Read a book, George Will!

I’m disappointed in my favorite conservative pundit, George Will. It’s not that I disagree with him, which I often do. It’s just that this usually well-read commentator does not seem to have done his homework before spouting off about global warming.

This morning in the rountable segment of the ABC news show This Week, Will used an old, stale ploy to question the current consensus on climate change. He pulled out a page on which he had the headline of a 1975 New York Times story that talked about the coming period of global cooling.

In one of my earlier blog entries, a reader tried the same thing and I simply responded that he or she should read some of the recent books on the topic, such as the ones reviewed on my Science Shelf web site.

That seemed to be the proper response for someone who, despite spouting the contrarian line, seemed genuinely willing to learn. But someone like George Will, who usually has his facts straight before speaking, needs a more detailed reply. That’s the purpose of this blog entry, and if someone can make sure Mr. Will sees it, I’d truly appreciate it.

First of all, there’s the issue of scientific consensus, which has coalesced quite strongly around the conclusion that the world is warming and the cause is primarily human activity. This is based on a large and growing body of data plus a set of useful climate modeling programs and supercomputers that can run projections that produce greater detail and more trustworthy predictions.

The consensus around the projected period of cooling was not nearly as strong, largely because the science and modeling had much greater uncetainties thirty years ago.

Furthermore, as Tim Flannery writes in The Weather Makers, that projection resulted from another climate altering condition, namely the effect of dust, haze, and drops of sulfuric acid in the air due, in part, to combustion of dirty coal. Cleaning up powerplants, necessary for better health, had the perverse negative effect of removing a factor that had masked the effect of increased greenhouse gases.

Fortunately, another roundtable panelist called Will to task, pointing out, as I do in my review of The Weather Makers and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, that the debate has moved a long way from whether there is global warming or whether human activity is a factor. The question is now whether we are approaching a critical “tipping point,” and if so, what we should do about it.

That’s where the policy-making decisions are now, and that’s where punditry can be valuable — if it is based on the facts.

George Will, you need to get your global warming reading up to date. I suggest you start with the two books I discuss here.

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