Journal Plays a Broken Record

Editorial board is clearly still bitter about Gore and climate

The disconnect between The Wall Street Journal’s excellent coverage of climate change as a credible, man-made threat, and its editorial opinion that global warming is a lot of, well, hot air, is well established. This week, the opinion page seemed to be striving for a new level of myopia.

On Wednesday, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., a member of the Journal’s editorial board, published a column reanimating the rapidly souring complaint that Al Gore doesn’t deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for “promoting belief in manmade global warming as a crisis.” Jenkins worries that journalists will credit Gore with an overstated achievement.

“The media will be tempted to blur the fact that his medal, which Mr. Gore will collect on Monday in Oslo, isn’t for ‘science,’” Jenkins wrote. He then lays out his belief that the much-heralded scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet is entirely artificial. Jenkins attributes the widespread belief in that consensus to the effect of an “availability cascade,” whereby an idea gains traction simply because the press repeats it:

What if the heads being counted to certify an alleged “consensus” arrived at their positions by counting heads? It may seem strange that scientists would participate in such a phenomenon. It shouldn’t. Scientists are human; they do not wait for proof; many devote their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses (especially well-funded hypotheses) they’ve chosen to believe.

Gore, Jenkins insinuates, is a master at exploiting the “availability cascade” of the climate consensus, and that is why he got his Peace Prize: for being a brilliant opportunist. It is true that Gore won his award for popularizing climate science, not doing it. But Jenkins makes Gore’s work seem like manipulation and political spin, and there are many holes in his argument.

First of all, the scientific consensus that Jenkins pegs as mere artifice is actually quite robust. It has been almost twenty years since NASA scientist Jim Hansen first announced to Congress that global warming is a real, man-made threat, but it has taken all the time since then to achieve the consensus we have now. This is no mere child’s game in which one scientist parrots another in an attempt to validate some preconceived notion of how the climate works. For the last two decades, scientists have labored arduously in lab and field to amass a body of research that will settle important disputes about global warming. It has been an incremental and deliberative process that is only now producing any form of widespread agreement.

But Jenkins doesn’t fault the scientists alone: “Less surprising is the readiness of many prominent journalists to embrace the role of enforcer of an orthodoxy simply because it is the orthodoxy.” Whoa now. Journalists, like scientists, didn’t just start chirping about a consensus one day; they covered its gradual development piece-by-piece. Jenkins might remember that, until very recently, reporters were criticized for injecting too much skepticism (under the guise of “balance”) into their global warming articles. Taking into account the complete history of the climate debate, then, Jenkins’ insistence that the current consensus is artificial is both shallow and ill informed. Unfortunately, that is not the only problem with his column.

Elsewhere in Jenkins’ piece he writes that, “a Nobel has never been awarded for the science of global warming.” Um, except for when the one he’s writing about was presented jointly to Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Though the IPCC did not conduct any original research of its own, it vetted years’ of work-work that had already been peer-reviewed-by its member scientists and others.

I’m all for a healthy dose of skepticism if it is well informed, timely, and sheds new light on the matter at hand. And I know how to play Devil’s advocate, too. If Jenkins had wanted to contribute a meaningful column, while upholding the Journal’s editorial cynicism, he could have chosen a more current and consequential target. For instance, 200 of the world’s leading climate scientists released a petition at the United Nations climate conference in Bali on Thursday urging the leaders gathered there to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Their petition largely echoes recent IPCC reports, but delves further into the realm of prescriptive policy. Jenkins could have argued that scientists, for credibility’s sake, should concern themselves with facts alone and creating climate scenarios that politicians-not scientists-use to weigh various policy options.

There is also the case of the U.S. Congress giving initial approval this week to two bills that would limit greenhouse gas emissions and raise automobile fuel-efficiency standards. Jenkins could have stuck up for Harlan Watson, who is leading the U.S. delegation in Bali, when Watson said he would continue to oppose mandatory emissions caps, despite the events in Congress. Finally this week, there is the consortium of research organizations that released an action plan outlining 300 specific steps the next president can take during his or her first 100 days in office to improve energy efficiency, reduce emissions, and grow the economy. Jenkins could have argued that the plan is unrealistic, or that those who made it are getting ahead of themselves.

Any way you slice it, it was a busy week for global-warming news, and climate skeptics had a robust target list. Nevertheless, Jenkins failed to produce even one original or relevant thought. He ignored the week’s most consequential events and harped on a fading debate.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.