Furnishing crisis

Feb. 12, 2007
The story often is told that in 1897 William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, sent artist Frederic S. Remington to Cuba to record a developing war between the US and Spain.

The story often is told that in 1897 William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, sent artist Frederic S. Remington to Cuba to record a developing war between the US and Spain. Remington sent a telegram from Havana reporting, “Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

This possibly fictitious exchange resembles controversy over climate change. Ever since the 1988 hearing that then-Democratic Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee held about an atmospheric build-up of greenhouse gases and the implications for global average temperature, the public has feared a crisis, and a cadre of provocateurs has strained to furnish one.

IPCC summary

Into the nasty war of opinion that has ensued, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this month delivered another of its analogs of the incendiary graphics Hearst wanted from Remington. The “Summary for Policymakers” from Working Group I of IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report sounds familiar alarms: carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere; global average temperature has increased; certainty is growing that the gas build-up caused some warming; and human activity deserves blame.

If the summary is accurate, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment, due in May, will reflect greater knowledge about observed planetary warming and associated phenomena than was available to the Third Assessment Report, published in 2001. Among other things, it will document increased certainty about the human role in observed warming.

But does it furnish a crisis?

“The understanding of anthropogenic warming and cooling influences on climate has improved since the Third Assessment Report, leading to very high confidence that the globally averaged net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming, with a radiative forcing of +1.6 [+0.6 to +2.4] w/sq m,” the summary says. Proponents of mandatory cuts in CO2 emissions have seized on that and other such statements to argue that there’s no need for further debate, that the science is “settled,” and that opposition to urgent precaution bespeaks immoral obstructionism.

But they’ve always said those things. Their costly political agenda needs a crisis, and they rely on the IPCC to furnish it. Gore has made a career of this. Indeed, he seems to have been right when he asserted, before science could be conclusive about it, that human activity has contributed to observed warming of the past half-century. But is this the crisis that Gore insists creates a moral imperative to overhaul energy use?

The new IPCC assessment provides reason to think not. Climate change skeptic Christopher Monckton, who served as a special adviser to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, points out that the new report has halved its projection to 2100 of a prominent warming fear: sea level rise. He also notes that the IPCC’s estimate of human-induced radiative forcing is down from the 2001 estimate of 2.43 w/sq m. And of the IPCC’s six modeled temperature scenarios, Monckton argues, three are “extreme exaggerations,” two of which are based on population forecasts far above general expectations. Temperature-increase projections of the Fourth Assessment aren’t directly comparable with those of the Third Assessment, where the top-of-range figure was 5.8º C. by 2100. But excluding the top three scenarios on the basis of Monckton’s observation would keep the maximum temperature rise seen by the new assessment at no more than 4º.

Abating crisis

By this reading of the IPCC summary, science is more certain than before about the human link to observed warming, but the effect in terms of radiative forcing is smaller than was thought 6 years ago, as are maximum warming by 2100 and sea-level rise. So the crisis-if that’s what it is-seems to be abating. This news should comfort anyone wondering what response may be appropriate. The new report makes clear that the warming and sea-level rise will continue for a very long time even if emissions of greenhouse gas concentrations somehow stabilize.

Had Hearst learned something comparable about Cuba, he might have called Remington home.