Chicken little journalism on climate change

February 17, 2010

I have a lot of respect for Mike Tidwell, but I was disappointed in his op-ed piece, "The sky really is falling" (Feb. 14). In my opinion, it was a classic piece of Chicken Little journalism. No matter what weather we have -- snow, drought, heat or cold -- virtually anything that is out of the normal is blamed on global warming. Match a single extreme weather event with a single facet of a complex, multifaceted theory, and the conclusion is, "Aha! Proof! The sky is falling!"

In fact, the global climate is an extremely complex, interrelated and incompletely understood system, affected by much more than air pollutant emissions from human activities. For example, the sun is the dominant engine for the Earth's climate -- but Mr. Tidwell selectively chooses to ignore the fact that significant changes in the sun's surface have been observed over the past two years. These changes could be the major cause of our record winter, just as similar changes in the sun's surface some 350 years ago may have been the major cause of the Little Ice Age. Other factors, such as volcanic eruptions and changes in oceanic currents, also affect the weather.

Mr. Tidwell focuses on warming-induced increases in atmospheric moisture as the cause of the record snowfalls but fails to note that increasing moisture could lead to more clouds. Clouds trap heat below them, but they also reflect sunlight back to space -- and this reflection of the sun's energy could result in a cooler world. In fact, the way the computer models that predict climate change handle some types of clouds is "a reason for some concern," according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body that is considered by many as the authority on climate change. This concern translates to a weakness in the models and, thus, in their climate predictions. And, this is just one of several weaknesses in the climate models noted by the IPCC.

Finally, Mr. Tidwell contends that we have had only a "moderately" cold winter. That may be true for the average winter temperature. But, February, the month of the record snowfall, has been significantly colder than normal (7 degrees colder than normal, according to the National Weather Service).

No single meteorological episode and no single winter defines a climatological trend or proves a climatological theory. It's time that we a stop trying to scare people about the sky falling. We don't need national legislation enacted on the basis of emotion. We need to establish a basis founded on good, balanced, non-political science. We need to ensure that classic scientific methods are followed. That means that we must fund scientific studies that challenge and test the hypotheses of global climate change. We must ensure that the results of those studies are published in peer-reviewed technical journals. Theories can only be proven by rigorous adherence to the scientific method, open and impartial scientific debate, and enough data to verify the modeled predictions. As Chicken Little found out, saying the sky's falling doesn't make it so.

Julian A Levy Jr., Columbia

The writer is a fellow of the Air & Waste Management Association and a member of the Maryland Greenhouse Gas and Carbon Mitigation working groups.

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