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Michael Gerson vs. George Will on Global Warming

I've gotten a bunch of requests for a response to George Will's assertion that “If you’re 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life.” I'm actually puzzled enough by that comment to not really know how to respond. I guess I'll post this graph and leave it at that:


George Will appears to have gotten this devastating rejoinder from Mark Steyn. Steyn is not, as you might imagine, a climate scientist. He's a polemicist best known for writing a celebrity obituary column in The Atlantic. I actually like Steyn's celebrity obituaries -- they're quick and sharp-witted and gracefully written -- but I'm not sure I'd use him for a source on global warming. I'd be more likely to listen to this guy.

But to be a bit positive about this, I wanted to point out Michael Gerson's column from July 1. Would that the debate between liberals and conservatives on climate change looked more like this:

Obama's ideological overreach on issues from the fiscal stimulus to health-care nationalization has put conservatives in a scrappy mood. The recession has brought the public's economic anxiety into sharp focus and moved environmental concerns -- droughts in the Sahel or floods in Bangladesh -- into the hazy distance. And the House cap-and-trade bill itself was a riot of loopholes, concessions and offsets -- legislative sausage-making with an excess of offal.

But none of these political considerations change an underlying reality. A serious concern about global climate disruption remains the broad (not unanimous but predominant) view of the scientific community, including the National Academy of Sciences. Global warming since the 19th century is undeniable -- a trend not disproved by year-to-year variations. These changes are closely correlated with increases in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide since the Industrial Revolution. Climate disruption has become so rapid in some places that it is overwhelming the natural process of adjustment, reducing crop yields and leading to the extinction of species. Meanwhile, global carbon emissions are increasing faster than expected. Some scientists warn of possible "tipping points" -- the rapid disintegration of the ice sheets, the sudden release of methane from warming northern soils -- that could turn a challenge into a catastrophe of lethal heat waves and rising sea levels.

Is this scientific viewpoint certain or guaranteed? Not when the scientific models concern a system as complex as the Earth's climate. Neither is it guaranteed that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used against that country's enemies. But the realistic possibility of disaster, in both cases, would recommend a serious response.

In the '60s, legislative action on civil rights did not come from an alliance between Northern and Southern Democrats, in which Northern Democrats started with a good bill and then made the requisite concessions to get Southern Democrats on board. It came from an alliance between Democrats who believed in civil rights and Republicans who believed in civil rights. And it was a better bill for it.

You could imagine the same happening on global warming: an alliance between Democrats and Republicans would produce a far better bill than an alliance between Democrats from states that don't rely on the coal industry and states that do. That's the sort of future Gerson is pointing toward in that column. But it's rather harder given that conservatives like Will are doing their level best to make the Republican position a denial of the problem's seriousness and a misrepresentation of the clear trends. The end result will be a bill that is probably worse from Will's perspective -- as it's more bureaucratic and complex and problematic for the market -- and is insufficient to the scale of the problem.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 23, 2009; 4:39 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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When George Will speaks, I go get a cup of cofee. When I see him on a show, I change the channel.

It doesn't surprise me that he is still in the daily media, look how many people voted for Bush the second time.

Posted by: ender3rd | July 23, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

"Is this scientific viewpoint certain or guaranteed? Not when the scientific models concern a system as complex as the Earth's climate. Neither is it guaranteed that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be used against that country's enemies. But the realistic possibility of disaster, in both cases, would recommend a serious response."

A barely perceptible nod to climate change in order to beat the war drums a little louder.

Posted by: pneogy | July 23, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

Good post, Ezra. It really is essential for some Republicans to defy party orthodoxy.

However,to the extent that Republicans continue to marginalize themselves through their willful ignorance of anything and everything, perhaps the Democrats will continue to roll up majorities large enough that their more difficult/ignorant members are not needed to pass legislation.

Posted by: davestickler | July 23, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

The problem is that any moderate Republicans who might vote for climate legislation have been voted out of office and replaced with moderate Democrats. This is also why there doesn't seem to be any bipartisanship going on. There's nobody to be bipartisan with when all that remains of the Congressional GOP is the ideological (aka nonpragmatic) base.

Posted by: bluegrass1 | July 23, 2009 10:35 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if George Will reads Ezra. I mean, they are colleagues now. Yeah, probably not, but he should.

Posted by: MosBen | July 24, 2009 7:22 AM | Report abuse

If you're 29, you've never in your adult life heard George Will make a true statement.

Posted by: timdaly | July 24, 2009 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Someone that is 29 has been an adult for, say, 13 years? It's hard to tell from your chart but the start and end point of the last 13 years seems roughly the same?

Posted by: upton1 | July 24, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

If you're going to "post a graph and leave it at that," you might want to pick one that actually supports your assertion, rather than one that supports the guy you're mocking.

Posted by: LarvellBlanks | July 24, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

If you're going to complain about sourcing, why post a graph without a linked source? And why link to a Climate Progress piece that doesn't support your assertion? Why not examine the data, for example, from the Department of Commerce (plot annual mean temps from 1998 to 2008):

And why demonize those with whom you disagree instead of seriously addressing the issue:

In jumping to a claim of "misrepresenting," you further poison this debate. So much for "restor[ing] science to its rightful place."

Posted by: cfrank2 | July 24, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein does it again. He presents a simplistic graph based on Hanson's modified temperature data. It turns out that Hanson has been decreasing older temperatures and increasing later temperatures to get the nice upward sloping line he desires. Hanson also takes "average" to mean the highest temperature divided by the lowest temperature. Basically, Hanson keeps "reworking" his data to make it show what he wants it to show and Steve McIntyre keeps catching him at it. That is why Hanson and his graphs (which the Klein graph is based on) is not reliable. The graph Klein shows is another view of the same data as in the Hanson developed graph that is second in this link.

Klein, as usual, is tops in being snarky. But, he comes in last when accuracy and understanding are important.


Posted by: goaway41 | July 25, 2009 6:16 PM | Report abuse

So, let's see.

Mark Steyn can't take a position on climate change because, you know, Mark Steyn isn't a climate scientist.

Naturally that leads to the notion that anyone who is NOT an expert (or deemed an expert) can't take a position on that specific subject.

Now, what is Ezra Klein an expert on?


Oh, yeah. Nothing.

Therefore he can write about nothing, or simply quit writing.

Ezra, you're dismissed.

Posted by: karl-keller | July 25, 2009 6:26 PM | Report abuse

Zoom in on the last 10 years of the chart - 1996 - 2006. Graph flattens out. Last 10 years - entire adult life.

Where's the cycle go from here? You tell me, smartie. But his statement is technically correct.

Posted by: robertbee | July 25, 2009 11:07 PM | Report abuse

Upon following the link that Ezra cites in preference to George Will's article, I quickly realized that Ezra, though desparate and understandably embarassed by the disconnect between his emotions and reality, is quite level-headed in comparison to his preferred source of information, who may well be undergoing a mental breakdown. Its amazing. It seems that there are those who wish that the Washington Post would censor all opinion opposed to their own. They have developed juvenile names for their imagined atagonists. They call them "denialists". This kind of paranoid foolishness greatly undermines their argument. Good science, after all, requires discipline and maturity, and at least enough education to understand the role and application of speculative computer models. When nature contradicts your favorite computer model, it is not the time to pull a tantrum. One must buck up and never lose hold of your tether to reality.

Posted by: ibsam | July 26, 2009 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Let's see. If George Will quotes Mark Steyn who is not a scientist, he is wrong. However, if the media quotes the divinity major Al Gore, then it is okay.

Well, let me quote AccuWeather. 3000 record low temperatures were recorded this July.

Posted by: chairsocst | July 26, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

Will's point, of course, is that the last value on your plot is lower than the value for 1998. Known as cherry picking. Problem is, Will doesn't know the first thing about the principles of science -- thinks it's just a tool of polemics, a debating contest, to be tortured and subordinated to ideology. Much like the Soviets (Lysenko anyone?) and Nazis (eugenics, "Jewish physics," etc.). But the thing about science is, in the end the truth will out. The plot you chose is poorly rendered and unattributed. Try 1970 to 2009, with a readably labeled year axis. Still, your point is made. But you talk past the Wills of the world. They don't give a hang about facts. Just want to use debating tricks to sway opinion to their ideology. They don't, like scientists, consider the broad body of evidence and seek earnestly to understand the principles at work. They've adopted a belief a priori and then work backwards with selective and false arguments to advance that belief. That's all they care about. Nothing to do with science. See Soviets, Nazis.


Posted by: tyunck | July 26, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

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