Tackling Junk Science

Environmental activists and their allies in the media, like The New York Times, are up in arms over the Bush Administration’s latest outbreak of good sense. In the normal course of review, the White House altered a new study from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove references to discredited studies on climate change and to delete a sentence that could be an environmentalist’s holy mantra. This led to cries of “censorship” and even “junk science” from the environmental lobby and their allies in the media, when it is actually they who want to censor real science while promoting junk science. However, in not moving quickly to back up its actions, the administration lost an opportunity to point out who the real purveyors of junk science are in this debate.

Here’s what happened: White House climate experts took exception to EPA tiredly repeating what has become conventional wisdom about global warming. It is taken as given that mankind’s actions are heating up the world to an unacceptable level that could prove catastrophic. Yet this is not what the science is telling us. While there is probably some degree of warming going on, it is nowhere near certain that this is not mainly part of some natural climate variability. While human influence on the climate may be discernable, this does not mean that we are wrecking the world.

In fact, the increase in global average temperature over the past century has been about one degree Fahrenheit, which is less than the normal annual variability in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />North America. In other words, temperature changes naturally year-on-year more than from man’s effect on it over a century, assuming man is responsible for all of the change, which is unlikely.

Beyond that, we know very little. All the dire predictions that we hear so much are based on a series of “ifs,” embodied in computer models and unlikely assumptions. Moreover, since the IPCC reported last, the scientific picture has gotten even hazier. All the accumulated scientific research points to more and more uncertainty about what we know in the area of climate change.

So the deleted line the environmentalists focused on, “climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment,” was both meaningless and dangerous. It is on one level a simple truism—climate change does change other things. However, when the clear implication is that the consequences are negative (tell that to the Amazon rainforest, where vegetation has grown abundantly over the last decade) or that the change is mostly human-induced, then it should be replaced with a clearer statement of the state of the science. That is what the administration did when it noted that “the complexities…make it a scientific challenge to document change, diagnose its causes and develop useful projections [of climate change].”

It was also interesting that the media condemned the addition of newer, more reputable science to the outdated report. The New York Times suggested that reference to one study had been challenged only so it could be replaced by a study backed by the oil industry. In fact, the 1999 study that was deleted is junk science at its worst—based on models that it is agreed do not predict the climate better than do tables of random numbers—which is why the Competitive Enterprise Institute has petitioned the administration to stop disseminating it.

The study that was inserted is a much more up-to-date survey of what we know about the natural variability of temperature, which suggests the Earth has been much warmer than it is presently (during the “medieval warm period” when Greenland was colonized and wine grapes grown in England). It is interesting that of all the funding agencies that contributed to the new study, the Times noted only the American Petroleum Institute, which provided the small amount of funding necessary to finish and publish the study. Ninety percent of the study’s funding actually came from the government—the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, NASA, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Yet while the administration took the correct steps in suggesting changes to the report, it did not respond well to the communications challenge. Part of the reason why the environmental lobby was able to shout so loudly is that the administration did not issue a comprehensive science-based defense of its actions. The White House could do that by ordering agencies to cease dissemination of discredited reports and listing the reasons they are not a sound basis for policy decisions. The administration should state clearly that tackling junk science is not censoring science, but championing it.