Climate pushback #1, from Al Gore's office and others


I will try to do this in two omnibus posts, rather than opening up a running weeks-long discourse. After all, that treatment is reserved for frogs,  the China Daily, "starchitecture," and similar topics, of which there is more in the pipeline.

But in response to two recent items, here and here, on how to think about climate change, I have received a ton of email, all in one mode: ie, telling me I am wrong.

The original reason I raised the topic was that I'd seen the latest entry in George Will's ongoing series on why global warming is a myth. In response, I mentioned a book by a UC Berkeley physicist about how to assess the evidence on climate change, and why the problem was indeed worth worrying about, if not for the reasons most often discussed.

My correspondents barely bothered to deal with Will. They were instead upset about the physicist, Richard Muller, and by extension me for being too complacent about climate-change evidence -- and too critical of those (including Al Gore) who had warned about it most prominently.

Below and after the jump, representative samples of this view. Later tonight, I'll put up a few more messages, and the appropriate meta-thoughts on my part. Unless I hear from Muller, or something else occurs, that will be it for now -- simply because I am well aware that detailed argument over studies, policies, and implications already occupies many sites full time. (For instance, this and this, with different perspectives.)

First up, Joseph Romm, of the Climate Progress site and the book Hell and High Water, whom I have known for years. Because he wrote me privately, I won't go into his views of my judgment or Muller's. But here are the references he thinks people should instead read:

-Romm has written two critiques of Muller's book, here and here.

-According to Romm, "The 'hockey stick,' was essentially vindicated by the National Academy of Sciences, and it is almost certainly correct." Cite here.
- "Gore's essential argument is correct and other than a very few technical quibbling with word choice, pretty every one on his major carefully crafted statements is accurate.  His Nobel Prize will, sadly, be vindicated by history." [Note from JF: 'An Inconvenient Truth' also included a particularly egregious display of boiled-frog madness, which maybe we will assign to the realm of "technical quibbling with word choice." Ie, if he had said, "if you remove a frog's brain and put him in a top of tepid water, then gradually raise the temperature..." he'd be square with the scientists.]
- About Antarctica: "The fact that the models have underestimated the timing and speed of ice loss in Antarctica is not an argument for questioning climate science or claiming the models have been debunked. Cites here and here.Quite the reverse, it is part of a standard critique I offer that the situation is considerably worse than the IPCC states, because their models missed most of the actual feedbacks. Source here.

Next, from reader P.J.

" rarely seem uncritically to pass along information from a source, especially one that may not be in the best position to objectively frame the issue. So it was with some surprise to see your column, ostensibly dealing George Will's latest misdirection on climate change, uncritically repeat Dr. Muller's incredibly one-sided (one might say cherry-picked) presentation of the so-called "hockey stick" issue, Hurricane Katrina, etc.

The paleoclimatic reconstruction of Northern Hemisphere temperatures over the past millennium showing some variability but an overall lower, relatively flat trend is a robust finding backed by numerous studies that have nothing to do with the statistical criticisms leveled at the 1998 Mann et al. paper. Whatever the methodological problems of that paper, its overall conclusion is not something that was in jeopardy, as the supporting evidence simply does not rest upon a single analysis by a single paper.

I would also be interested to see Dr. Muller's evidence of claims of direct attribution of Hurricane Katrina to anthropogenic warming by any credible scientist. That wouldn't be a strawman he's tilting at it, would it? Katrina was widely cited of an example of how nations could be vulnerable to changes in climate, but that's hardly what Dr. Muller rails against. His assertion that "After Katrina, many... scientists warned that this was the beginning of a period of terrible damage from more hurricanes" which he subsequently "debunks" by citing the lack of a hurricane making landfall in the US in 2006 is as unsupported as it is itself cherry picking. I'm similarly flummoxed by his claim of "distortion" in discussing the state of Antarctica relative to anthropogenic warming, modeling results, and how the two are both in contradiction and yet reported as not. I don't have a copy of Dr. Muller's book on hand, but from what I can read through Google Books, it looks as though Dr. Muller is engaging in many of the tactics he attributes to those allegedly misleading the public about climate change. This is not to say that misleading never occurs, but rather that if one is going to bother making such claims, one should probably make sure they are based on solid footing....
From one of Muller's fellow faculty members at UC Berkeley:
 Although I generally agree with Prof. Muller, and I have enjoyed the parts of his book that I have read, I would take him with a grain of salt.

He is by no means the most authoritative research on climate change available, even on the Berkeley campus. Like Al Gore, he has now become a popularizer, and that task has inherent risks, as Muller himself is aware.

I provide below some links to more background on the issue of Michael Mann's hockey stick. Muller's point (at least in the reference you cite) is one that, like many statistics instructors, I stressed back when I taught at Berkeley as a grad student--correlation does not imply causation. [The links are here and here.]

However, I think it is a pretty safe assumption that the rise in green house gases since the beginning of the industrial revolution is forcing climate change, and that change that may prove to have devastating consequences. [Note from JF: Nothing in Muller's book seems at odds with this last sentence.]

Finally, a representative of Al Gore's office in Tennessee wrote to object that I had not contacted them before quoting a passage from Muller's book critical of Inconvenient Truth -- and to clarify the origin of the much-debated "hockey stick" chart used in that book and movie. The version of that chart that has been most heavily questioned, including by Muller, is from a scientist whose name I'll leave out right now, since I'm not going to the trouble of contacting him at the moment. According to Al Gore's representative:
The graph that former Vice President Gore refers to in An Inconvenient Truth (which you can verify on pages 63, 64 and 65) was produced by Dr. Lonnie Thompson, one of the country's top glaciologists, not the image that you published in your article...I'd urge you to speak with Dr. Thompson--he was awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush in 2007--our nation's highest honor for science.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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