Remember the headlines last summer, spurred by the release of Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, warning that massive amounts of Antarctica's ice sheets are melting, threatening to raise sea levels 20 feet worldwide and wipe out Antarctica's Emperor penguins and polar bears? And alarming reports that Greenland's glaciers are shrinking so rapidly that a third of Florida and the lower part of Manhattan could be swept away within the next 200 years?
Well guess what? The long awaited Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report summary released early in February threw some badly needed cold water on that over-heated hype. According to the IPCC, based on the work of 2,500 scientists around the globe, Antarctica's ice sheets will "remain too cold for widespread surface melting," and "is expected to gain in mass due to increased snowfall."1
The report summary also says there is no scientific consensus that Greenland's ice caps are melting enough to contribute to increased sea levels.2 And while the writers do acknowledge unknowns, including some observed variability and local changes in glaciers in the polar regions that could contribute to future increased sea levels, it states that overall "there is no consensus on their magnitude."3
In spite of recent criticism by some complaining that the IPCC is "too conservative," its conclusions are consistent with the findings last month in Science. The article's authors, scientists with the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington and the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, observe that two among the largest glaciers in Greenland thought to have been melting rapidly and flowing into the sea, have now actually stabilized, bringing their rate of discharge back to previous levels. The scientists discovered that Greenland's second and third largest glaciers, which have been making headlines recently for doubling the amount of discharge between 2000 and 2005, have over the past two years reversed course and actually increased in mass.4
The authors attribute inaccurate assessments of the glaciers' activity to "snapshots" scientists have been taking in the region: "Our main point is that the behavior of these glaciers can change a lot from year to year, so we can't assume to know the future behavior from short records of recent changes."5
What does all this mean for future sea levels? The IPCC estimates seas globally will rise somewhere between 7 and 23 inches by the next 100 years, a lower estimate than presented by the IPCC in 2001,6 and a far cry from Al Gore's 20- to 40-foot prediction in An Inconvenient Truth.
To put the IPCC's estimate in context, the average global sea level rise during the 20th century was 6-8 inches, and 3-7 inches during the 19th century, although it is difficult for scientists to be precise.7
But none of these factoids really matter. Our lawmakers and the media continue to warn us to head for the hills. Senator Feinstein calls the sea level estimate "catastrophic," warning that "low-lying nations and coastal communities will be lost to flooding."8 ABC's Good Morning America asks viewers via a graphic, just prior to the report's release, "Will billions die from global warming: new details on thirst and hunger."9 And numerous articles and news programs fabricate doom by highlighting what's not in the IPCC report. As Bill Weir of ABC's World News comments, "what we didn't hear as much about... [in the] grim report about... a looming climate catastrophe is rising water. And... that may be the scariest part of all."
Even some print-media are inventing stories about climate change where none exist. A recent front-page article in The Washington Post blares in its headline: "Climate Change Is Linked to Damage, Destruction of Old Sites Around Chesapeake." The article tells a disturbing tale of cemeteries along the Chesapeake Bay being washed away by rising bay waters. The inside page of the article reveals the main cause as a geological quirk that is causing the land in the region to sink and the soil to erode. But the front page attributes the gravesites' damage to "rising water levels - an old problem, apparently accelerated by climate change." [Emphasis added]. The author provides no evidence to this claim, just a non sequitur that the IPCC reports sea levels are expected to rise up to 23 inches.10
The good news is, the IPCC news isn't so bad. The bad news is, you wouldn't know it reading news reports. Climatologist Patrick Michaels got it right when he predicted "what's not new in today's IPCC report - that humans are warming the planet - will be treated as big news, while what is new - that sea levels are not likely to rise as much as previously predicted - will be ignored."11
The march of the media lemmings will continue. With hope, the rest of us will manage to keep our cool.
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Dana Joel Gattuso is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, "Summary for Policymakers," Paris, France, February 5, 2007, p. 17.
2 "Understanding of [dynamical processes related to ice flow] is limited and there is no consensus on their magnitude," Ibid, p. 17.
3 Ibid, p. 17.
4 Ian M. Howat, Ian R. Joughin, and Ted A. Scambos, "Rapid Changes in Ice Discharge from Greenland Outlet Glaciers," Science, February 8, 2007. See also, John Tierney, "Greenland Redux," TierneyLab, New York Times, February 12, 2007, at http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/02/12/greenland-redux/.
5 University of Washington, "Glaciers Not on Simple, Upward Trend of Melting," News Release, February 12, 2007.
6 IPCC, op. cit., p. 13, Table SPM-3. 2001 report predicted a maximum sea level rise of 35 inches.
7 U.S. EPA, Climate Change: Science, "Sea Level Changes," October 19, 2006, at http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/recentslc.html.
8 Press Release, "Senator Feinstein Calls for Immediate Steps To Reduce U.S. Emissions To Combat Climate Change," February 5, 2007.
9 ABC Good Morning America, January 31, 2007.
10 David A. Fahrenthold, "Rising Bay Puts Cemeteries at Risk: Climate Change Is Linked to Damage, Destruction of Old Sites Around Chesapeake," The Washington Post, February 13, 2007, p. A1, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/02/12/AR2007021201674.html.
11 Patrick J. Michaels, "New Climate for Global Energy Policy," San Francisco Chronicle, February 2, 2007, at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/02/02/EDGC7N76BS1.DTL&hw=keeping+cool+about+warming&sn=001&sc=1000, and http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=7501.
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