Wall Street Journal's Portrait of the Young Climate Scientist

01/31/2012 05:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2012

Crossposted with

There they go again, waxing non-scientific on science.

Breaking My New Year's Resolution and Opening up the Paper Again

Here it is only the end of January and I am breaking my New Year's resolution to ignore the Wall Street Journal. The paper's coverage of climate science in its editorial pages has been appalling for quite some time, but the straw that broke the camel's back for me came with a letter to the editor published on December 24, 2011, stating that carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbs heat because it is "one of the heaviest molecules in the atmosphere."

Carbon dioxide's action as a greenhouse gas has nothing to do with its density but with its atomic bonds, which allow it to absorb infrared radiation.

Now, I know from personal experience that the journal judiciously chooses the letters it publishes. So why would the editors publish one so obviously wrong? Whatever the reasons, its publication does not acquit the paper as a source of information. And so I cancelled my subscription and swore off the journal.

The Best-laid Plans of Ignoring Misinformation

On January 27, my inbox lit up with e-mails about a WSJ op-ed authored by "16 concerned scientists" arguing that there is "no need to panic about global warming." Some urged me to respond in TheGreenGrok, and hence the early demise of a New Year's resolution.

Before waxing scientific on the myriad and sundry errors in the op-ed, let me give a shout-out to the powerful statement in Forbes by Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute, about what the op-ed's publication in the journal implies about the paper's objectivity, and a heads-up about another response soon to come by some three dozen scientists, including me. (Update 2/1/2012: Response now published, see here.) Now, a bit more on the facts.

Not Just the Facts

The WSJ's "No Need to Panic" op-ed contains a number of places where the facts are twisted and turned in strange ways. One example: the statement that there has been a "smaller-than-predicted warming over the 22 years since the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began issuing projections."

Not really:

  1. The first IPCC climate projection was made in the First Assessment Report, or FAR, in 1990. It did not include a single trend but an envelope of trends. While it's true that the actual observed temperature trend falls below the so-called central prediction, it falls at the bottom but within the envelope of temperature predictions. (See Fig. 1.1 here.)

  • The 16 concerned scientists fail to mention that the observed temperature for the most part exceeds the envelope of temperature predictions from the Second Assessment Report, or SAR, from 1996.
  • And then there's the "travesty" bit from Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. His statement about the lack of an adequate observational network to diagnose the climate's response to interannual variability was decontextualized and thus trumped up (as has been done in the past) to make it appear it's an admission that global warming has ceased. (Read more on the misinterpreted quotation.)

    And there's the same old ridiculous claim that CO2 is not a pollutant but a natural atmospheric component that, among other things, we breathe out. Well, it's true that CO2 is a natural chemical. But so is carbon monoxide -- it is found naturally in the atmosphere and can often be detected in our breath. But when spewed from a tailpipe it can kill. Is that not a pollutant?

    Young Scientist Claim

    I find especially appalling the claim that "many young scientists furtively say that while they also have serious doubts about the global-warming message, they are afraid to speak up for fear of not being promoted -- or worse." It is a distortion of the way science works and the way scientists operate.

    To bolster their argument, the 16 cite the case of Dr. Chris de Freitas, a former editor of the journal Climate Research, who got embroiled in a fierce debate over an erroneous paper on climate trends that he approved for publication. The op-ed authors claim that: "The international warming establishment quickly mounted a determined campaign to have Dr. de Freitas removed from his editorial job and fired from his university position."

    First of all, lest there be any confusion, de Freitas was and is hardly a vulnerable, young scientist -- among other positions, he has served as the deputy dean of science and the pro vice chancellor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

    But more important, there is no evidence of an international conspiracy -- what is the "international warming establishment" anyway? And how could a group of scientists get the University of Auckland to fire de Freitas? As concluded by the Environmental Protection Agency [pdf] regarding the scientists upset with the paper's publication: "If anything, their actions aimed to police the peer review process and rectify a problem that threatened its scientific integrity."

    Personal Experience Bucking Accepted 'Wisdom'

    The fact is that rather than fearing going up against accepted scientific thinking, scientists, young and otherwise, dream of it. Why? If correct, their argument is what makes their scientific reputation. How do I know? From my own experience.

    As a Ph.D. student, building on some work by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen (see Nobel lecture [pdf]), I concluded that the widely accepted wisdom about the way ozone behaves in the lower atmosphere -- wisdom that routinely appeared in textbooks as well as the peer-reviewed literature -- was wrong. My findings indicated that Instead of being controlled by atmospheric winds and currents, ozone is significantly influenced by chemical reactions triggered by sunlight. I published my findings and received a good deal of criticism, including comments in the Journal of Geophysical Research, where my paper was published, and strenuous objections in some seminars. But the kernel of my idea held up, and my bucking of established thought helped set me on my career.

    A cartoon by Roger Harvell played on the controversy the smog paper I co-authored stirred. (A signed version of the cartoon hangs in my office.)


    Later, I and some colleagues published a paper on the role of natural hydrocarbon emissions in forming smog. Because our conclusions appeared to faintly echo Ronald Reagan's statement about "killer trees," some viewed the paper as being politically incorrect.

    Many attacked the smog paper. The Greenville Piedmont newspaper even published a cartoon showing a scientist (presumably me) inhaling fumes from a tree with the caption "Georgia Tech scientist becomes the first person to attempt suicide from tree exhaust." But again the research stood the test of time and was included in the citation for my induction into the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

    I guarantee that most scientists, myself included, would love to make their reputation by refuting the whole notion of global warming. We have tried and have concluded that we can't. There are some who appear to be holding on to their dreams of scientific deliverance and a good deal of sour grapes. Sadly, the only recourse they have left is to publish op-eds in a tired old newspaper that has lost all credibility when it comes to science.