Many of my friends on the Left can’t understand why so many people on the Right disregard the doomsday scenarios about global climate change. My response is always the same: If the science is beyond dispute, then why do liberals routinely cherry-pick their data and exaggerate their conclusions?
Consider the Obama administration’s heralded National Climate Assessment, which was released in May. The president put on his Chicken Little outfit and gave a primal scream, warning that the research proves that global warming “is a problem that is affecting Americans right now. Whether that means increased flooding, greater vulnerability to drought, more severe wildfires—all these things are having an impact on Americans as we speak.” Head for the high hills before it’s too late!
A splash of cold water is in order. Take a look at the chart, adapted from the report. It shows the percentage of the Great Lakes covered by ice dating back to the 1970s. And—yikes!—it shows an unmistakably negative trend, especially over the past three decades. But the chart suspiciously stops in the winter of 2012 and ’13. As anyone who lives in the Midwest knows all too well, this past winter was the second coldest in at least the last forty years. You could practically walk across Lake Michigan and not fall through the ice. If we add the 2014 data point, the trend looks a lot less alarming. The report was issued in May 2014. So why did the Obama administration omit last winter?
The climate change lobby dismisses the 2014 arctic conditions in the Midwest and Northeast by explaining that a single year of cold weather proves nothing. That is true. But alarmists are perfectly satisfied to accept a single data point as evidence when it suits them—such as when they suggest that one damaging storm like Hurricane Sandy demonstrates that climate change is happening “right now,” as Barack Obama puts it.
How about this claim that garnered front-page newspaper attention and a flurry of TV coverage: “droughts, wildfires, and floods are all more frequent and intense.” But are severe weather events really more likely or catastrophic now than they were fifty or 100 years ago? Much of the evidence countering that president’s conclusion comes from the government’s own data records, from NASA, NOAA, EPA, and the National Weather Service.
Let’s look first at hurricanes. The president’s climate change report says:
There has been a substantial increase in most measures of Atlantic hurricane activity since the early 1980s, the period during which high quality satellite data are available…Numerous factors have been shown to influence these local sea surface temperatures, including natural variability, human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases, and particulate pollution.
Here is what the National Hurricane Center said in 2013: “there were no major hurricanes in the North Atlantic Basin for the first time since 1994. And the number of hurricanes this year was the lowest since 1982.” Meanwhile, in 2013, the Pacific Ocean had only one major such storm. Ryan Maue of Bell Weather Analytics wrote in the peer-reviewed Geophysical Research Letters in 2011 that “the global frequency of tropical cyclones has reached a historical low.”
Tornadoes, meanwhile, haven’t exactly spiked either. The National Climate Assessment claims: “Recent research has yielded insights into the connections between global warming and the factors that cause tornadoes and severe thunderstorms.” There’s just one problem: according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “there has been little trend in the frequency of the stronger tornadoes over the past 55 years.”
The White House climate action plan also draws attention to the fact that in 2012 wildfires burned a near-record 9.3 million U.S. acres. It emphatically asserts that “climate change is contributing to increases in wildfires across the western U.S. and Alaska.” Yet, the 4 million acres burned by wildfires in 2013 was actually less than half the level of 2012—a statistic suspiciously left unreported, although the information was available at the time of the report’s release.
Droughts are another bee under the White House’s bonnet. According to the administration’s report:
Higher temperatures lead to increased rates of evaporation, including more loss of moisture through plant leaves.…As soil dries out, a larger proportion of the incoming heat from the sun goes into heating the soil and adjacent air rather than evaporating its moisture, resulting in hotter summers under drier climatic conditions.
But the reality is more complicated: Take a look at the chart below of 100-plus years of droughts. There is no trend in either direction. As recently as 2008, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program’s report on extremes in North America concluded that droughts have “for the most part, become shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U.S. over the last century…The main exception is the Southwest and parts of the interior of the West, where increased temperature has led to rising drought trends.”
Climate change will also lead to greater flooding, according to the White House. But a 2012 study in the Hydrological Sciences Journal concluded:
In none of the four regions defined in this study is there strong statistical evidence for flood magnitudes increasing with increasing GMCO2 [global mean carbon dioxide concentration]. One region, the southwest, showed a statistically significant negative relationship between GMCO2 and flood magnitudes.
To be clear, a “negative relationship” means increased carbon dioxide may actually be partly responsible for diminished flood magnitudes.
Roger Pielke, Jr., a University of Colorado environmental science professor—who, by the way, has said that he believes in global warming and thinks greenhouse gases emissions should be limited—still told the Senate last year: “It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate time scales either in the United States or globally.”
Yogi Berra said it best: Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. One fatal flaw with so much of the analysis is that it draws conclusions based on very short-term data of 100 years or less—in part because the data beyond that isn’t very reliable. In some cases it covers only a few decades. Our planet is millions of years old. Even a century is a nanosecond in climate patterns. My professor at the University of Illinois, the late, great Julian Simon, once showed me a chart from several hundred years ago of the rise in the water level of the Nile River. The trend over a few decades indicated that if this pattern were extrapolated out over several decades, Egypt and every other nation along the Nile would be underwater. But, of course, that “trend” was merely a blip, and the water level of the Nile today is not much different from what it was 1,000 years ago.
Politicians should show a little more humility instead of pretending that they have a magical crystal ball. Even the Washington Post ran a piece in May headlined, “Does National Climate Assessment lack necessary nuance?” Answering its own question, Post meteorologist Steve Tracton wrote, “Understand the political rationale to go ahead with this report—motivate action to reduce emissions. So this should not be read as a purely science-based document.”
Yet the administration lectures us about following the science?
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