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CPBJ Blog Extras

Lines of battle

By - Last modified: April 16, 2013 at 9:51 AM

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Tim Stuhldreher

The image accompanying today's blog post comes from a postcard I received from The Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago that stridently denies the reality of climate change.

"No global warming for 16 years!" proclaims the billboard, apparently one of a series "running in major cities around the country," according to information on the postcard's back.

"Even global warming alarmists admit there has been no global warming during the past 16 years," the copy on the back goes on to say. It promises me a free book called "The Mad, Mad, Mad World of Climatism," the cover of which depicts three polar bears in a (presumably gas-guzzling) red sportscar.

Oy.

Well, let's get one thing out of the way upfront: The temperature graph on the billboard is accurate.

But does that red, squiggly line refute climate change? Not at all.

For a quick, solid explanation of why, head over to Slate.com and watch the two-minute video posted there. In a nutshell, climate varies a lot from year to year, and you have to strip out a lot of short-term "noise" to get at the long-term global warming "signal." But when you do, it's in there, loud and clear.

Or is it? The Economist is sophisticated enough not to deny global warming as such, but the venerable British business magazine recently suggested that the 16-year hiatus is "among the biggest puzzles in climate science," going on to wonder in a long article if the climate's sensitivity to emissions might be less than previously thought.

Compared to the Heartland Institute's hamfisted propaganda, the Economist article is a model of honest, responsible journalism. Nevertheless, according to this rebuttal, it gives too much weight to a narrow area of speculative research and not enough to a multiplicity of other findings that corroborate the mainstream consensus.

Yes, a few scientists are producing reputable research suggesting lower climate sensitivity. Plenty of others are finding evidence that the sensitivity is pretty much what we think it is. So for now, the smart money would bet on the consensus view.

All too often, the climate debate illustrates what I wrote about journalism and disinformation a couple of weeks ago. Climate science is extremely complicated, reporters are human and news consumers are busy. It's not that hard to sow a few seeds of doubt, if that's your goal.

"Many climate sceptics [sic] seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, magnifying doubts and treating incomplete explanations as falsehoods rather than signs of progress towards the truth," the journal Nature wrote in 2011.

"[T]he Heartland Institute and its ilk are not trying to build a theory of anything," Nature said. "They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters."

Tim Stuhldreher covers banking, finance, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at tims@centralpennbusiness.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, @timstuhldreher.

Write to the Editorial Department at editorial@cpbj.com

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