The truth about global warming
- 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
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
"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
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.
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
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
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
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,"
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."