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3 May 1999

The Howler epilogue: A global warning

Synopsis: We checked with the expert Ben Wattenberg cited. You can probably guess what came next.

Gore in the political balance
Ben Wattenberg, The Washington Times, 4/15/99

A common-sense climate index: Is climate changing noticeably?
James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Jay Glascoe, and Reto Ruedy, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 4/98

Climate Change and the Oil Industry
James Hansen, 10/98


When last we encountered overheated Ben Wattenberg, he was slamming Gore for a book which Gore hadn’t written (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/99). And we were asking you, once again: Could college freshmen possibly get by with work like we find in the press?

But before he launched his odd diversion, Wattenberg said this about Gore--and about a scientist who played a key role in Gore’s Senate hearings on warming:

WATTENBERG: Mr. Gore likes to point out that “the scientific argument about global warming is settled.” Non-warmist scientists are said to practice “junk science”...

But, [Bob] Zelnick writes, what about James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies? He was a key witness in Mr. Gore’s 1988 Senate subcommittee hearings, testifying he was “99 percent certain” that global temperatures had increased. But in a 1998 National Academy of Sciences paper, Mr. Hansen pulled back, writing: “The growth rate of greenhouse gas peaked in the late 1970s...and has declined since then.”

That isn’t exactly what Hansen wrote, but it’s close enough for the permissive Times. And Wattenberg’s gist is clear. He suggests that the scientific argument isn’t settled, now that Hansen has “pulled back” from his ’88 statement. And he suggests that Hansen no longer is sure that “global temperatures have increased,” or is a “warmist scientist.”

It’s not that we ever lacked confidence in Wattenberg, but with pundits, we read, then we verify. After all, in the rush to write 800 words every week, a pundit can’t check every fact. And so the analysts got busy, after Wattenberg’s column, attempting to learn what Hansen does think. In the process, we may have learned a valuable lesson about the way that the press corps does warming.

We’ve already noted, on April 27, that Wattenberg’s quoted passage doesn’t make internal sense. If the growth rate of greenhouse gas has declined, then it follows that greenhouse gas is still growing; indeed, nothing about Hansen’s 1998 statement seems to contradict what he said ten years earlier. But beyond that, no one who reviews the article Wattenberg cites would think that Hansen is now a skeptic on warming. Indeed, here is the opening paragraph of the short summary of Hansen’s 1998 article:

HANSEN (4/98): At most places in the world the climate index, a composite of climate indicators noticed by people, has changed in the sense expected for global warming. In certain areas, mainly in Asia and Alaska, the index has reached a value such that climate change should be apparent to local residents. If global warming proceeds according to our climate model projections, there should be a large increase of the area with obvious climate change during the next several years.

It didn’t sound like debunking to us, but we wanted to be more certain. We threw ourselves into Hansen’s full text. Here’s part of paragraphs 3 and 4:

HANSEN (4/98): Our present paper does not concern scientific detection of human influence on climate, which we believe is already in hand. But the practical detection issue is this: when will global warming be large enough to be obvious to most people? Until then, it may be difficult to achieve consensus on actions to limit climate change.

By now, the analysts were getting angry again, suspecting they’d been fooled once more. We explored a forum (on “Climate Change and the Oil Industry”) in which Hansen took part last October. Sure enough, there he was, offering this assessment:

HANSEN (10/98): So, the question is, what is the bottom line? What is the implication for fossil fuel and the fossil fuel industry? I think that this summary paragraph from our paper two decades ago is still valid. But the evidence of global warming has become a lot stronger, and I think it’s going to be more obvious to more people soon...I think that actions are, in fact, called for now.

Indeed, in a private letter to THE DAILY HOWLER last week, Hansen told us this: “It is clear that the Earth is getting warmer and GHGs are surely the main reason--but we don’t have the data to understand the whole picture. Common sense steps to slow down the experiment make sense, but we don’t know enough to recommend steps with big economic costs, which may not be necessary if we take the common sense steps.”

Of course, if spinners like Wattenberg get their way--and the larger press corps never speaks up--those common sense steps may never be taken. And reasoned debate, in the coming campaign, could give way to a lot of hot air. So that’s why we offer a global warning, against believing facile spin from these types. There’s a whole lot of hoo-hah floating around concerning Gore and global warming. And we hope that the press corps will get off its duffs, and bring some clarity to the whole sorry mess.


Visit our incomparable archives: Enjoy each part of our series on Earth in the Balance:

THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/27/99: Ben Wattenberg took a novel approach to He critiqued a book Gore hadn’t written!

THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/28/99: Repeatedly, Bob Zelnick’s account of Earth contradicts the book’s plain text.

THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/29/99: The pundits bask in their studied ignorance of the state of internal combustion.

THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/30/99: Tucker Carlson couldn’t find a quote that was silly enough. So he made one a little bit better.


The man just never stops: On April 30, Al Kamen reported the latest buffoonery from ol’ reliable, RNC chairman Jim Nicholson:

KAMEN: Speaking of Gore, he came in for scathing special mention throughout a recent fund-raising letter to Republicans from GOP party chief Jim Nicholson...Nicholson said that “unlike Clinton (who is liberal but pragmatic), Gore is an ideologue who believes the internal combustible engine (i.e., the automobile) is the earth’s greatest enemy.”

Kamen mocks Nicholson’s slip of the pen (writing “combustible” for “combustion”). But will it ever occur to the eagle-eyed press corps to point to something that’s actually significant--Nicholson’s buffoon-like misstatement of the text of Gore’s book, and of the state of internal combustion?