The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"That which is not good for the bee-hive cannot be good for the bees."...  ... Marcus Aurelius.

Commentary of the Day - July 6, 2005:  Climate Change McCarthyism.

The IP was dismayed to read recently in a story by Richard Monastersky in The Chronicle of Higher Education (July 1, 2005) that the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce is conducting an investigation of academic scientists whose research supports the conclusion that global warming is a reality, and that human causes play a significant role in this climate change.  According to Monastersky's article, Representative Joe Barton (R, TX) has sent letters to three professors -- Michael E. Mann from the University of Virginia, Raymond S. Bradley from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Malcolm K. Hughes, from the University of Arizona -- demanding that they provide his committee with detailed documentation on scores of studies that they authored or coauthored relating to climate change.  Barton also has requested information from the National Science Foundation about the work of these three academic scientists as well as information on the 2,700 grants that the Foundation has awarded in the area of climate and paleoclimate science in the past decade.

Although Barton has requested reams of data, analysis notes, and computer programs used by the three scientists to reach their conclusion that there has been a relatively rapid rise in global temperatures during the past few decades, he is most concerned with their 1998 study that was published in Nature that showed relatively stable global temperatures for several hundred years followed by a sudden rise during the latter part of the 20'th century.  This pattern has been referred to by some as the "hockey stick" curve.  Since no actual temperature records are available that cover this period, Mann, Bradley, and Hughes arrived at their conclusions by examining proxies for temperature that included glacial ice cores, coral growth layers, and tree rings.  They subsequently extended their work to cover the last 2,000 years.

Though the basic conclusions of Mann, Bradley and Hughes have been supported by numerous other independent studies, there have been skeptics who have challenged their results.  The most vocal of these critics have been Steven McIntyre, an independent "researcher" whose credentials include some thirty years of work in the minerals industry in Canada and an undergraduate degree in mathematics, and Ross McKitrick who is an associate professor of economics at the University of Guelph.  They have claimed that Mann, Bradley, and Hughes had erred in their analysis of the data.  Those claims have since been refuted by independent work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The global warming issue is confounded to some extent by the fact that the earth has experience periods of warming and periods of cooling in the past; and, the available scientific evidence does suggest that these warming and cooling cycles are related to natural phenomena such as changes in solar output and changes in the relative orientation of the earth's axis to the sun.  However, several recent studies based both on climate models and on empirical data provide quite convincing evidence that the current period of warming (that almost all climate scientists agree is happening) is being driven not just by natural sources but also by the significant effect of greenhouse gas emissions that coincide with the industrial revolution.

The global warming hypothesis initially was opposed by industrial interests (mostly in the energy business) who tried to claim that global warming was nothing more than a myth.  While there remain a few politicians and right-wing policy wonks who continue to claim that global warming is a hoax, most everyone else agrees that global warming actually is taking place.  In recent years industry opposition to efforts to ameliorate the effects of global warming generally has taken a different tack.  While agreeing that the earth is in a warming cycle, they attempt to create doubt about the extent to which the warming is driven by human activities, thus reducing the pressure to take actions to control the emission of greenhouse gases.

Work on climate change is difficult; and, there are legitimate questions about the extent to which human activities are driving the current warming cycle.  The preponderance of evidence suggests that the current warming cycle is more rapid and more intense than previous warming cycles in the earth's history, which strongly suggests a significant human contribution.  However, this is a question that should be fought out in the scientific arena where the standards of peer review help to ensure that objectivity prevails in the end.

Actions like those of Rep. Barton are reprehensible because they are nothing more than attempts at intimidation.  If one follows the money it is not hard to see where Barton is coming from.  He worked in the oil and gas industry before he was elected to Congress; and, he has received $574,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry -- more than any other member of the House of Representatives.  Although Barton has been chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce for the past eleven years, he has not held a single hearing on climate change and global warming in the past.  In the end his attempts to sow confusion and doubt about the scientific results may backfire.  Michael Mann and the other scientists that Barton is attempting to intimidate are showing no indication that will back down from their conclusions.

Clearly, if Barton really was interested in getting at the scientific truths of climate change, he would have made the same demands of the climate change skeptics such as McIntyre and McKitrick that he has made of Mann, Bradley, and Hughes.

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