Esteemed science journal bows to politics

Published January 1, 2001

When the United Nations held its second meeting of the “Conference of the Parties” (COP-2) in Geneva in July 1996, the big question was whether or not our models of climate change were good enough to support eventual restrictions on the combustion of fossil fuel.

Four days before the meeting began, the prestigious journal Nature published a bombshell paper by federal scientist Ben Santer purporting to show that the newest breed of climate models—which combined greenhouse effect warming and sulfate cooling—indeed tracked the climate over a long period, from 1963 through 1987.

At that meeting, Santer’s paper was everywhere. Anyone who objected was heckled down. The official U.S. representative to COP-2, Timothy Wirth (now head of Ted Turner’s global warming foundation), took the impolite step of slamming U.S. citizens who disagreed with him from an international podium.

Six months later, Nature published a paper showing that if Santer had used all the available data, his results would have fallen apart.

And now, history repeats itself.

As the COP-6 meetings got underway November 20 at the Hague, the question on the table was whether the United States should be permitted to meet its treaty obligation by planting trees instead of stopping traffic and turning off the lights. It has long been held that trees will take up excess carbon dioxide in the form of wood and leaves. Further, thousands of experiments in the refereed scientific literature show that added carbon dioxide itself makes trees grow faster. (For proof, you need click no further than the Greening Earth Society’s Web site,, to find “The Greening of the American West.”)

Readers won’t have a difficult time guessing what’s in the latest issue of Nature: Forests pollute!

According to British scientist Peter Cox, the more vegetation there is, the more carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere, because the trees become “saturated” with CO2 and then the forest soils give up more and more. Don’t question the logic, which is that every time carbon dioxide is elevated above today’s levels (i.e., 95 percent of the last 100 million years), forests would have to put CO2 in the air, which makes it warmer, which grows more trees, which . . . eventually must result is something akin to spontaneous combustion.

One article in Nature is not enough. In the same issue, we find that planting trees in northern latitudes—the huge boreal forest of spruce, fir, and birch that completely circles the planet (except for minor lacunae in the Bering Strait and the North Atlantic)—will make it warmer, not cooler. That’s because these trees, especially the coniferous spruce and fir, are relatively “black” and are designed to shed snow. As a result, they absorb more radiation than a reflective, snow-covered tundra (which reflects it) and therefore warm the surface.

Gee, that’s too bad! The last we heard, it only snows in the winter. Even dreaded global warming will not change that one. So the warming effect of the boreal forest results in a slight amelioration of the ugly winter temperatures that make life miserable in Siberia and Canada.

This notion isn’t new. University of Virginia vegetation modeler Herman Shugart and colleagues have written about this a number of times.

Nor is it new that Nature is plumping for those who would impose cost and hardship on the people of this country. This looks an awful lot like what happened in 1996.

The latest issue of Science, Nature’s competitor, also carries a big article on forest uptake of carbon dioxide, by John Caspersen and five co-authors. It starts off with the well-known fact that North American forests are a huge “sink” (capturing repository) for carbon dioxide. It then asks how much of this is due to the well-known reforestation of North America, and how much is because of direct stimulation of forests by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

According to Caspersen and colleagues, estimates of the fraction of North American green-matter increase due to CO2 alone range between 25 percent and 75 percent—a substantial amount, to say the least, and apparently consistent with the aforementioned “Greening of the American West.” But they estimate that the maximum amount of direct growth stimulation, based upon results from five Eastern states, is 7 percent. We’ll hazard that the national (or North American) number has to be bigger than that because of what’s happening out in the sagebrush.

When the editors of Nature came out with Santer’s paper four days before the 1996 COP, some naive people argued the timing was pure chance. Lightning does not strike twice in the same place, at the same time, very often. No doubt that was another COP-out by what is arguably the most prestigious scientific journal in the world. Having done this twice, maybe it is now what used to be the paragon of scientific publication.


Shugart, H.H., et al. (eds.), 1992. A Systems Analysis of the Global Boreal Forest. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 542 pp.

Caspersen, J.P., et al., 2000. Contributions of land-use history to carbon accumulation in U.S. forests. Science, 290, 1148-1151.

Betts, R.A., 2000. Offset of the potential carbon sink from boreal forestation by decreases in surface albedo. Nature, 408, 187-190.

Cox, P.M., et al., 2000. Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model. Nature, 408, 184-187.

Santer, B.D., et al., 1996. A search for human influence on the thermal structure of the atmosphere. Nature, 382, 36-45.

Michaels, P.J., and P.C. Knappenberger, 1996. Human effect on global climate? Nature, 384, 522-523.