After igniting a firestorm in the blogosphere (and attracting some attention from mainstream media) with a February 15 column in which he misrepresented scientific data in order to discount concerns about global warming—and then penning another column about the ensuing controversy—Washington Post columnist George Will returns to the topic of climate change today.
Much of Will’s column is devoted to mocking earnest officials in developing countries for believing that China and other developing nations will agree to emissions curbs that might restrain their economic growth. In this, he may have a point. Paul Krugman raised the same issue, in the course of coming to a very different conclusion, in The New York Times in May. (On the other hand, The Atlantic’s James Fallows, who’s spent the last few years living in China, has a quite different perspective.)
But Will’s piece goes off the rails near its conclusion, as he uses skepticism about China’s course of action to argue against the U.S. taking any steps to curb emissions—and then returns to his old claim that global warming isn’t really such a big deal, after all.
To prove the latter point, Will doesn’t bother to quote scientists or reports today. Instead, he cites the conservative columnist Mark Steyn, who wrote in a recent National Review column: “If you’re 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life. If you’re graduating high school, there has been no global warming since you entered first grade.”
Steyn’s claim, in turn, was based on an Environmental Protection Agency report that found that “there’s been no net warming in the 21st century, and more accurately, a decline.” That sounds awfully similar to a point Will made both in his original Feb. 15 piece and in yet another column, in which he cited World Meteorological Organization data to argue that “there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998.” And it sounds similarly flawed. CJR’s Curtis Brainard pointed out at the time that Will’s “statement grossly mischaracterizes the significance of the WMO’s data.” And the WMO, in a letter to the Post, agreed.
Cherry-picking data points from the last decade, as Will continues to do, may be a useful debating trick. But it’s a lousy way to advance public understanding of science.