteorology and runs a state office based
      at Oregon State University that compiles weather data and supplies it
      to policy- makers, farmers and other customers.

      Taylor is not a member of OSU's academic faculty and has no published
      research on Arctic climate, but Sen. Inhofe cited Taylor's claim that
      Arctic temperatures were much warmer in the 1930s as proof global
      warming is bogus.

      James Overland, a Seattle-based oceanographer who has studied the
      Arctic for nearly 40 years, analyzed temperatures across a wider area
      than Taylor. His conclusion: The 1930s were warm — but the 1990s were
      warmer. Two other peer-reviewed analyses agree.

      Even more significant, Overland found the 1930s warming was typical
      of natural climate variation: Siberia might be warm one year and
      normal the next, while another part of the Arctic experienced unusual
      heat. Now there's persistent warming everywhere.

      Taylor said in an e-mail that Tech Central Station paid him $500 for
      global-warming articles. United for Jobs, an industry coalition that
      opposes higher fuel-efficiency standards and greenhouse-gas limits,
      also paid Taylor and a co-author $4,000 for an article published on
      Tech Central Station.

      Mainstream climate scientists, including Wallace, Steig and Battisti,
      generally get their research money from the federal government.
      That doesn't make them immune from bias, said Patrick Michaels, one
      of the most widely quoted global-warming skeptics. Exaggerating the
      dangers of climate change can ensure a steady stream of money.
      "Global warming competes with cancer and competes with AIDS for a
      finite amount of money," said Michaels, a University of Virginia
      climatologist and fellow of the libertarian Cato Institute. "Nobody
      ever won that fight by saying: My issue isn't important."

      Michaels has received more than $165,000 in fuel-industry funding,
      including money from the coal industry to publish his own climate

      Skeptics portray themselves as Davids versus the Goliath of organized
      science, which is always resistant to new ideas. But global warming
      is the new idea, said Oreskes. Skeptics, she said, represent the old
      school of thought — that climate is so stable man could never tip it
      out of whack.

      Climate models debated
      But scientists say the uncertainty lies only in how much warming to

      Battisti planned to run his grandparents' dairy farm in upstate New
      York until a persistent professor nudged him toward science. A study
      on beach formation got him excited about hands-on oceanography, then
      he switched to atmospheric sciences in graduate school.

      He has analyzed some of the more cataclysmic climate-change
      scenarios, including the sudden shift depicted in the movie "The Day
      After Tomorrow," and concluded they're highly unlikely.
      These days, Battisti ponders the Eocene, a period 35 million to 50
      million years ago when alligators lived near the Arctic Circle and
      palm trees grew in Wyoming.

      The world was hot because carbon-dioxide levels were three to five
      times higher than today — the result of a gradual buildup from
      volcanic eruptions. But global-climate computer models, which use
      mathematical formulas to represent complex atmospheric interactions,
      aren't able to reproduce that warming. When Battisti runs the models
      under Eocene-like conditions, they come up with much lower
      temperatures than actually existed — which means something was going
      on that scientists don't yet understand.

      Models have improved greatly in the past 30 years but still can't
      anticipate all the ways the atmosphere will respond as greenhouse
      gases climb. The dozen models in use today predict average
      temperature increases of 3 to 11 degrees by the end of the century.
      Though the numbers sound modest, it took only a 10-degree drop to
      encase much of North America in mile-deep glaciers during the ice age
      that ended about 12,000 years ago.

      Skeptics point to uncertainties in the models and conclude the actual
      temperature changes will be lower than the predictions. Battisti
      points to the Eocene and warns that unknown factors could just as
      easily make things worse.

      Could the skeptics be right, and the majority of the world's experts

      The history of science shows consensus doesn't guarantee success. The
      collective wisdom of the early 1900s declared continental drift bunk.
      Some Nobel laureates attacked Einstein's theory of relativity.
      Those blunders occurred when science was less sophisticated and
      connected than it is now, said Weart, the historian. With the
      unprecedented study devoted to climate change, the odds that this
      consensus is wrong are slim, he added.

      "The fact that so many scientists think it's likely a truck is
      heading for us means that the last thing we want to do is close our
      eyes and lie down in the road."
      Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491

      Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company
      Sunday, October 9, 2005 - 12:00 AM

      Mike Fancher
      Finding agreement about global warming

      Global warming is a hot-button issue, and today's special report on
      the subject is likely to be inflammatory for some readers.

      Titled "The truth about global warming," the report concludes
      that "scientists overwhelming agree: the Earth is getting warmer at
      an alarming pace, and humans are the cause — no matter what the
      skeptics say." Even Sandi Doughton, who wrote the story, would have
      been surprised by that statement just a year ago. In fact, she was.

      At a forum for science writers last year, several speakers involved
      with climate science complained that skeptics of global warming get
      equal treatment in news coverage, as if scientists are hopelessly
      divided on the question. The speakers insisted they are not.

      "It was news to me. I had no idea," Doughton recalls. She had covered
      the topic casually but had the impression that scientists disagreed
      about global warming. She chatted with friends who had the same
      impression, including the assumption that nothing could be done. Most
      said, "I don't even want to think about it."
      Doughton, who has been a science writer for The Seattle Times since
      early 2004, set out to explore the position of the forum speakers. "I
      didn't accept it at face value as I went into the story," she said,
      but it wasn't long before she concluded the speakers were right.
      Her story states flatly, "Every major scientific body to examine the
      evidence has come to the same conclusion: The planet is getting
      hotter; man is to blame; and it's going to get worse."
      She said the story tries to lay out for people what the consensus is
      within the scientific community and how it was reached. "This story
      only goes as far as the scientific conclusion is solid," she said.
      The consensus accumulated gradually over 50 years and has built on
      itself very carefully. A science historian is quoted as saying that
      most scientists didn't originally believe global warming could become
      a serious problem but were gradually convinced by the facts.
      Doughton said scientists live by attacking each other's ideas and
      looking for the weaknesses and flaws, and the consensus about global
      warming "has stood up to that scrutiny." It has gotten stronger in
      recent years, as climate science has gotten more sophisticated and
      there has been better sharing of global information.
      Much of the evidence for global warming is presented in a stunning
      full page of charts and graphs that were researched by Doughton and
      Whitney Stensrud and Kristopher Lee of The Times' news-presentation
      department. Richard Wagoner, who edited today's report, said the full-
      page graphic was the most effective way to lay out the evidence that
      supports the scientific consensus.
      Doughton's story also examines the forces behind the perception that
      science is divided about global warming. Among those are small groups
      of dissenters whose views have been amplified through Web sites,
      politics and the media. "There is a lot of misinformation out there,"
      she said.

      The media contribute by trying to balance stories with conflicting
      views, even if those views don't have equal weight scientifically.
      Editor Wagoner makes the point that balanced isn't fair if it is
      misleading about the facts.

      "The people who are the experts on this subject are telling us the
      problem is real. I just have to respect their expertise," he said.
      Doughton examined various arguments of the skeptics and
      concluded, "There's practically nothing there." She said nearly all
      of the points raised by skeptics have been discredited and discarded
      by mainstream scientists. Readers who question that should pay close
      attention to the stories labeled "Setting the record straight."

      Today's report steers clear of what to do about global warming, but
      Wagoner thinks the continuing debate about the science of global
      warming slows possible progress toward solutions. "It would be better
      to debate those questions more vigorously, rather than keep fighting
      over the science."
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