The Washington Post recently published an op-ed on climate change by aging political commentator George Will. (August 12, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/08/11/with-closer-look-certainty-about-existential-climate-threat-melts-away/, too bad about the paywall). Will’s commentary appears to be drawn exclusively from a book by noted climate-change denier Steven Koonin. George Will has been a climate-change denier since at least 2007, holding forth on a variety of ideas which were either false at the time or have been subsequently debunked.
There are very basic errors of fact throughout Will’s current column. His talking points seem to drawn from the early 1990s, and he is oblivious to the quantity of definitive data about the climate that has been gathered over the past 30 years.
Will begins by saying, “There is a low ratio of evidence to passion in today’s exhortations to combat climate change.” Ridiculous. Climate change is probably the most intensively studied scientific topic in history, with tens of thousands of scientific reports written by thousands of scientists. Over the last three decades, scientists have implemented monitoring systems specifically designed to measure the impact of greenhouse gases on the global climate. We are closely measuring incoming energy from the sun; energy radiating from the earth into space according to wavelength, measuring the impact of greenhouse gases; the temperature and heat content of the oceans to 2000 meters, the temperature of the air from the surface to the stratosphere, the mass of the ice caps, the area, thickness and age of Arctic sea ice, the melting of continental glaciers; the temperature of the ocean surface; global changes in sea level; the CO2 and methane content and isotope chemistry of the atmosphere, etc. Considering all of these data, the IPCC 6th Assessment Report reaches a clear conclusion: that warming of the global climate due to human activities is an unequivocal, established fact.
The early draft of Volume I of the IPCC 6th Climate Appraisal runs over 3500 pages, written by about 300 authors. The full report, when completed, will involve about 700 authors. The US Fourth National Climate Assessment weighs in at over 1500 pages by 300 scientists from 13 US government agencies. These follow on three decades of earlier reports with contributions from thousands of scientists, representing tens of thousands of scientific papers. There is not a lack of evidence regarding climate change.
Will repeats the hoary comment that the climate is always changing, which is completely irrelevant. The point is that the climate is rapidly changing now due to human emissions of greenhouse gases, and we know it. This self-induced fiasco will cause substantial harm to people and nature in coming decades, and has already begun. Past changes have no bearing on our problem.
Will complains that science has limited ability to disentangle human and natural influences in the climate changes during the Little Ice Age (1450 – 1850), or in the cooling period from 1940 – 1980. Will is misconstruing lack of data for a lack of understanding. Using Will’s reasoning, if a doctor is unable to diagnose the cause of death for King Francis II of France (1544 – 1560), why would anyone go to a doctor today? The answer is obvious; it is because the doctor looking at today’s patient has MRI images, blood chemistry, and a host of other diagnostic medical tools. Similarly, the instrumentation for earth systems implemented in the past 30 years allows us to clearly diagnose what is happening to the climate now.
Will states that sea level has been rising a few millimeters a year for 20,000 years, and cites a source which denies that sea level has been rising over the past century, or that melting of ice-sheets is currently higher than in the past. These points are patently false. Sea level rose sharply at the end of the last ice age about 20,000 years ago, but stabilized about 5000 years ago. In the past 5000 years, sea level has risen only about a meter, rising at a rate of about 0.2 mm/yr to the present (Lambeck et al, 2014; also R. Rohde, Berkeley Earth, from other published data). Sea level is a proxy for climate, and stable sea level implies a stable climate in the last five millennia. According to satellite measurements, the current rate of sea level rise is now 15 times faster than the past 5000 years, and accelerating. Continuous coastal sea-level measurements dating from the 1800s also verify the acceleration of sea-level rise. Melting ice accounts for about 60% of that rise, with thermal expansion of the warming ocean accounting for the rest. Will’s point in the same paragraph, about relatively little change in the average warmest temperature in the United States is cherry-picking the various parameters (change in lowest temperature, change in average temperature, change in winter temperatures, etc.) to find the parameter with the least change, in a deliberate attempt at obfuscation and distortion.
Will disputes media reports that hurricanes are increasing in number and intensity. The concern about hurricanes is not about what has happened thus far, but what will happen as climate change advances. The sea surface temperature is rising. Hurricane strength and frequency are driven by higher sea surface temperatures and will inexorable become stronger and more frequent in the future. Scientists are not correlating hurricane strength to greenhouse gases and making an extrapolation; scientists are forecasting stronger hurricanes because they understand how things work.
Will attempts to deflect responsibility for rising CO2 from the developed world to the developing world, citing plans to increase fossil-fuel power production in India and China. In this, Will is neglecting the 150-year history of fossil-fuel use by industrialized countries, which have brought us to the brink of climate disaster, where we stand today.
Will concludes by referencing a “previous UN report” (not cited) which projects minimal economic harm from climate change. There is no indication of when this report was written, or my whom. But that report does not reflect the views of the climatologists of the IPCC, or US scientists who wrote the 4th National Climate Assessment. The IPCC 1.5 Special Report states: “Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.” (Summary for Policy Makers, section B.5.) Likewise, the United States’ Fourth Climate Assessment (2018) states: “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth….Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”
George Will is misguided and uninformed about climate change. Will has read one discredited book by one discredited scientist, who is not a climatologist, instead of the well-documented publications from respected institutions of science. Will’s column is part of the general celebration of ignorance and lies which characterize the Conservative movement, on issues from the treatment of COVID-19 to the 2020 election loss by Donald Trump. George Will’s column on climate change is a classic example of Willful Ignorance.
Will’s former statements about climate change.
IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C.
IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, Volume I, The Physical Science Basis, 2021.
Fourth National Climate Assessment Volume I, Physical Science 2017.
Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States, 2018.
Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth, Holocene Sea-Level Chart, 2005.
Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth, Tropical Storm Wind Speed Versus Water Temperature, 2017.