TCS Daily


Cold Comfort

By Duane D. Freese - July 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Last week, two separate House hearings on climate change provided a study in contrasts -- one filled with controversy and anger, the other with mostly good feeling, except by those who didn't show up.

At the first hearing, held by a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Edward J. Wegman of George Mason University and chair of the National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) Committee on Applied and Theoretical Statistics, testified about the numerous statistical problems with the iconic hockey stick graph and its associated studies.

The authors of those studies, headed by paleoclimatologist Michael Mann of the University of Virginia, purported to have proof derived from tree rings and other natural temperature proxies that the 1990s were the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year in the last millennium. This elimination of the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age was highlighted in the summary for policymakers of United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001 as a smoking gun for human-induced global warming.

Only Wegman and his colleagues found -- as did a National Academy of Science's panel previously -- that Mann's statistics were fundamentally flawed. They were prone -- as two Canadians, Ross McKitrick and Steve McIntyre, found in an ad hoc statistical investigation -- to create hockey stick shaped graphs.

Rather than accept that result, Democrats on the committee went on the offensive, pummeling Wegman -- who voted for Al Gore in 2000 -- as a stooge of the big business and calling the hearing itself a sham. "We don't debate gravity any more," Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington argued, ignorant of string theory, "and we should not debate whether there is a human contribution to climate change." He went on to suggest that the press not report alternative views. "The press is creating doubt where there isn't any," he argued.

At the second hearing, meanwhile, by the House Government Reform Committee, the attitude between majority and minority members was almost platitudinous. Democrats actually thanked Committee Chair Tom Davis for calling this important informational hearing.

They didn't stay around for much of it. Indeed, aside from Davis, one other Republican and three Democrats, including the Committee's Minority Leader Henry Waxman, from a roster of 40 members showed up. And they were there mostly to deliver opening statements attacking the administration's climate policy and then snipe at James Connaughton, chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, after he testified about the $6.5 billion the administration is spending on climate programs.

When a panel of scientists showed up -- lacking NASA's James Hansen, who backed out saying he had a cold -- only Davis was there when Judith Curry of Georgia Institute of Technology gave her statement on hurricanes; John R. Christy of the University of Alabama Huntsville gave his on the lack of global warming temperature signal in a key region in California; Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder on the need for no-regrets, short term policies that reduce carbon emissions; and Jay Gulledge, pinch hitting for Hansen, of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change to sum up all the alarming evidence of man-made warming -- including the now broken hockey graph. And only Waxman returned to ask questions.

Still, the hearing accomplished what the Democrats wanted -- getting a commitment for an investigation of the Bush administration allegedly "suppressing" the work of scientists, an allegation leveled by Hansen in January to The New York Times when he claimed the administration was trying to silence him.

One scientist, Christy, might have something to say after last week's hearing about attempts at suppression of opposing views -- by Hansen.

In an e-mail to reporters about why he wouldn't attend, Hansen said: "I would get out of my sickbed to testify to Congress on global warming if they were ready to take responsibility with the matter. But obviously they are still in denial, inviting contrarians to 'balance' the science of global warming."

Then Hansen wrote: "The function of contrarians is to obfuscate what is known, so as to keep the public confused and allow special interests to reap short-term profits, to the detriment of long-term economic well being."

Christy is the only witness at the Davis hearing that might be called a "contrarian" on climate science. Why? Christy's work with satellite data presents some challenges to climate models based on global warming theory.

"That greenhouse gases are increasing in concentration is clearly true and therefore they will have an impact on the radiation budget of the atmosphere," Christy testified. "In our observational work, we have not been able to show support for the way this effect is being depicted by the present set of climate models."

And for this, Hansen wants government to shun Christy and his work -- or Hansen won't discuss his work at the same time.

Hansen's critique of Christy and the Democrats' attack on Wegman demonstrates a difficult reality most people have with just about any issue. The desire is to pigeon-hole people into one side or another of an argument rather than accept a range of views. Further, in the case of climate science, it seems aimed at foreclosing discussion of problems with the science, as if it is too fragile to withstand scrutiny.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, expressed that view at the hearing on the hockey stick.

"I'm very concerned that this is being used in a way to discredit the whole notion that our country and the rest of the industrialized and developing world ought to do anything about global warming," she said. "And that's why I ask you that question, Dr. Wegman, if this does not make you somewhat uncomfortable. Can you see in any way how this is being used and does it bother you?"

Climatologist Hans von Storch of Germany, no global warming contrarian, had his own concerns about Schakowsky's question when his panel appeared:

"I was a bit disappointed about the comment from the lady from Illinois who said, aren't you afraid if you say this, that this would have negative implications on the policy process. I was kind of shocked. Should we really adapt what we say if that's useful for the policy process? Is that what you expect from science? If we give advice, must we first think, is it useful for something? I think that is not the way we should operate."

Wegman told me at a break in the hearing that he was disappointed that some on the National Academy panel seemed to be excusing Mann's statistical errors by arguing that he got the right result. "In my statistics classes, you are marked wrong if your method of arriving at the answer is wrong even if your answer is right," he said.

The lesson of the stopped clock should make the reason apparent. Even it will be right twice a day, but that does not make it useful for telling time. Hansen and the Democrats seem to be arguing that science should be operated like a stopped clock -- ignoring errors in the science so as to maintain the impetus toward doing something about the problem of climate change.

But as Connaughton testified at the hearing, a lot is being done by the Bush administration on climate change -- much of it fulfilling Hansen's own vision for eliminating such potent warming pollutants as methane as technology evolves to crack the tougher nut of controlling carbon dioxide emissions.

If Hansen had attended the hearing, he also might have learned something from Roger Pielke, Jr. What is stalling things, as Pielke noted, is that "any conceivable emissions reductions policies, even if successful, cannot have a perceptible impact on the climate for many decades. Consequently, costs ... are borne in the near term and benefits related to influence the climate system are achieved in the distant future."

With two- and four-year election cycles, that makes actions that would slow the economy or cost jobs or close industries highly unlikely to win broad support.

Thus Hansen's focus on the long term and condemnation of the short actually helps promote gridlock, not get around it. Pielke's answer? "Billions of dollars of public investments in climate science and technology might be reoriented to better serve the needs of decision makers grappling with climate change ... by focusing on policies that make sense in the short term as well as the long."

Duane Freese is TCS Daily deputy editor.

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