In the days ahead, you will be hearing more and more about something called the National Assessment Synthesis Report. It is an analysis of the effects of global climate change on the environment, agriculture, water, health, society, biological diversity, and on and on.
The report is being prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a group that includes representatives from different federal agencies. An advance draft was rushed into print last year in time for President Clinton to talk about it in his State of the Union Address. But the comments on the draft by scientific reviewers were so devastating that the report was held up. Now, it's back just in time for the November election. The idea is that a global warming scare would benefit Al Gore's candidacy, and the report provides just the kind of gloom and doom to do the trick.
A revised draft was made public for comment in June, and the gist of it is reflected in headlines like this one in the Washington Post: "Drastic Climate Changes Forecast: Global Warming Likely to Cause Droughts, Coastal Erosion in U.S., Report Says." Peter Jennings said on ABC TV: "The draft of a report to Congress says that global warming over the next century is going to be several enough in many parts of the country to end winter as we know it."
Such scary tales will make it easier for Gore and other politicians to convince Americans to embrace their agenda of heavy taxes and onerous controls on businesses and individuals in an effort to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide even though there is no evidence that global warming is a serious threat, is imminent, or has manmade causes.
The report is so deficient that the chairman of the House Science Committee asked the White House to hold it up. No dice. Then, on Oct. 5, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, along with Reps. Joseph Knollenberg (R-Mich) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) filed a lawsuit contending that the report violated several federal laws, including one requiring open meetings. The suit asked that the Assessment not be made public until it is fixed.
The problem with the report is that it's bad science. Its general conclusions are certainly frightening. In the words of an article in Science magazine, greenhouse gasses will cause the U.S. to "warm, affecting everything from the western snowpacks that supply California with water to New England's fall foliage." In addition, wrote reporter John Fialka of the Wall Street Journal, "Rising sea levels and heavy rains will force coastal cities to spend billions of dollars to redesign subways, tunnels, dams and sewage-treatment systems." And, wrote Fialka, higher temperatures will "trigger the spread of waterborne diseases and red tides [and] a northward expansion of malaria, dengue fever and other diseases."
But the report lacks the detail to back up many of its contentions, due to what reporter Richard A. Kerr of Science called "the rudimentary state of regional climate science." And many scientists are outraged by the distortions in the report, among them Mike Slimak and Joel Scheraga of the Environmental Protection Agency itself. The two wrote the health report in the Assessment but complain that "many statements have a rather extremist/alarmist tone and do not appear to fairly reflect the scientific literature, the historical record, or the output of extant models." John Christy, a respected scientist at the University of Alabama said of the report, "I saw no attempt at scientific objectivity. This document is an evangelistic statement about a coming apocalypse, not a scientific statement." And, said Dr. Jae Edmonds of the Batelle National Laboratory, "The current version of the report reads more like an advertising supplement to Time magazine than a National Assessment." Meanwhile, six scientists from the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated that, among other things, the "Assessment did not conduct a rigorous and scientific assessment of uncertainty. The inferences in the text that lead the reader to believe that such an analysis was undertaken should be eliminated."
The problem is that report sounds as if the dire results it predicts are much more likely than the state of current science can possibly say they are. For example, there are two widely used climate models, one from the Canadian Climate Center and the other from the U.K. Hadley Center for Climate Research and Prediction. On many key points, the two models produce very different conclusions.
The Canadian model, for instance, predicts that precipitation in the Northeast will fall by 10 percent, but the Hadley model says it will rise by 24 percent. The Canadian model says that conifer forests and grasslands in the West will increase, while the Hadley model says they will decrease. In the Southeast, the Canadian model says that crop yields will fall, but the Hadley model says they will rise.
No wonder the EPA's own website warns, "Complicated models are able to simulate many features of the climate, but they are still not accurate enough to provide reliable forecasts of how the climate may change; and the several models often yield contradictory results."
But that didn't stop President Clinton in June from saying that the report "suggests that change in climate could meant more extreme weather, more floods, more droughts, disrupted water supplies, loss of species, dangerously rising sea levels."
He added, with characteristic hyperbole and sentimentality, "This is about science, this is about evidence, this is about the things that are bigger than all of us and very much about our obligation to these children here to give them a future on this planet."
But the National Assessment is not about science and about evidence. It is about politics and about laying the groundwork for taking drastic steps that will almost certainly raise energy costs and put downward pressure on the standard of living in the United States not to mention in developing countries.
For decades, bad science has been placed in the service of political ends. But nothing like this. Fools in Washington are rushing in with drastic solutions -- to tackle a problem that science cannot confirm, let alone accurately assess.