Refuting Jeff Jacoby on Climate

Since the 1990s, Jeff Jacoby has mocked and questioned  the reality of anthropogenic  global warming in the pages of the Boston Globe in a series of columns characterized by vagueness, disregard for inconvenient evidence, and repetition.

Jacoby repeatedly stresses uncertainty: we just can’t say much about climate, or so he maintains over and over again.  In 1997, in a column attacking the upcoming UN meeting in Kyoto Japan, Jacoby asserted, “Yet most of the past century’s warming took place before 1940. It may have nothing to do with humans.”  That would typify many of Jacoby’s later pronouncements: with climate you can never be certain. Or as he put it in 1998, “But it is far from clear that human-generated CO2 can affect the world’s climate.”  In 2006, he referenced an episode of the Twilight Zone to claim, “Maybe Mother Earth is warming up, or maybe she’s cooling down….”  If climate may be warming or may be cooling, it’s not surprising to learn that Jacoby repeatedly claims that we just don’t understand how climate works–not yet anyway.   “There is so much about climate change we just don’t know.” Jacoby told us in 2001. Time passed–we remained ignorant. In 2009, he counseled,” “There is no shame in conceding that science still has a long way to go before it fully understands the immense complexity of the Earth’s ever-changing climate (s).”  Knowledge remained elusive. Jacoby asserted in in 2011, “Someday the workings of climate change may be as well understood as plate tectonics or photosynthesis.” Jacoby’s version of climate science is like Groundhog Day where scientists wake up every morning in the same place and never, ever, advance. They can never understand how we are changing our climate or avoid another photo-op with Punxsutawney Phil. Mr. Jacoby’s someday sounds suspiciously like never, and if we can never understand how climate works, how dare we act or take the problem seriously or criticize those who always find  a reason to oppose action?

Cold weather is another Jacoby theme. I don’t know if he personally likes winter, but a cold snap provides the opportunity to downplay global warming.  In January 2008 it was cold: it was winter. Jacoby told readers how cold the previous summer had been in the southern Hemisphere and regaled us with a snowfall record in New Hampshire. He threw in typical  safe words, “all of these may be short-lived weather anomalies,”  (Jacoby’s not a denier–he just never knows), before introducing Globe readers to one Oleg Sorokhtin, a fellow of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, who predicted that “a fairly cold spell will set in quite soon, by 2012.” In  March 2009, Jacoby again noticed that it was cold. Snow had fallen “in such unlikely destinations as New Orleans, Las Vegas, Alabama, and Georgia” It was even cold in Canada..

As for the longer term, Jacoby likes to remind us that climate has shifted in the past.  In 1998 he told readers that climate had been colder during the Little Ice Age, “Global temperatures fluctuate. Much of the 17th century was so cold it is known as the “Little Ice Age.” In 2001 he added that there had been a prior warm period.  Again, in 2011 he returned to this theme. Of course, climate scientists  know all this. Climate has changed in the past for varied reasons, but this time is different because the evidence that we are changing climate through our emissions of CO2 has never been stronger. Jacoby, however,  will have none of this negative talk about carbon dioxide.  As far back as 1998, he wrote a paean to the wonders of carbon dioxide: “It is one of the mainstays of life on earth.” More CO2 would actually be better for us all: “A higher level of CO2 in the atmosphere would mean faster growing times for plants, longer growing seasons, and a greater ability to withstand drought.” In 2011, he cited a physicist:  “Carbon is the stuff of life,” he points out.  By that token, fossil fuel use is an unalloyed  good because it allows us to unlock more energy from more fossilized carbon, or so he told us in his recent  2015 “Valentine” for fossil fuels.  

When all else fails, Jacoby rails against the consensus that he claims does not exist or as Jacoby asserted in 1997,  “The only scientific consensus on global warming is that there’s no consensus.”  A year later, he made much the same assertion. Consensus for Jacoby was always elusive.  “Plainly, the science isn’t settled. It changes all the time” he intoned in 2007. In 2013 he informed Globe readers that he had decided to counter Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth in 2006, by starting a file entitled, “What Climate Consensus.” This was unintentionally revealing: Jacoby all but admitted that he cherry picks his ‘evidence’ to support his argument.  Over the years, he  has featured a dwindling cast of ‘experts’  who invariably cast doubt on human responsibility for climate change. In the meantime, he has not featured any of the dozens of highly esteemed climate scientists working within a few miles of the Globe offices who could explain the basics of climate science to him.

Despite peppering his column with qualifiers and vague language, which could serve to guard him from complaints, Jacoby has displayed basic failures in logic.  In March 1998, he mocked concerns about the powerful El Nino event of that year, “Pounding rainstorms  have washed out highways, triggered mudslides, ruined crops, displaced thousands of residents. A few weeks ago, Governor Pete Wilson estimated damages in his state at $300 million. Some experts fear the toll will hit $1 billion.” No matter, California’s suffering meant a warm winter with savings  “for much of the Midwest and Northeast” in the form of lower costs.  “Thank you, El Nino.” After mocking concerns about the El Nino event at the time, Jacoby then spent years trying to assert that the single unusually strong average global temperature for that year, powered by the massive El Nino event, meant that global warming had stopped.  In 2008, Jacoby asserted, “The record set in 1998 has not been surpassed.” In 2009, he assured readers, “global temperatures have not exceeded the record high measured in 1998.” In 2015, he was still talking about , “the warming trend that peaked at the end of the 1990s.”  

Not surprisingly, Jacoby was ill prepared to deal with the news that multiple leading centers of climate research found 2015 to be the warmest year on record.   NASA and NOAA both came to this conclusion.  So too, actually did the Japanese Meteorological Association , though Jacoby either did not know or did not mention that. Cheer up Jacoby countered: there was no cause for alarm. The UK Met Office noted only that “2014 was one of the warmest years in a record dating back to 1850.” And there was more good news: the Berkeley Earth summary stated, “it is impossible to conclude from our analysis which of 2014, 2010, or 2005 was actually the warmest year.” From this series of announcements that 2014 was either the very hottest recorded year ever or one of the very hottest recorded years ever, Jacoby returned to his usual fallback position: “Global warming has more or less been on hold…”   Better still, it was simply impossible to determine a global temperature average or trend. Jacoby approvingly mentioned one paper from 2007, without discussing any of the responses to the paper, to tell Globe readers, “Temperatures on the earth are in constant flux.”  The best part of  this claim that it is just too hard to compute any average  or trend is that it would make it impossible to ever identify  a warming trend. We could have record-breaking year after record-breaking year, but all these records would never indicate a trend!

Though Jacoby has repeatedly asserted that there is no consensus that human activity has caused global warming, an increasingly defensive tone has  entered his columns. The predictable response to the positions he defends seems to bother Jacoby. He  has taken umbrage to criticism of  climate skeptics or those unconvinced (they’re not deniers!), by Newsweek, John Holdren, and CBS news reporter Scott Pelley. The last “asked why his “60 Minutes” broadcasts on global warming didn’t acknowledge the views of skeptics, reached for an even more wounding comparison: “If I do an interview with Elie Wiesel, am I required as a journalist to find a Holocaust denier?”   In Jacoby’s logic, we always have to keep listening, not matter what, and presumably, the Globe has to keep publishing him, even though Jacoby  has inadvertently revealed that there is a powerful consensus. In 2011, he told his  readers that “Ivar Giaever, a 1973 Nobel laureate in physics, resigned this month as a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) to protest the organization’s official position that evidence of manmade climate change is “incontrovertible” and cause for alarm.”  Jeff, did you not realize that you just told your readers that one of the world’s leading scientific organizations identifies denial of anthropogenic global warming as a fringe position?  

By now it is possible to write a Jeff Jacoby climate column almost by the numbers. Take several of a few standard assertions and mix them together:  (1) we don’t know how climate is changing or why (2) it is cold outside right now or was cold somewhere sometime recently (3) climate has changed in the past (4) carbon is good and so is fossil fuel (5 there is no consensus on whether or how climate change is taking place, and someone somewhere agrees with me (6) it was hot in 1998 so global warming is not happening (7) those who attack climate ‘deniers’ are not being nice.  This series of columns has become an embarrassment to the Boston Globe, and it is not clear why they continue to run. Anyone who wanted to read a Jeff Jacoby climate column could read one of the old ones with little concern of missing out on anything new.   Indeed, readers, so inclined, could write their own Jeff Jacoby pieces on climate.


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