The Empire struck back last week against the Oregon Petition, which now has the signatures of some 17,000 scientists. Computer hackers repeatedly tried to break into the on-line list of signers, a handful of endorsement forms were sent in with phony names on them, and yet another "oil conspiracy" story was planted at the New York Times, with the perverse effect of doubling the hits on the SEPP web site. (We gladly accept NYT advertising, especially when it's free.)
The reason for this flurry of name-calling and attempted sabotage is only too obvious. If the Petition becomes widely known, then suddenly it's no longer "mainstream scientists" versus a "tiny minority of naysayers," or "a consensus of 2500 IPCC scientists" (a complete fabrication) versus a few skeptics who consider global warming the "empirical equivalent of the Easter Bunny" (as Vice President Albert Gore has put it). Portraying the many thousands of signers of the Oregon Petition as "tools of the oil industry" would be a rather daunting task--not that the National Environmental Trust and Ozone Action aren't giving it the old college try.
A news story in Science ("Advocacy Mailing Draws Fire," April 10) actually got the ball rolling, generating more than a few titters by quoting "expert" Raymond Pierrehumbert, a University of Chicago atmospheric chemist and the Sierra Club's poster boy for attacks on the Petition. Unfortunately for Science, Dr. Pierrehumbert reveals himself as an anti-technology, anti-consumer scold. In his 332 epistles of wisdom posted on the Internet, Pierrehumbert scolds the public for sport utility vehicles, incandescent lights, short- and medium-range air travel, nuclear power, strategic defense, all logging, the transport of fuel, and even farming, just to name a few. We can't recall ever seeing Science quote quite such an "expert" as this.
Then the Council of the National Academy of Sciences (minus the Council members who abstained from voting) trained its guns on the Petition, grousing that a science summary enclosed with the mailing looked like something published in the Proceedings of the NAS. The NAS Council evidently thinks that any document that looks like the PNAS automatically convinces scientists, so they sent out a hasty press release saying it wasn't theirs. As Dr. Jane Orient noted in a letter to the Washington Times (April 29), however, "Nothing in the package sent to signatories suggested NAS involvement, and few scientists would make the error of attributing sufficient courage to that organization."
But the low point last week had to be the New York Times (Sunday, April 26); a front-page article by John Cushman that was not only wrong at the outset but employed the most convoluted logic in attempting to link the oil industry to the Petition. Cushman admitted that the article had its genesis with the National Environmental Trust, an organization known as the Environmental Information Center until March of 1997, when a $3 million grant from Pew Charitable Trusts bought it a new name, a new suite of offices, and a new mission: "war room" for promoting global warming to the press. (Pew is the most prominent member of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, an affinity group of the Council on Foundations known as the "Green Mafia.") As Cushman wove his tale of tenuous associations, we began to suspect NET had provided him with a flow chart to guide him in tying it all together.
As the week wore on, and the fallout from the NYT story started showing up in the clipping service packet, the picture began to brighten. Just a small number of newspapers picked up the Cushman article off the New York Times Newswire and all of them cropped it by 50 percent or more and ran it on the back pages.
Editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch got more hysterical, calling Dr. Frederick Seitz' effort to promote the 17,000-signature Petition a "dirty trick" and "a misinformation campaign." Incredible as that sounds, however, it's hardly unusual for the Post-Dispatch. Two other harsh and misinformed articles turned up in, of all places, Oil Daily (the worst) and Platt's Oilgram News. We suggest oil company executives cancel their subscriptions!
The surprises came from the Detroit News, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), and Calgary Herald (Calgary, Canada). Right out of the blue, all of these newspapers--and they are major newspapers--ran editorial or commentary articles supporting the Petition. The two Canadian papers even gave web site addresses for the Oregon Institute of Science & Medicine, which initiated the Petition, and The Science & Environmental Policy Project. (Thankyew!)
So in a rough and tumble week--not our last, to be sure--what's the bottom line? Well, despite the New York Times' assertion that "Americans see climate change as a serious threat," surveys done by the news media, including the New York Times, do not support such a claim. Let's review some figures:
1. In October 1997, the Washington-based Center for Media and Public Affairs released a survey of news stories broadcast on the three major U.S. networks--ABC, CBS, NBC. It showed that between 1990 and 1996 environmental news stories had dropped from 2.75 percent to .86 percent of the total. Since 1993, crime has been the most covered issue.
2. In November 1997, the New York Times released a survey in which Americans were asked to prioritize the most important problems facing the country. Only 1 percent of the adults surveyed said "environment"; most said "crime." Asked to elaborate on specifically environmental concerns, only 7 percent said "global warming," while 48 percent said "air and water pollution."
3. In December 1997, during the height of the Kyoto Climate Change Conference news coverage, CNN released a survey showing that between 1989 and 1997 the percentage of American citizens concerned about global warming dropped from 35 percent to 24 percent.
4. Just last week, the New York Times released a survey of issues that concern teenagers. Asked to prioritize, only 3 percent of the teens said "environment."
5. Finally, although this isn't terribly scientific, there's the ABC News.com on-line poll conducted in the week following the April 11 ABC broadcast of "Global Warning: Al Gore and the Apocalypse." We have never seen a survey so painstakingly constructed to get the desired response. The program transcript showed it to be long on hype, short on science (the satellite data was omitted, for example). The web site had fancy graphics and supplemental links and a narrative that made it plain that anyone who didn't think we were headed for global warming catastrophe was not a card-carrying smart person.
For all that, when ABC News asked those participating in the survey if the government should take action now on global warming, 61 percent said "drop dead"; they weren't about to pay higher taxes or give up their automobile, air conditioning, home heating, or what have you for something they saw no evidence of. After a week on the board, the ABC News.com survey was quietly taken down.
Until next week...
UPDATE: Some time back this column stated that global climate models could not predict the onset and course of El Ninos; our authority was the 1996 IPCC Report (sections 4.3.7 and 188.8.131.52). More recent research, reviewed by Richard Kerr in the journal Science, indicates that some climate models did successfully account for the current El Nino.
A six-month forecast, essentially dynamical and without any change in greenhouse-gas forcing, is not an adequate test of GCM ability to do a 100-year climate forecast where GHG forcing increases appreciably; but still, it's an indication that with higher resolution (and better data), models do improve.
TW2 is compiled by SEPP Research Associate Candace Crandall