Is New York Times Columnist Switching Sides on Global Warming?

Published July 1, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor for the left-of-center magazine The New Republic, published an article in the May 24 New York Times, “Finally Feeling the Heat,” in which he claims to have switched sides in the climate change debate in light of recent scientific evidence.

Below, Environment & Climate News Managing Editor James M. Taylor responds to assertions in Easterbrook’s article.

Easterbrook: Today “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s movie about the greenhouse effect, opens in New York and California. Many who already believe global warming is a menace will flock to the film; many who scoff at the notion will opt for Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks. But has anything happened in recent years that should cause a reasonable person to switch sides in the global-warming debate?

Yes: the science has changed from ambiguous to near-unanimous.

Taylor: This is clearly not so. Notable skeptics include Richard Lindzen, atmospheric physicist at MIT and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Third Assessment [released in 2001]; Patrick Michaels, state climatologist for Virginia; S. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia; and William Gray, the world’s leading hurricane expert and a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University.

And there are countless others. More than 17,000 scientists feel so strongly that global warming alarmism is scientifically unjustified that they have signed a strongly worded petition to that effect (http://www.oism.org/pproject/s33p357.htm).

Easterbrook: As an environmental commentator, I have a long record of opposing alarmism. But based on the data I’m now switching sides regarding global warming, from skeptic to convert.

Taylor: Switching sides? As far back as 2002 Easterbrook asserted in the Washington Monthly, “the oil-loving Bush administration is wrong to put off action against artificial greenhouse gases.”

Easterbrook: Once global-warming science was too uncertain to form the basis of policy decisions and this was hardly just the contention of oil executives.

Taylor: That is true, and it is still the case.


Easterbrook: “There is no evidence yet” of dangerous climate change, a National Academy of Sciences report said in 1991. A 1992 survey of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society found that only 17 percent of members believed there was sufficient grounds to declare an artificial greenhouse effect in progress. In 1993 Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center, said there existed “a great range of uncertainty” regarding whether the world is warming.

Taylor: Why go back to the early 1990s to find expressions of doubt and uncertainty? Books and scholarly articles documenting the flaws in global warming predictions are just as plentiful in 2004, 2005, and 2006.

Easterbrook: Clearly, the question called for more research.

That research is now in, and it shows a strong scientific consensus that an artificially warming world is a real phenomenon posing real danger:

The American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Society in 2003 both declared that signs of global warming had become compelling.

In 2004 the American Association for the Advancement of Science said that there was no longer any “substantive disagreement in the scientific community” that artificial global warming is happening.

In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences joined the science academies of Britain, China, Germany, Japan and other nations in a joint statement saying, “There is now strong evidence that significant global warming is occurring.”


Taylor: The fact that human activity can affect climate is no surprise. Most “skeptics” have predicted as much. What is in sharp dispute, however, is how much of the recent warming is due to human activity, whether warming will continue and how rapidly, and what to do about it.

For example, a warming of 1.4ยบ Celsius over the next century (which is within the range of warming predicted by the American Meteorological Society and conforms with the trend line of temperature change since the last cooling period ended in the late 1970s) is hardly alarming.

Easterbrook: Case closed. Earth’s surface, atmosphere and seas are warming; ocean currents are slowing; ice shelves are melting faster than projected; spring is coming ever sooner; rainfall patterns are changing; North American migratory birds are ranging farther north; the ability of the Earth to self-regulate to resist warming appears to be waning. While natural variation may play roles in climatic trends, overwhelming evidence points to the accumulation of greenhouse gases, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, as the key.

Taylor: Ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are growing. Earlier springs are extending the growing season and leading to more abundant life and ecosystems. Crop yields continue to substantially increase, deserts around the world are shrinking, according to satellite measurements, and the Earth’s forests and greenery grow more extensive with every passing year.

When North American migratory birds range farther north, this expands the northern biosphere and shows how life is more abundant in a moderately warmer world. And it is the “waning” ability of the Earth to self-regulate that explains why on November 11, 2003 The New York Times itself noted man’s influence on the climate may have kept us from slipping back into another ice age.

Easterbrook: Many greenhouse uncertainties remain, including whether rising temperatures would necessarily be bad. A warming world might moderate global energy demand: the rise in temperature so far has mostly expressed itself as milder winters, not hotter summers. Warming might open vast areas of Alaska, Canada and Russia to development. …

But it seems likely any global-warming benefits will be offset by unwanted trends. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that in the coming century, sea levels may rise by as much as three feet.

Taylor: That’s a very low likelihood event. More likely, sea levels will rise at the same rate that has been ongoing since the end of the last ice age.

Easterbrook: Tropical storms may continue to increase in number and fury.

Taylor: Or they may not. Historically, warmer global temperatures have corresponded with milder weather. Improved forecasting and hurricane preparedness have resulted in ever-declining casualties from tropical storms, and will continue to do so.

Easterbrook: Diseases now confined to equatorial regions may spread farther north and south.

Taylor: Most diseases confined to equatorial regions are confined there by the pesticides and medicines available in developed countries, not by climate factors. Malaria, for example, was common in Northern Hemisphere countries until eradicated by DDT and other modern inventions.

Easterbrook: The greatest worry is that climate change will harm the agricultural system on which civilization is based.

Taylor: Crop yields have soared in the past 30 years, at least partly due to warmer temperatures and higher CO2 concentrations in the air.

Easterbrook: Suppose climate change shifted precipitation away from breadbasket regions, sending rain clouds instead to the world’s deserts. Over generations, society would adjust but years of global food shortages might occur during the adjustment, likely causing chaos in poor countries and armies of desperate refugees at the borders of wealthy nations.

Taylor: “Suppose” is indeed an accurate word here. All real-world evidence to date indicates the Earth continues to become greener, and crop yields continue to grow, in our current “global warming” environment.

Easterbrook: Scientific substantiation of a warming world is not necessarily reason for gloom. Greenhouse gases are an air pollution problem, and all air pollution problems of the past have cost significantly less to fix than critics projected, and the solutions have worked faster than expected. … Smog emissions in the United States have declined by almost half since 1970, and the technology that accomplishes this costs perhaps $100 per car. …

Taylor: Joel Schwartz of the American Enterprise Institute estimates pollution controls add more than $1,000 to the price of a car. In addition, carbon dioxide (CO2) is different from Easterbrook’s examples. CO2 is released when burning fossil fuels. One cannot simply insert smokestack scrubbers or catalytic converters and eliminate CO2.

Easterbrook: Today no one can make money by reducing greenhouse gases, so emissions rise unchecked. But a system of tradable greenhouse permits, similar to those for acid rain, would create a profit incentive. Engineers and entrepreneurs would turn to the problem. Someone might even invent something cheap that would spread to the poorer countries, preventing reductions here from being swamped elsewhere.

Taylor: The “answer” to carbon dioxide is not a cheap and easy fix that merely requires a little economic nudge. The world’s governments–with the U.S. government being the largest contributor–have spent billions of dollars on global warming research and continue to allocate more and more funds to the issue.

In the private sector, ExxonMobil alone has donated more than $100 million to global warming research. While it is likely that technologies for curtailing CO2 emissions will emerge, we cannot wave a regulatory magic wand and make them appear.

Easterbrook: Unlikely? Right now reformulated gasoline and the low-cost catalytic converter, invented here to contain smog, are becoming common in developing nations.

President Bush was right to withdraw the United States from the cumbersome Kyoto greenhouse treaty, which even most signatories are ignoring. But Mr. Bush should speak to history by proposing a binding greenhouse-credit trading system within the United States. Waiting for science no longer justifies delay, as results are now in.

Taylor: The United States spends more money on global warming research than the rest of the world combined. This investment pays dividends every day, as more and more climate questions are being answered. However, there is still more that needs to be understood, and there is still no scientific agreement about the full causes and consequences of global warming.

As Easterbrook observes, the United States was correct in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol. However, instead of enacting a similarly flawed mandatory carbon trading cartel, the United States is taking a better course, by creating the Asia-Pacific Partnership, which includes such key nations as China and India–nations that are the world’s second and third most prolific emitters of greenhouse gases and that have no obligation to reduce emissions under Kyoto.

This partnership emphasizes the development and sharing of technology to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in a manner that is economical and fair to all nations. Great Britain and Canada are among the nations that may soon join this U.S.-led effort.

Progress is being made, under U.S. leadership, regarding greenhouse gas issues. Rash action in another direction may prove to be scientifically unjustified and economically devastating.


For more information …

Information on ExxonMobil’s expenditures on research into global warming is available online at http://www2.exxonmobil.com/Corporate/Newsroom/Newsreleases/xom_nr_201102.asp.