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The real science on climate change, again

My colleague Tom Toles came into my office a couple of weeks ago asking for sources on climate science, particularly ones that are brief, accessible and fair -- documents that he could reference in his unending battle against the climate skeptics in his comments section. Among other places, I pointed him to The Economist's recent assessment of climate science, which only made Tom grimace because it's behind a paywall. The thriving skeptic community in his comments section, no doubt, would have accused Tom of conspiring with Queen Spider to hide evidence that the Earth is really entering another ice age, or something.

Helpfully, though, the Royal Academy of Sciences just released its own guide to climate change for non-specialists, which separates "areas where the science is well established, where there is still some debate, and where substantial uncertainties remain." In the well-established section, you can reacquaint yourself with tidbits such as: "present-day
[carbon dioxide] concentrations are higher than any that have been observed in the past 800,000 years." From the report's concluding remarks:

There is strong evidence that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the dominant cause of the global warming that has taken place over the last half century. This warming trend is expected to continue as are changes in precipitation over the long term in many regions. Further and more rapid increases in sea level are likely which will have profound implications for coastal communities and ecosystems.

It is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm or exactly how the climate will change in the future, but careful estimates of potential changes and associated uncertainties have been made. Scientists continue to work to narrow these areas of uncertainty. Uncertainty can work both ways, since the changes and their impacts may be either smaller or larger than those projected.

As others before it, this cautious summary of the science maintains that the big uncertainties about climate change don't involve whether or not the world is warming -- it is -- or, really, whether humans are contributing. More controversial is calculating climate sensitivity -- just how much the climate shifts given a certain increase in atmospheric CO2. Estimates range between about 2C and 4.5C for a doubling of carbon dioxide. Scientists are trying to narrow that spread, but climate modeling is exceptionally difficult, particularly when it comes to estimating the effects of clouds on the climate system.

Favoring action to cut greenhouse emissions doesn't require absolute certainty about climate sensitivity, though. Even if the science is less sound than the climate community deems it, the probability that the modeling is basically accurate is still high enough and the likely consequences of inaction are still unacceptable enough to warrant serious concern. As The Economist puts it:

Using the IPCC’s assessment of probabilities, the sensitivity to a doubling of carbon dioxide of less than 1.5C in such a scenario has perhaps one chance in ten of being correct. But if the IPCC were underestimating things by a factor of five or so, that would still leave only a 50:50 chance of such a desirable outcome. The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large, and in some of which it is very dangerous indeed. The doubters are right that uncertainties are rife in climate science. They are wrong when they present that as a reason for inaction.

By Stephen Stromberg  | October 11, 2010; 5:48 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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I'm a firm believer in global warming, and have been for decades, but that Economist block quote at the end of your post is barely comprehensible. I had to slowly read it 3 times to make sure I understood what it was saying. Funny that a publication so known for its plain language would try to sum up the science of climate change so awkwardly.

Posted by: simpleton1 | October 11, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

It is also a fact based upon the published data that the temperature reading have been cherry picked. When is the global warming crowd going to answer how this might impact the data. It is indisputable that it has occurred, look at the data, what impact might this have. Why with better and better equipment available do we take less and less readings.

Also, the clown in the UK who said he was a sloppy record keeper but we use his results any way. A PhD is all about learning to do research, if his records suck so does his research.

Posted by: mgochs | October 11, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

Ah, yet another "journalist" term laughably used)who hasn't done his homework. Why no mention of the recently released Max Plank Institute study findings that show the sun putting out more energy over the last 150 years? Hmm, what has the LARGEST effect on our planets temp? Hmmm. ROFLMAO

Posted by: illogicbuster | October 11, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

I wish the media would stop calling those who deny the scientific community in favor of head-in-sand policy "skeptics". Some of them genuinely, sincerely are skeptical, but the vast majority of them aren't even skeptical at all.

Some of the "skeptics" - call them the low-brow deniers - know darn well that they are mouthing deceptions. But it's becomes such an emotional political issue for them - to acknowledge the scientific community is to embrace Al Gore, horrors! - that they just keep doubling down against humanity in their backpedalling dance into the historical hall of shame.

Other "skeptics" also know darn well that they are mouthing lies, but it isn't childish political chagrin that makes them fight against their own species. It is pure short-term self-interest: either they are getting paid to lie by industry interests of one kind or another, or they themselves have a vested interest in squeezing out a few more years of profits at our next generation's expense.

I would venture that somewhere between 10 and 30% of those so-called actually have a skeptical thought in their heads. So I wish the media would simply call them what they are: climate change deniers.

Posted by: B2O2 | October 11, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

Climate is another area vague enough for liberals to use to enact ideologically oriented social legislation.

In short, a democrat's solution is always worse than the real or imagined problem.

Posted by: georgedixon1 | October 11, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

Tom Toles might enjoy taking a look at - there are some thorough examinations of the various 'skeptic' arguments, with lots of pointers to peer-reviewed articles relevant to various points that have been raised regarding climate change.

The climate sensitivity indeed looks to be within 2C (a fairly solid lower bound) to 4.5C (soft estimate, it could be considerably higher) - cloud feedback being the biggest unknown. Even the lower estimates should give us pause.

Posted by: MrMike3 | October 11, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I find particularly amusing all the global warming deniers who post online, using hydropower to power the internet from the 50 PERCENT OF ALL GLACIERS in Montana, Idaho, British Columbia, and Alberta that have MELTED that survived HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

I'd say more, but stuck on s.up.d is just too aggravating. The glaciers I literally grew up with are GONE.

Posted by: WillSeattle | October 11, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

Underestimating warming is dangerous. Warming affects vegetation out of cycle seeing as their would still be something of a winter each year, freezing it off. Trying to pre-time it and then doing something about it quickly would be a disaster. The present, smaller steps delivered incrementally is a wise choice, however without any delays in this and future schedules. Jack Frost much?

On another linked matter, what other nations are going to embrace "green" solutions? ... Just about everyone of them, except this one evidently. .... Why? Because they have to.

Posted by: deepthroat21 | October 11, 2010 8:59 PM | Report abuse

Sigh . . . the same types who ardently deny looming, catastrophic Global Warming, are often the same types who simply cannot understand that the root of all the climate, immigration (Israel-Palestine; USA-Mexico, uns), deforestation, water and air pollution problems, diminishing and dying marine life, etc. IS THE POPULATION BOMB!
Madness - so many are as biologically ignorant as the Dark Non-Science Age Vatican!
Madness - Lemmings!

Posted by: lufrank1 | October 11, 2010 9:36 PM | Report abuse

Those of you who constantly look for evidence that the world is warming because of CO2 will be able to find it. There are huge financial incentives available to researchers who can support your party line.

Those who actually look for information about what is happening to the climate worldwide will find additional information questioning the warmist catastrophe predictions. The sea level rise predictions have been made with 'settled science certainty' since the 1990's. Sea level has risen about 3.1 millimeters a year since satellite measurements began in 1994. That is about 5.9 inches in 50 years, if the rate stays the same. CAGW alarmists talk about increasing rates, but they said the same in 1990 and if anything the rate is decreasing in recent years. See

The only practical method for reducing the amount of CO2 going airborne from human activity is to stop using coal, oil, and natural gas to produce electricity, power cars, trucks, buses, and run motors in factories. Last number I saw for world wide energy supply sources said that about one percent 1/100 of the world's energy in 2006 came from these alternate sources. The use of coal, oil, and natural gas to produce energy is increasing, and all of the potential reductions in the western world will be a tiny percentage of the growth in China, India, etc. The alternative sources are growing, and might even reach 2 percent of a much larger number in ten or twenty years. So even if the catastrophe forecasts are true, which I doubt, the world would be much better off adapting than trying to suppress CO2. The Chinese economy alone will far surpass any 'savings' accomplished by crippling our economy.

Mandating the use of alternative energy sources will be inconvenient for poorer people in rich countries. It will be deadly for the 2 billion people who live in comparative poverty today.

I support neither the left nor the right in politics, but there is something ironic about watching the left propose polices that will devastate the poorer people whom they pretend to be concerned about in health care, taxes, etc. I guess humanitarianism is relative to who is paying for and promoting the policy. Leftist nonsense about global warming must be supported because it came from leftists?

The reason Tom is having so much trouble finding evidence is that there is not much credible evidence. Once you remove the cherry picked data, use appropriate statistical methods, and tell the truth, you get maybe 1 or 2 degrees warming in the next century with some uncertainty in both directions. Most of the world will benefit from warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, and more plant growth because plants grow better when there is more CO2; this is why CO2 gas is injected into green houses - not to make the green house warmer but to provide more food for the plants.

Posted by: AGWsceptic99 | October 11, 2010 11:07 PM | Report abuse

The overwhelming paleoclimate evidence from around the globe is that the Medieval Warm Period (MWP), the Roman Warm Period and the Minoan Warming were synchronous, world wide and much warmer than today.

However, the MWP deniers, such as the IPCC, US EPA and the UK’s MET Office, will never admit the existence of the MWP because it means that their religious-like belief in AGW is exposed for the steaming pile of junk science that it truly is.

In total, climate change is complex and not well understood.

But this part is simple.

Since the world was warmer when CO2 levels were lower, CO2 cannot be the earth's temperature regulator.

In the past, the Earth was warmer than it is today; before the social and industrial advances that have made modern people the healthiest and most prosperous in history. MWP deniers want us to believe that plant friendly and life giving CO2 is a bad thing to better advance their meglomanical desire to both boss around the developed world and further impoverish the poor while pocketing a lot of taxpayer money along the way.

Useless, misguided attempts to control carbon are not the answer to the ever changing climate.There is only one answer to changes in climate that has ever worked for humanity.

That is adaptation.

One of the many links to the overwhelming Paleoclimate evidence of the global nature of the MWP is below.

More information

Posted by: orkneygal | October 11, 2010 11:51 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, Toles, your fundamental error is in thinking that climate deniers might be persuaded by scientific evidence. Having debated so many of them myself, it's become clear to me that this isn't about science at all. For them, no amount of evidence will ever suffice, for theirs is strictly an ideological/theological proposition. Sorry, deniers, my karma just ran over your dogma!

Posted by: Bugs222 | October 11, 2010 11:56 PM | Report abuse

This is a well written analysis of the real uncertainty in climate science and the risks of ignoring it.

It's pretty much known in the scientific community that the planet is warming and that the fingerprint is that of increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. What's unknown or controversial at this point is the sensitivity of the atmosphere to continued warming.

In past episodes of climate change, biological systems were pretty resilient to some degree of change. Populations of organisms shifted in their ranges and inhabited new geographical areas.

What's new here is that the rate of temperature change could even be faster than these past events given how quickly CO2 and Methane are changing, and we can't discount positive feedback loops from the permafrost melting and releasing methane.

What is new too is that due to deforestation, soil degradation, overfishing, pollution, mining and a hundred other industrial effects, our biosphere is in pretty rough condition before the major warming even hits. It's going to be an almost impossible struggle to keep 50% of our species from going extinct. These are the numbers that biologists regularly use these days in talking about the scale of the problem.

We're going to be coping with climate change as we simultaneously run out of the easily assessible oil, coal, gas, minerals and water as well. Juggling these competing issues will be impossible if we do not now start preparing to build our economic and industrial systems to be steady-state... rather than growth and consumption oriented

Posted by: billSWS | October 11, 2010 11:57 PM | Report abuse

Tom Toles might enjoy taking a look at
################# is a *great* resource. And what makes it even better is that you can download a free skepticalscience app to run on your Iphone, Android, or Nokia smartphone. Linkies here: (Android), (Iphone), or (Nokia)

Mr. Toles will have everything he needs right at his fingertips to debunk the anti-science loonies, or failing that, to create a terrific cartoon that mocks them with appropriate severity.

Posted by: caerbannog | October 12, 2010 12:59 AM | Report abuse

I want to know who will be on the global committee, necessarily having police powers in order to be effective, which will assure a grateful world that the sea levels will never attain a level dangerous to precisely 99.7% (3 Sigma on the normal curve) of the Earth's people.

Posted by: rpavellas | October 12, 2010 8:42 AM | Report abuse

It is difficult to disbelieve in climate change. Clearly, it has changed since the last ice age. And it is always changing. However, how much we can do to change climate to one more beneficial to us is a big question. Some of the proposals (the President's and Al Gore's come to mind) come with severe consequences to our economy. Are those changes necessary? Some clearly are in our interests. Conservation measures that reduce our dependence on foreign oil are in our interests. Developments of alternative and/or renewable sources of energy in our interests. Developing a carbon exchange in Chicago to benefit environmental entrepreneurs is not so clear. We are right to be sceptical of people who claim they have the answers. Too often all they have are solutions for themselves, not us.

Posted by: sailhardy | October 12, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Why are people responding to Tom Toles in a blog post written by Stephen Stromberg?

Remember to proofread before you cut and paste, people.

Posted by: simpleton1 | October 12, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

I have posted the following blog at one other location but feel it is appropriate here also. Most proponents and skeptics of AGW have little knowledge of this rather new revelation called Satellitegate. It puts the most respected data into serious question.

For the past ten years I have been investigating the climate controversy. I have a PhD in chemical physics and out of curiosity thought it would be worthwhile to look at both sides of the issue. Initially I assumed that the facts presented by the AGW supporters were unbiased and grounded in good science. However because of my experience with code writing and analysis, I was naturally suspicious that AGW computer code predictions had any credibility, much less the 90% accuracy as stated by the IPCC. I also studied the ozone hole phenomenon some years ago including the chemical kinetics and data sets collected over time. With respect to the Ozone hole, which is complicated but much less so then AGW, my conclusion was it was real and our response of banning CFCs warranted. However, the data sets for the Mann’s Hockey Stick and current climate codes are, at best, unreliable and most likely cherry picked to support AGW. A very readable and honest review which I carefully examined can be found at

You should read it even though it was written by a skeptic.

Even more important is the revelation which is slowly becoming known as SATELLITEGATE, which from a scientific standpoint, should dwarf Climategate. Google it. It seems that the satellite temperature data that has been used in every AGW code is highly suspect and dead wrong in many cases. The predictions of those codes cannot be believed with any degree of certainty at this point. NOAA is slowly admitting this fact, and is now taking some of the satellites offline and not disseminating the data around the world. If you have bad data going into the codes which are the foundation of the AGW community, then the predictions, made by those codes and that community are next to worthless. This data may have been in error for the past ten years. NOAA charges users for this data and I believe will be sued because it has known this fact for some time. The revelation of Satellitegate seems to have been broken by another insider. So far as I can find out there are, at this time, five satellites involved. Indeed, it is likely that there is not enough historically reliable data to even show that the earth has been warming over the past decade, much less that any warming might be caused by the anthropogenic increase in CO2 since the industrial revolution. We’ll all have to wait to see how this new revelation evolves and what its consequences will be for the AGW proponents. As of late NOAA seems to be unwilling or at least reluctant to address the issue forthrightly, probably because the consequences would be dire.

Posted by: herblaeger | October 12, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Why should we accept the definition of the UK's Royal Academy of Sciences? It has been completely politicized.

This definition mandates globalism. This is world government to save the planet. This is the end of American sovereignty.

There is false data that suggests changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the dominant cause of the global warming that may have taken place over the last half century.

It is not possible to determine exactly how much the Earth will warm.

Posted by: alance | October 12, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

It is amazing how the climate "skeptics" continue to misrepresent facts. I agree with earlier posts that this is probably a mix of deliberately spreading misinformation combined with ignorance.

illogicbuster - FYI the Max Planck Institute has this on its website re. the influence of the sun:
"Studies at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research reveal: solar activity affects the climate but plays only a minor role in the current global warming"

orkneygal - I have seen you post this misinformation about the Medieval Warming Period before. As I have responded before, the IPCC does not "deny" the MWP (it is discussed by the IPCC) and its existence does not disprove our current understanding about climate change.

Posted by: climatebob | October 12, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

One thing I've always found curious, is the right bought into Dick Cheney's 1% doctrine. That if the likely hood of something occurring is 1%, you treat it like certainty and throw all your effort behind it. Of course he was referring to armed conflicts, but if the theory is valid and the impact that potentially devastating, then why risk it?

I think it's really that these guys love playing army, especially since most were too chicken to do it in real life.

Posted by: phbella61 | October 12, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

@: orkneygal

Unfortunately, your claim that "Since the world was warmer when CO2 levels were lower, CO2 cannot be the earth's temperature regulator." involves a fallacy: denying the antecedent.

Just because the CO2 levels weren't higher than they are now during periods of warming, does not mean that higher CO2 do not cause, or have strong correlation to, warming. Other factors may have been involved. It could be entirely possible that those periods you named would have been even warmer with higher CO2 levels.

I wish more "skeptics" would actually apply logic to their arguments. Then you might not come across as idiotic.

I find it interesting

Posted by: lingeringvoid | October 12, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I don't know many global warming skeptics who shout for inactivity - we're all for the "smart grid" and for becoming independent of oil provided by our enemies. Many of us are more avid recyclers than our global warming believing neighbors and co - workers are. A whole lot of us are downsizing our consumerism, buying second hand, growing our own veggies and raising chickens for the free range eggs we eat.

What we are against is a policy that "necessarily skyrockets" our energy bills and lowers the standard of our living and basically redistributes the wealth of the United States to third world countries while China and other large nations do little or nothing to curb their own polluting of the world.

We are against ads that "blow up" children who don't raise their hand and agree to what the teacher says they have to agree to.

When Kennedy said that he wanted us to go "to the moon" he didn't impoverish the American people to do so. Obama admitted that he'd be lowering our standard of living when he made it clear that more of our income would be going to pay our energy bills, put gas in our pockets or make a car payment in order to save on that gas.

We can move forward on alternate forms of energy without completely destroying a way of life that has enriched the world with the technology and industry developed in this country.

And if you doubt, take a look at photos from the 8/28 rally and the ones from the 10/2 rally and see who really does care about the environment - its clear from the trash left behind by those who all believe in global warming........

Posted by: LMW6 | October 12, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

True or not, the solution to our long term survival is about the same. Oil is finite, and it is just a manner of time before we will see that there is not enough oil in the world to keep all of our cars, trucks and airplanes moving across our 50 states.

We will have to seek another form of energy to keep up our fast pace.

Nuclear is a possibility, but what we never hear much about is the cooling water necessary for their operation.

Solar and wind will help, but won't let us live the life of energy luxury like we have had since the first PA oil well. We might exist, but not in the luxury we have had. Having big families will be a thing of the past.

There is always the possibility of a troublesome country cutting off our supply of oil.

But, I suspect there truly is manmade global warming.

But if there is truly human caused global warming, our political system won't permit us to correct it because of a great number of our politicians don't even believe in evolution and probably think the oil in the earth is a never ending supply.

Go to CO2Now Home and they give a graph of the CO2 since the middle of the 20th century. You could also checkout the Keeling curve.

Posted by: LL314 | October 12, 2010 4:52 PM | Report abuse

LMW6, look around a little. Yes, China is rapidly developing an energy-hungry middle class, but China is also blowing the U.S. away in green jobs and green technology development. From The Guardian: "The Chinese government spent $34.6 billion last year to propel its low-carbon economy, more than any other nation and almost double what the U.S. invested. The country is now headquarters for six of the biggest renewable energy employers—up from three in 2008—according to Clean Tech Job Trends 2009."

And don't tell me you expect the U.S. to lead the world in the development of science and technology when Tea Party types regularly call science a giant lie (oh, wait, only the parts of science that they don't agree with, whenever they decide not to agree with them).

Posted by: DLetc | October 12, 2010 5:10 PM | Report abuse

Tom, your piece is full of holes.
1) Climate models do not prove anything, nor do they show with ANY level of certainty. You are placing a level of trust in these models that history does not justify. The models from 15 years ago have done a TERRIBLE job predicting the past 15 years. So, how can you use them to justify that they understand the causes of the 20th century warming? To be scientific, a computer model is a hypothesis and not a theory, until it has been tested and real-world evidence has provided support for it. Hindcasting (the process of using the modle to predict the past) as a justification for it's accuracy is so wrought with flaws it should be completely ignored (the models correctly predict the past as they are tuned to do so, if they don't predict the past right, they adjust the variables to tweak the results - but this doesn't make them more accurate, it just changes where they fudge different climate mechanisms).
2) The margin of error for climate science should bother any sane person. The margin of error tends to be larger than the predictions (for example, the carbon cycle).
3) There are plenty of rational scientists who have very serious doubts about climate change as we understand it today. As with any scientific hypothesis, it is quite alright to have these doubts, questions the other side's facts and methods, and object to large-scale proposals to try to mend a problem that may not even exist.

Posted by: natecar | October 12, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse

The above article refers to the difficulty of calculating climate sensitivity using climate models: giving results ranging from between about 2C and 4.5C for a doubling of carbon dioxide.

However, there is another way. Climate sensitivity actually refers to something exceedingly simple from an empirical point of view: what would happen to global temperatures (after a few decades) if we suddenly doubled atmospheric [CO2]? This is how Professor Jule Charney defined the problem when President Jimmy Carter asked the US National Academy of Science to investigate global warming in 1979.

Empirical data from the real world, from paleoclimatic studies, are reasonably reliable and simple enough for us to find the answer. Basically, we need to find two times within the Earth's history when differences in temperature, CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases concentrations, albedo, orbital and solar forcings etc. are reasonably well known. Two such times are between the last glacial maximum and the late Holocene, where a total forcing of about 7W/m^2 (from GHGs, ice sheet albedo, and dust/vegetation changes) resulted in an average global temperature increase of about 5C, giving, approximately, the (frequently cited)climate sensitivity of 0.75degC per W/m^2. That equates to a climate sensitivity for a doubling of CO2 of about 3 degrees Celsius.

This is what James Hansen says about the difference between using climate models and paleoclimatic studies ("Storms of My Grandchildren", p.44)

"Climate sensitivity will never be defined accurately by models.
Fortunately, Earth's history allows precise evaluation of climate sensitivity without using climate models."

Posted by: Slioch | October 13, 2010 5:24 AM | Report abuse


You grossly overstate the situation.
Take, for example, your assertion, "The models from 15 years ago have done a TERRIBLE job predicting the past 15 years."

That is because the models of 15 years ago made no attempt to predict the last 15 years, and no-one with any understanding of what the models were used for would make such an assertion. Simply put, a prediction of an average global temperature rise of Xdeg.C per century is NOT a prediction of a rise of X/10C per decade, let alone one of X/100C per year, as you appear to believe.

Posted by: Slioch | October 13, 2010 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Even if global warming isn't as big a threat as many believe, the steps taken to mitigate it are all positive: Less polution - Try defending polution if you can. Greater energy efficiency - isn't that a good thing in and of itself? Defend waste if you can. Reducing man-made deforestation - that's a bad thing?

Some people are like the guy that jumps off the skyscraper and as he passes each floor he can be heard saying "So far, so good." Sure, maybe the pavement rushing toward us is just liberal disinformation. As long we can bask in the warm glow of our big screen TVs, we'll be fine. As long as we've got ice in our drink, why worry about ice in the Arctic? Then again, we might want to open a parachute.

Posted by: typedancer | October 13, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse


You see someone coming toward in the distance, but s/he's too far away to tell who or what it is. Man? Woman? Gorilla? Elephant? Enemy? Friend?

There's too much uncertainty so you keep looking, gathering more data.

Skeptics think the uncertainty proves nothing is approaching. Or, things have approached before and nothing needed to be done.

Skeptics like this are known by another name in the jungle: lunch.


Posted by: egc52556 | October 13, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

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