AP Fumbles Global Warming Story

Published June 1, 2004

In late March, the Associated Press ran a global warming story [1] that makes a number of misleading, if not downright inaccurate, statements. Faulty “news” stories like this one, which mislead people all over the world, do not reflect a consensus of scientists. It is alarming that a media outlet as influential as AP would run a story this wrong … and that so many news editors would be gullible enough to run it.

Carbon Dioxide’s Role

The AP story reported: “Carbon dioxide, the gas largely blamed for global warming, has reached record-high levels in the atmosphere after growing at an accelerated pace in the past year …”

In fact, carbon dioxide (CO2) is not the major greenhouse gas–water vapor is. [2] The ability of CO2 to absorb heat is quite limited, and it accounts for less than 10 percent of the greenhouse effect. [3]

Less than 1 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere (about 0.03 percent) consists of carbon dioxide. Nitrogen, oxygen, and argon constitute about 78 percent, 20 percent, and 0.93 percent of the atmosphere, respectively. [4]

The sun, not any greenhouse gas, is primarily to “blame” for global warming–and it plays a very key role in global temperature variations as well.

Mankind’s Role

The AP story continued: “Carbon dioxide, mostly from burning of coal, gasoline and other fossil fuels, traps heat that otherwise would radiate into space.” This, too, is untrue. Only about 14 percent of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from the burning of fossil fuels. [5]

“Global temperatures increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (0.6 degrees Celsius) during the 20th century,” continued the AP story, “and international panels of scientists sponsored by world governments have concluded that most of the warming probably was due to greenhouse gases.”

But most of the observed twentieth century warming occurred in the first few decades of that century [6]–before the widespread burning of fossil fuels and before 82 percent of the increase in atmospheric CO2 observed in the twentieth century took place. [7]

Moreover, the Earth does not have “world governments.” It doesn’t have even one “world government.” The United Nations is not a government, but an association of nations.

If AP is referring to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), its reporters should do their homework. The IPCC report–the part written by scientists–reached no consensus on climate change. Only the “summary for policymakers,” prepared by political appointees, asserted a link between global temperatures and human activities. [8]

Most reporters quote only the summary, being either too lazy or too undereducated to understand the report itself. And few reporters have bothered to interview the scientists who helped prepare the report. IPCC scientist Dr. Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the report is typically “presented as a consensus that involves hundreds, perhaps thousands, of scientists … and none of them was asked if they agreed with anything in the report except for the one or two pages they worked on.”

Lindzen also draws a sharp distinction between the scientists’ document and its politicized summary: “The document itself is informative,” Lindzen says. “The summary is not.” [9]

Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Her email address is [email protected].


[1] Charles J. Hanley, “CO2 Buildup Accelerating in Atmosphere,” Associated Press, available on various Web sites, including http://www.usatoday.com/weather/news/2004-03-21-co2-buildup_x.htm.

[2] “The Greenhouse Effect and Greenhouse Gases: An Overview,” Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/pubs_html/attf94_v2/chap2.html.

[3] Gerald Marsh, “Climate Change Science? National Academy of Sciences Global Warming Report Fails to Live Up to Its Billing,” National Center for Public Policy Research, National Policy Analysis #349, August 2001, http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA349.html.

[4] Edward Klappenbach, “Examining the Carbon Dioxide in Our Atmosphere,” http://weather.about.com/cs/atmosphere/a/aa062003a.htm?terms=carbon+dioxide, retrieved March 21, 2004. Klappenbach gives the CO2 figure as .033 percent. Note: The Associated Press article discussed here alludes to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations as measured at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. The average annual percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere determined by researchers measuring there for 2002 was .0373 percent. A chart showing average annual CO2 concentrations measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory from 1958-2002 is available at http://cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/ftp/maunaloa-co2/maunaloa.co2 as of March 22, 2004.

[5] “Frequently Asked Global Change Question: What percentage of the CO2 in the atmosphere has been produced by human beings through the burning of fossil fuels?” Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, March 2004, http://cdiac.esd.ornl.gov/pns/faq.html.

[6] This is based on a review of global satellite and balloon temperature measurements and high-quality U.S.-based surface temperature station measurements. For additional details, see “There Has Been No Global Warming for the Past 70 Years,” The Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, http://www.co2science.org/edit/v3_edit/v3n13edit.htm.

[7] “Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” Oregon Institute of Science and Health, 2001, http://www.oism.org/pproject/s33p36.htm.

[8] Richard S. Lindzen, Ph.D., “Scientists’ Report Doesn’t Support the Kyoto Treaty,” Wall Street Journal, June 11 2001. A copy of this article is available online at http://www.enerne.dk/lindzen_i_wall_st__j_.htm. Dr. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at MIT, participated–as a scientist–in the preparation of the IPCC report and also was a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel on climate change that summarized the IPCC report for the U.S. government.

[9] Paul Georgia, “IPCC Report Criticized by One of Its Lead Authors,” Environment & Climate News, The Heartland Institute, June 2001, http://www.heartland.org/Article.cfm?artId=1069.

For more information …

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, see

John Carlisle, “Kyoto Cover-up: TV News Gives One-Sided View on Global Warming,” National Center for Public Policy Research, May 2001, http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA337.html.

John Carlisle, “Cooling Off on Global Warming,” National Center for Public Policy Research, April 2000, http:///www.nationalcenter.org/NPA284.html.

John Carlisle, “Sun to Blame for Global Warming,” National Center for Public Policy Research, June 1998, http://www.nationalcenter.org/NPA203.html.