By Eugene Robinson
For the clueless or cynical die-hards who deny global warming, it’s getting awfully cold out there.
The latest icy blast of reality comes from an eminent scientist whom the climate-change skeptics once lauded as one of their own. Richard Muller, a respected physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, used to dismiss alarmist climate research as being “polluted by political and activist frenzy.” Frustrated at what he considered shoddy science, Muller launched his own comprehensive study to set the record straight. Instead, the record set him straight.
“Global warming is real,” Muller wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal.
Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and the rest of the neo-Luddites who are turning the GOP into the anti-science party should pay attention.
“When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find,” Muller wrote. “Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that.”
In other words, the deniers’ claims about the alleged sloppiness or fraudulence of climate science are wrong. Muller’s team, the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project, rigorously explored the specific objections raised by skeptics—and found them groundless.
Muller and his fellow researchers examined an enormous data set of observed temperatures from monitoring stations around the world and concluded that the average land temperature has risen 1 degree Centigrade—or about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit—since the mid-1950s.
This agrees with the increase estimated by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Muller’s figures also conform with the estimates of those British and American researchers whose catty emails were the basis for the alleged “Climategate” scandal, which was never a scandal in the first place.
The Berkeley group’s research even confirms the infamous “hockey stick” graph—showing a sharp recent temperature rise—that Muller once snarkily called “the poster child of the global warming community.” Muller’s new graph isn’t just similar, it’s identical.
Muller found that skeptics are wrong when they claim that a “heat island” effect from urbanization is skewing average temperature readings; monitoring instruments in rural areas show rapid warming, too. He found that skeptics are wrong to base their arguments on the fact that records from some sites seem to indicate a cooling trend, since records from at least twice as many sites clearly indicate warming. And he found that skeptics are wrong to accuse climate scientists of cherry-picking the data, since the readings that are often omitted—because they are judged unreliable—show the same warming trend.
Muller and his colleagues examined five times as many temperature readings as did other researchers—a total of 1.6 billion records—and now have put that merged database online. The results have not yet been subjected to peer review, so technically they are still preliminary. But Muller’s plain-spoken admonition that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer” has reduced many deniers to incoherent grumbling or stunned silence.
Not so, I predict, with the blowhards such as Perry, Cain and Bachmann, who, out of ignorance or perceived self-interest, are willing to play politics with the Earth’s future. They may concede that warming is taking place, but they call it a natural phenomenon and deny that human activity is the cause.
It is true that Muller made no attempt to ascertain “how much of the warming is due to humans.” Still, the Berkeley group’s work should help lead all but the dimmest policymakers to the overwhelmingly probable answer.
We know that the rise in temperatures over the past five decades is abrupt and very large. We know it is consistent with models developed by other climate researchers that posit greenhouse gas emissions—the burning of fossil fuels by humans—as the cause. And now we know, thanks to Muller, that those other scientists have been both careful and honorable in their work.
Nobody’s fudging the numbers. Nobody’s manipulating data to win research grants, as Perry claims, or making an undue fuss over a “naturally occurring” warm-up, as Bachmann alleges. Contrary to what Cain says, the science is real.
It is the know-nothing politicians—not scientists—who are committing an unforgivable fraud.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group
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