CEI to FactCheck.Org: Re-Check Your Facts


Earlier this week, FactCheck.Org published a critique of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s (CEI’s) global warming ads. In this press release, CEI responds to FactCheck’s allegations. 

FactCheck: One of the ads says research shows “The Antarctic ice sheet is getting thicker, not thinner. . . Why are they trying to scare us?” Actually, scientists say increased snowfall in Antarctica’s interior is evidence that global warming is taking place. 

CEI Response: Our ad did not deny that global warming is happening. It took issue with the prevalent journalistic malpractice of selective reporting to alarm the public into supporting Kyoto-style, all-pain-for-no-gain, energy-suppression policies. If global warming is thickening the ice in Antarctica, then one effect of warming is to mitigate potential sea level rise.

FactCheck: Scientists also say that the ice sheet is melting at the ocean’s edge….

CEI Response: We never denied that ice melt is occurring at the edges. That has been widely reported, and our ad cited a study that reports accelerated ice loss (calving) at Greenland’s coastal glaciers. Our point was that the thickening in the interior has not received anywhere near comparable coverage. Why is only scary news fit to print?

FactCheck: Actually a more recent study (also published in Science magazine) says satellite measurements show that the [Antarctic] ice sheet as a whole is in fact shrinking “significantly,” and that most of the loss is taking place in the smaller West Antarctic ice sheet.

CEI Response: FactCheck neglects to mention that the study it cites is based on only three years of data, from 2002 to 2005. This is strange, because FactCheck later argues, quoting a caveat in the study on Greenland’s glaciers that we referenced in our ad, that “the 11-year-long data set developed here remains too brief to establish long-term trends.” If 11 years is too brief to establish a long-term trend, then three years must be an even less adequate basis for trend analysis. Apparently, FactCheck wants people to be frightened by three years of data but not reassured by 11 years of data. This confirms our ad’s basic point: in general, media coverage is biased in favor of climate alarmism.

FactCheck: A more recent study in Science, published in February, reports that Greenland’s glaciers accelerated their movement to the sea between 1996 and 2000. It concluded, “As more glaciers accelerate farther north, the contribution of Greenland to sea-level rise will continue to increase.

CEI Response: Again, that’s five years’ worth of data. Why is that more significant than 11 years of data? More pertinently, if there are two processes going on, accumulation of ice in the interior and calving of ice on the coastline, shouldn’t the public hear about both?

University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels  points out that if the Greenland interior ice gains reported by the Johannessen study we cited in our ad are subtracted from the coastal ice loss reported by Rignot and Kanagaratnam (the February 2006 article cited by FactCheck), the net result is a thoroughly non-alarming increase in the rate of sea-level rise:

Consider what would have happened had the latest study included the ice and snow gains observed by Johannessen (and ignored the losses modeled by Hanna et. al.). Johannnessen’s increase of 5.4cm/year averaged over Greenland converts to about 75km3/year. Rignot and Kanagaratnam could have subtracted Johannessen’s gains. If they had done so, the total volume of ice loss from Greenland would only have become positive during the last 5 years, totaling 17km3 in 2000 and 92km3 in 2005. This translates to a sea level rise contribution of 0.04mm in 2000 and 0.23mm in 2005 — values much less dramatic than those they published.

Converting millimeters into inches, in 2005, the net contribution of Greenland ice mass changes to sea level rise is about 0.009 inches. This rate of ice mass loss translates into about 1 inch of sea level rise per century. Therefore, CEI’s message is correct: When both sides of the story are presented, the case for alarm collapses.

Another study relevant to this controversy is Zwally et al. (2005), which examined changes in ice mass “from elevation changes derived from 10.5 years (Greenland) and 9 years (Antarctica) of satellite radar altimetry data from the European Remote-sensing Satellites ERS-1 and -2.” The researchers report a net contribution of the three ice sheets to sea level of +0.05 ± 0.03 mm per year. CO2Science.Org puts this in perspective:

At the current sea-level-equivalent ice-loss rate of 0.05 millimeters per year, it would take a full millennium to raise global sea level by just 5 cm, and it would take fully 20,000 years to raise it a single meter.

FactCheck: The lead author of the Antarctica study, University of Missouri professor Curt Davis, said …: “These television ads are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public about the global warming debate. They are selectively using only parts of my previous research to support their claims.”… Davis’s study indicated the increased ice accumulation in the interior might be offsetting the loss of ice at the coastal regions, or might not. It said that whether the entire ice sheet is shrinking “will depend on the balance between mass changes on the interior and those in coastal areas.”

CEI Response: Davis found a net ice balance increase of 1.4cm/yr over his entire region of coverage (ROC). The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is gaining at a rate of 1.8cm/yr (over the period 1992-2003) and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is thinning at a rate of 0.9 cm/yr.  He writes: “For the ROC, the 5:1 ratio in East versus West Antarctic area coverage causes slight thickening overall at a rate of 1.4 +/- 0.3 cm/yr.”  Thus, it is a fair assessment to say that overall, Davis found that the portion of Antarctica in his ROC has been gaining ice. Indeed, the title of Davis’s article states that, “Snowfall-Driven Growth in East Antarctic Ice Sheet Mitigates Recent Sea-Level Rise.” We think this is good news, but the general public seldom (or never) hears it.

Admittedly, CEI’s ad did not mention that Davis’s ROC encompasses about 70% of the total Antarctic ice sheet area, which he refers to as the “grounded ice-sheet interior.”  His ROC does not include interior regions that are within 8.4 degrees latitude of the pole (the satellites can’t see there).  However, Davis suspects that these near-polar regions are also gaining mass and thus suggests that his calculation of net gain is a “conservative estimate.”  He notes that, “These results are consistent with ice-core evidence, though sparse, for increasing accumulation in East Antarctica during the decades preceding our observational time period.”

In short, Professor Davis’s data do not buttress the case for alarm but rather call it into question.

Fact Check: The ad goes on to say, “they call it pollution, we call it life.”  It is true that some politicians and environmental groups want to label CO2 as a “pollutant.”  Several environmental groups, states and municipalities are currently suing the EPA to do so. 

CEI Response: FactCheck admits that some politicians and environmental groups want to label CO2 as a “pollutant.” Vice President Gore, for example, repeatedly calls CO2 “global warming pollution.” This usage is inaccurate and manipulative. Carbon dioxide is a climate “forcing” agent. But so is water vapor. Is water vapor a “pollutant”? Land use changes can also have climate forcing effects. Are land use changes “pollution”? A central goal of the Clean Air Act for more than three decades has been to make cars so clean-burning that, ultimately, nothing comes out of the tailpipe except water vapor and carbon dioxide. Those who call CO2 a “pollutant” argue in effect that the Clean Air Act aims to increase pollution from automobiles.