Science & Technology

Confessions of an Alleged ExxonMobil Whore

Actually no one paid me to be wrong about global warming. Or anything else.


"Exxon Misleads on Climate Change," according to Reuters earlier this week. The story, headlined around the globe, was based on a letter sent by the British Royal Society to the oil giant ExxonMobil accusing it of funding groups that misinform the public about the reality of man-made global warming. The prestigious Royal Society is the world's oldest scientific organization. The letter is from Bob Ward, the Society's senior manager for policy communication. Apparently speaking on behalf of the Society, Ward expresses his "disappointment at the inaccurate and misleading view of climate change" conveyed by an ExxonMobil's 2005 Corporate Citizenship report. Ward also says that he did a quick analysis of public policy organizations listed in ExxonMobil's 2005 Worldwide Corporate Giving report and found that "25 offered views consistent with the scientific literature" whereas Ward says he found 39 groups featuring information that "misrepresented the science of climate change."

It's safe to say that Ward may count the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason magazine and Reason Online as one of the 39 groups that he believes misleads the public on the issue of climate change. If that's the case, then at least some of the information that Ward says "misrepresents" climate change science may be past articles written by me. So the question is: Why did I do it? Did ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond hand me brown paper bags filled with stacks of unmarked bills in the back of taxis while whispering, "Ron, we're counting on your widely read and highly influential articles to help stave off the Green onslaught against our soaring profits"? Or was I a simple-minded dupe, passing along misinformation supplied to me during expensive lunches at the Palm by corrupt scientists who had been paid off by the oil giant? Or perhaps I am just generally skeptical of end-of-the-world scenarios and believe, as Carl Sagan famously did, that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence"?

I have been Reason's science correspondent for nearly eight years now. Well before I joined the magazine, I had been reporting and opining on environmental science and policy issues for various publications and as a producer of a number of national PBS television series. As far as I can tell my first published expression of skepticism with regard to catastrophic global warming was in a review of environmentalist Bill McKibben's The End of Nature that I wrote as a staff writer for Forbes magazine in October, 1989 (unfortunately not available online). In that review, I noted that NASA climate modeler James Hansen had testified before Congress a year earlier that he had detected global warming. In my review, I noted, "Hansen is a reputable scientist, but his views are by no means universally accepted." I then quoted a number of climatologists who were skeptical of man-made global warming including MIT's Richard Lindzen and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Andrew Solow. Lindzen told me at the time, "We have no evidence whatsoever that greenhouse warming has begun." (Lindzen is still skeptical of catastrophic man-made global warming.) I would talk with them and many other climate scientists over the next decade and half as I continued to cover this issue.

My next prominent foray into the topic was Chapter 9, "The Sky is Falling," in my book Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (1993). Among much lengthy discussion of the science and politics of climate change, I noted that the satellite record temperature showed warming of 0.06 degrees Celsius per decade, which was one-fifth the 0.3 degrees per decade rate projected by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's First Assessment Report in 1990. The satellite data comes from climatologists John Christy and Roy Spencer from the University of Alabama at Huntsville who would become my go-to guys on the subject. As will become evident below, I tend to trust empirical data over computer models.

In 1993, I accepted the offer to become the first Warren Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). CEI allowed me several months to do research for a technology policy book that unfortunately I was never able to finish. However, this established a fruitful relationship in which I eventually became the editor of a number of volumes on environmental policy and science with CEI. The idea was to offer good scientific evidence and policy prescriptions in contrast with the environmental alarmism and misinformation being propounded in the Worldwatch Institute's annual State of the World reports. Each volume contained chapters dealing with global trends in population, food, forest area, air pollution, fisheries, and so forth. The deal basically was that CEI paid me a fixed amount and I found and got final say on all the authors and that CEI could not edit what they had to say. I found commercial publishers for each volume.

Naturally each book contained a chapter on the issue of man-made global warming. The first book is The True State of the Planet (Free Press, 1995). The global warming chapter was written by University of Arizona climatologist Robert Balling. The chapter relied heavily on the satellite data which found that the atmosphere had cooled by a statistically significant -0.13 degrees Celsius since 1979. Adjusting for the cooling that resulted from the explosion of Mount Pinatubo that had propelled tons of sulfur particles to stratosphere, Christy calculated a slight warming trend of +0.09 degrees Celsius per decade. This was much less than the models were projecting.

The next volume, Earth Report 2000 (McGraw-Hill, 2000) contained a chapter on global warming by Roy Spencer who was then the senior scientist for climate studies at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Spencer pointed out that recently corrected satellite data found a slight warming trend of +0.01 degrees per decade between 1979 and 1997 and when one included the very warm El Nino year of 1998, the trend rose to +0.06 degrees per decade. This trend was only one-fourth the per—decade trend predicted by the models. Spencer added that various weather balloon temperature datasets showed a cooling trend of between -0.07 and -0.2 degrees per decade.

In 2002 came Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths (Prima Publishing). The global warming contributor was University of Alabama at Huntsville climatologist John Christy who is also the principal investigator for the satellite temperature measurements. Christy pointed out, "Since 1979, the global temperature trend is a modest +0.06 degrees Celsius per decade through March 2002." The myth about global warming was not that it was not happening, but that it was unlikely to be catastrophic for humanity or the planet. Christy concluded: "No global warming disaster is looming. Humans are causing an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which will likely cause a very slow rise in global temperatures with which we can easily cope."

So there was a contradiction in climate science. The models projected and the surface thermometer records were showing significant warming. On the other hand, the satellite dataset and various weather balloon datasets showed only very modest warming. Which was right? In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report at the request of the Bush Administration that found that a lot of proxy data indicated that warming was taking place. However, the NAS also noted that the divergence between the satellite data and the thermometer data was troubling. "The finding that surface and troposphere temperature trends have been as different as observed over intervals as long as a decade or two is difficult to reconcile with our current understanding of the processes that control the vertical distribution of temperature in the atmosphere," declared the report. The NAS added, "Because of the large and still uncertain level of natural variability inherent in the climate record and the uncertainties in the time histories of the various forcing agents (and particularly aerosols), a causal linkage between the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the observed climate changes during the 20th century cannot be unequivocally established."

Given this divergence in the various temperature records, climate scientists naturally spent a lot of time and intellectual energy in trying to explain it. In August 2005, Science magazine published three papers that went a long way toward resolving the issue. One paper found that Christy and Spencer had failed to take proper account of satellite drift, which produced a spurious cooling trend to their dataset. Another found that the operation of weather balloons also tended to add spurious cooling to their data. When the corrections were made the satellite and weather balloon datasets were in better agreement with the surface thermometer datasets that showed higher warming trends.

On the day that the studies were released I wrote a column for Reason in which I declared that my skepticism of man-made global warming was at an end. The column was titled, "We're All Global Warmers Now." The first line read: "Anyone still holding onto the idea that there is no global warming ought to hang it up." The bottom line? Christy and Spencer's corrected dataset finds warming of +0.123 degrees per decade. The corrected balloon data tend to support Christy and Spencer. However, the scientific team that found the errors in the satellite data corrects it to find warming of +0.193 degrees per decade. And the surface measurements show a warming trend of 0.15 degrees per decade. In the column, I quote Christy saying, "The new warming trend is still well below ideas of dramatic or catastrophic warming."

Then in May 2006, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report of which John Christy was a co-author that further reconciled the differences in temperature trends. The report found that "global-average temperature increased at a rate of about 0.12 degrees C per decade since 1958, and about 0.16 degrees C per decade since 1979. In the tropics, temperature increased at about 0.11 degrees C per decade since 1958, and about 0.13 degrees C per decade since 1979." I blogged the report at Reason ' s Hit & Run the day the report was issued. I also noted that Christy told the Washington Post that he has a "minimalist interpretation" of the report because Earth is not heating up rapidly at this point.

Just to bring my intellectual journey in reporting and opining about the global warming issue up to date, I reviewed former vice-president Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth for Reason. I agreed that Gore has "won the climate debate" and that "on balance Gore gets it more right than wrong on the science" though I argued he exaggerates just how bad future global warming is likely to be. However, I agree that the balance of the evidence pretty clearly indicates that humanity is contributing to global warming chiefly by means of loading up the atmosphere with extra carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels.

ExxonMobil has been a supporter of the Reason Foundation. Folks at the foundation confirmed when I called yesterday that the company has donated a little over $250,000 since 2000. The company's latest contributions were $10,000 in 2003 and $20,000 this past January. The last contribution poses a possible conundrum for hard-line corporate conspiracy theorists because it arrived about five months after I declared, "We're All Global Warmers Now." I would suggest that ExxonMobil supports the Reason Foundation because my colleagues robustly defend the free enterprise system. "Follow the money" is often pretty good advice when evaluating the source of information, but in the think tank and public policy magazine realm money tends follow opinion, rather than the other way around.

As further disclosure, I have worked with various organizations that I am told have also received grants from ExxonMobil, including CEI and the online publication TCSDaily (formerly TechCentralStation). At no time did anyone at those organizations ask me to change any of my reporting on global warming science or policy (or any other reporting on other topics for that matter). Back in the early 1990s, someone (whose name I have long forgotten) at Exxon asked me to write an article on global warming for the company's in-house magazine for $5,000. I absolutely refused. Finally, with regard to disclosure, I should mention that I own 50 shares of ExxonMobil that I bought on the advice of my stockbroker wife in October 2002 for $34.53 per share. I am happy to report that her advice was sound–those shares are going for about $64.00 today.

So if corporate shilling doesn't explain my stubborn skepticism about global warming, what does? Looking back over my reporting on the issue, I would argue the consistent theme is my reliance on temperature datasets as a way to either validate or invalidate the projections of computer climate models. Up until the last year or so, the satellite data and weather balloon data pointed to relatively modest global warming much below the trends predicted by most climate models. If those trends were correct then there was no imminent "planetary emergency." When the trends were shown to be incorrect last year, I "converted" into a global warmer. In the past year, a great deal of new evidence-reductions in arctic ice cover, growing Siberian lakes and so forth–has also tended to confirm the conclusion in my mind that man-made global warming may become a problem. Because of this accumulating evidence I am much less certain than Christy and Spencer are that the future warming is unlikely to be a significant problem.

And then there is also the matter of my intellectual commitments. We all have them. Since I work for a self-described libertarian magazine that should indicate to even the dimmest reader that I tend to have a healthy skepticism of government "solutions" to problems, including government solutions to environmental problems. I have long argued that the evidence shows that most environmental problems occur in open access commons-that is, people pollute air, rivers, overfish, cut rainforests, and so forth because no one owns them and therefore no one has an interest in protecting them. One can solve environmental problems caused by open access situations by either privatizing the commons or regulating it. It will not surprise anyone that I generally favor privatization. That's because I believe that the overwhelming balance of the evidence shows that centralized top-down regulation tends to be costly, slow, often ineffective, and highly politicized. As a skeptic of government action, I had hoped that the scientific evidence would lead to the conclusion that global warming would not be much of a problem, so that humanity could avoid the messy and highly politicized process of deciding what to do about it. Unhappily, I now believe that balance of evidence shows that global warming could well be a significant problem. Since it doesn't seem pertinent to the purpose of this column, I will leave the policy discussion of how to handle man-made climate change to another time.

So I didn't get any stacks of $20 dollar bills in brown paper bags from ExxonMobil (don't believe any photoshopped pictures you may see to the contrary). I also don't think that I was duped by paid-off scientists. Except for climatologist Robert Balling, as the embedded links above show, the sleuths at Exxonsecrets have uncovered no payments to the scientists I chiefly relied upon in my reporting over the years. But was I too skeptical, demanding too much evidence or ignoring evidence that cut against what I wanted to believe? Perhaps. In hindsight I can only plead that there is no magic formula for deciding when enough evidence has accumulated that a fair-minded person must change his or her mind on a controversial scientific issue. With regard to global warming it finally did for me in the last year. That was far too late for many and still too early for others. However, I can't resist pointing out that I became a "convert" on global warming nearly a year before some other prominent journalistic skeptics such as Gregg Easterbrook and Michael Shermer changed their minds.

So then not a whore, just virtuously wrong. Looking to the future, I can't promise that my reporting will always be right (no reporter can, but I will strive to make it so), but my reporting has always been honest and I promise that it always will be.