News: CJ Exclusives

Expert: Beware Global Warming Bias

Virginia climatologist says negative reports outnumber positive 15-1

A North Carolina group studying global warming needs to beware of “pervasive bias” in the debate, according to Virginia’s state climatologist. Pat Michaels says negative reports about global-warming projections outnumber positive reports by a 15-1 ratio.

“I’m trying to supply you with some perspective to perhaps tread lightly amid the noise and the haste,” Michaels warned the N.C. Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change on Tuesday.

“Let me just give you an example of how bias enters into forecasts and demonstrate to you that the public you have to respond to is not receiving a balanced flow of information,” he said. “Unfortunately, that creates pressure for political change and pressure for adaptation and limits on carbon dioxide emissions.”

Even the most basic weather forecast changes with updated information, said Michaels, who’s also a research professor at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “Each new piece of information added to a forecast has an equal chance of making it ‘worse than we thought’ or ‘not as bad as we thought,’” he said. “So I decided to take this idea and look at the reports that are presented in public on climate change. I did a content analysis.

“The idea that ‘it’s worse than we thought’ dominated ‘it’s not as bad as we thought’ by approximately 15 to one,” Michaels said. “That’s what you must deal with. Given that the probability that a new piece of information either making the forecast worse or better is equal, that’s equivalent to flipping a coin. So what we are dealing with is an information flow in which we’ve thrown a coin 16 times and gotten only one head.”

Commission members also need to place current warming trends in perspective, Michaels said. “Ninety-five percent of the last 100 million years the mean surface temperature of the planet was warmer than it is today.”

The legislative study group could make recommendations to the full General Assembly. Any policies that set limits on use of carbon-based fuel could have major impacts on the economy, Michaels said. “Do nothing now, but encourage economic development – not only here, but around the world,” he said. “Why? That puts capital in people’s pockets, and people don’t just leave capital sitting in their pockets.

“They invest that capital,” he said. “And the future belongs to the efficient. People tend to invest in companies that produce things efficiently or develop efficient technologies.”

Michaels’ testimony drew few comments. Commission member Ivan Urlaub of Raleigh questioned whether North Carolina can afford to do nothing. “I think about the approximately 300,000 North Carolina households who qualify for home weatherization assistance because they cannot afford the technology that’s currently available to them,” Urlaub said. “And so I start to think about this cascading effect and this impact of adapting and relying on economic development. It makes me want to ask the question, ‘What costs more?’”

“It sounds like if we’re in the top three of billion-dollar weather disaster states in the country, and we’re looking at rising sea level, and we’re looking at hundreds of thousands of households that can’t even afford the most basic technological adaptation in our state, where does the state have to step in and start paying for all this with taxpayer dollars?”

Michaels counters that working capital will help lead to technological advances. “I have a feeling that the changes between now and 2100 are going to be spectacular, if the capital is there.”

The legislative study group plans at least one more meeting before the Assembly returns to Raleigh. The commission’s counsel says the group will use its April 25 meeting to focus on economic issues. “We’ll have presentations on the economics of climate change and on technology options by economic sector – starting with transportation, buildings, and electricity,” George Givens said.

The Assembly will reconvene May 9.

Mitch Kokai is associate editor of Carolina Journal.