Debunking the Debunkers

Given the renewed attention being paid to global warming, it was probably inevitable that, sooner or later, some prominent conservative outlet would arch back its head and emit a barbaric yawp of climate-science skepticism. Forget the fact that virtually every week, new scientific work strengthens the conclusion that humans beings are heating the planet. Basic denial of the global-warming problem remains a core right-wing instinct, waiting to be unleashed.

So it wasn't long before The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, long dismissive of environmental problems like mercury pollution, was seized with the skeptical spirit. In its June 21 editorial (subscription only), the paper went much further into head-in-the-sand territory than even the Bush administration has done. The Journal's near-thousand-word take was so wrongheaded, so extreme, so downright clueless, that we at The American Prospect have decided to dissect it for your reading pleasure, complete with links to scientific studies, reports, and other documents that the Journal's editorialists would apparently like to pretend do not exist. (For a more thorough critique of the Journal by a group of scientists, see here.)

The editorial begins by denouncing movement in the U.S. Senate toward "limits on greenhouse gases, even as the scientific case for such a mini-Kyoto Protocol looks weaker all the time." The Journal editorial writers must somehow have missed the news that the Arctic region is quite literally melting as a result of human-caused global warming -- the most dramatic indication so far that climate change is upon us.

But forget about tangible evidence of real world climate impacts. Since 1997, the Journal continues, “… the case for linking fossil fuels to global warming has, if anything, become even more doubtful. The Earth currently does seem to be in a warming period, though how warm and for how long no one knows. In particular, no one knows whether this is unusual or merely something that happens periodically for natural reasons. Most global warming alarms are based on computer simulations that are largely speculative and depend on a multitude of debatable assumptions.”

No one knows? What about the National Academy of Sciences, which recently joined 10 other such distinguished national science academies in declaring, "It is likely that most of the warming in recent decades can be attributed to human activities … . This warming has already led to changes in the Earth's climate."

The Journal's assertion about "largely speculative" computer simulations, meanwhile, is a standard trope among global-warming denialists. It's also flat wrong. In fact, the core basis for concern about global warming is the undeniable existence of a planetary greenhouse effect. Because of this effect, heat-trapping gases released by the human burning of fossil fuels can shift the energy balance of the earth as less solar radiation escapes back into space. It's really that simple -- and completely undisputed.

After these misconceptions and misrepresentations, the Journal goes on to devote fully a third of its editorial to a diversionary issue in the global-warming debate: the supposed "controversy" over the "hockey stick" climate-history graph produced by scientist Michael Mann and his colleagues. The Journal curiously neglects to mention that Mann's work -- purportedly showing that temperatures in the late 1990s exceeded anything seen in the last thousand years -- was recently reaffirmed by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, America's premier climate-science hub. Instead, the paper solely privileges Mann's critics.

Still more egregiously, the Journal pretends that the case for concern about global warming depends on Mann's single temperature graph: "The graph was embraced by the global warming lobby as proof that we are in a crisis, and that radical solutions are called for." Nonsense. While some environmentalists may have used Mann's graph, their arguments hardly depended upon it. In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard of climate science, declared, "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities." While based in part on Mann's work, this declaration was also buttressed by multiple other strands of evidence, such as scientists' inability to explain the observed warming simply by invoking natural factors.

Indeed, in its quest to debunk Michael Mann (a longtime obsession on the right), the Journal truly reaches a stunning low. To present a different view of climate history, the paper's editorial reproduces a graph from the 1990 IPCC report. This was the panel's very first report, and it did not conclude that the human greenhouse signal could yet be definitively detected. But then, that was fully 15 years ago! Since then, the weight of evidence has shifted the IPCC's conclusions. Record temperature years in 1998, 2002, 2003, and 2004 (the four hottest years since the 1890s) certainly didn't hurt.

Not satisfied with citing outdated scientific information, the Journal then takes another swipe at computer models and tells us not to worry about Antarctic melting. Arctic melting -- the thing everyone is actually worried about -- goes unmentioned. And so the paper concludes, "To add it all up, the Earth is slightly warmer than it used to be a century ago, but no one knows why." That's right, folks: No one except for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences (and 10 other national academies), the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and NASA. Oh, and President Bush's own science adviser.

But of course, you may still want to listen to The Wall Street Journal editorial page and its selective, 15-year-old science.

Chris Mooney is Washington correspondent for Seed Magazine and a TAP Online columnist. His first book, The Republican War on Science, will be published in September by Basic Books. His daily blog and other writings can be found at