A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Smith’s Error-Filled Climate Op-Ed

In an op-ed for Fox News, Rep. Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House science committee, made a host of false and misleading claims about climate change and related issues:

  • Smith took a quote by climate scientist Stephen Schneider out of context, claiming he advised other researchers in his field to “never express doubt” about their work to the public.
  • Smith said climate scientists have predicted “global temperatures would increase more than one degree Celsius by 2020,” but observed temperatures have been “half as high.” Since the late 19th century, the planet has already warmed about 1.1 C, says NASA.
  • He said research shows the Paris agreement “would decrease warming only 0.16 degree Celsius by 2100.” But the author of that study said his research was cherry-picked.
  • He claimed the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has “low confidence” that climate change contributes to extreme weather. The IPCC’s confidence in 2012 varied from medium to low. Newer reports by other organizations have increased confidence.
  • He said “the historical record disproves” climate scientists who have “tried to link [hurricanes] and climate change.” But there is evidence to suggest there’s a link.
  • He claimed wildfires are “decreasing in frequency.” But they’ve increased in total acreage — the metric scientists use to measure fire behavior.

Smith, who announced his retirement from Congress when his term ends this year, primarily argued in his March 12 op-ed that the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — unlike “climate alarmists” — “follows the scientific method, which welcomes critiques, avoids exaggerated predictions, and relies on unbiased data.”

Yet his op-ed is filled with scientifically inaccurate claims. Let’s take a look at them one by one.

Doubt in Science

Smith took a quote by Stephen Schneider, a professor at Stanford University who died in 2010, out of context when he claimed the climate scientist “has said, ‘…we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.’ ” Smith added, “His message is clear: never express doubt and never accept any critiques.” That was not Schneider’s message.

The quote comes from an article published in Discover magazine’s 1989 issue. Schneider, who also served as a co-author or lead author on all five IPCC reports, provides the full quote from that article in an editorial he wrote for the American Physical Society’s newspaper in 1996. (We verified this quote’s accuracy with a microfilm version of that issue of Discover.)

Schneider, Oct. 1989, Discover: On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

Smith ignores that Schneider said scientists are “ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth … which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts.” But Schneider went on to say that talking to the media presents a “double ethical bind” where scientists need to also “make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.”

Similar to Smith, others have interpreted Schneider’s quote as advocating being dishonest with the media, but Schneider concludes by saying his “hope” is that climate scientists would be both “effective” and “honest” in the public eye.

In his 1996 editorial, Schneider says that he was “telling the Discover interviewer” about his “disdain for a soundbite-communications process that imposes the double ethical bind on all who venture into the popular media.” With soundbites, “nobody gets enough time in the media either to cover all the caveats in depth, (i.e., ‘being honest’) or to present all the plausible threats (i.e., ‘being effective’),” he wrote.

“To twist my openly stated and serious objections to the soundbite process into some kind of advocacy of exaggeration is a clear distortion,” he added.

It’s also worth mentioning that Schneider welcomed critiques of his work, contrary to what Smith claimed.

“[A]ll good scientists are skeptics and should be challenging every aspect of what we do that has plausible alternative hypotheses,” he wrote in an email to a colleague, according to a biography by the National Academy of Sciences. In that email, Schneider discussed a paper he had published early in his career that supported a theory of global cooling. We’ve written about the theory of global cooling before, explaining how scientists discovered the world was warming, not cooling, after conducting more research.

“I personally published what was wrong (with) my own original 1971 cooling hypothesis a few years later when more data and better models came along and further analysis showed [anthropogenic global warming] as the much more likely,” Schneider wrote in the email. “[F]or me that is a very proud event — to have discovered with colleagues why our initial assumptions were unlikely and better ones reversed the conclusions — an early example of scientific skepticism in action in climatology.”

When we reached out to Smith’s office for comment by email, a committee spokesperson told us Schneider’s quote was “presented with appropriate context and conveys the meaning of his words accurately.”

But Schneider himself has said such characterizations misrepresent his words. And that’s the case in Smith’s op-ed as well.  

The Rise and Fall of Global Temperatures

Smith also made a couple of faulty claims about global temperatures. For one, he claimed that global warming predictions scientists made in the 1970s “are so far off” observed temperatures.

Smith, March 12: Since the late 1970s, climate scientists have told the American people that global temperatures would increase more than one degree Celsius by 2020. However, actual satellite temperature observations do not support these predictions. Observed temperatures were less than half as high as the climate models’ predictions. When the predictions are so far off, we should not make policy decisions based on them.

We couldn’t find any support for Smith’s claims, and his office didn’t provide us with any solid support either. The spokesperson said that “climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consistently predict temperatures that are higher than the temperature[s] that are observed by satellites.”

The spokesperson also pointed us to March 2017 congressional testimony by John R. Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama, that questions the validity of IPCC models and humans’ contribution to global warming. 

The IPCC reports only date back to 1990, not the 1970s. More importantly, the IPCC’s fifth assessment report, published in 2013, took a look at previous IPCC report predictions and found that “the trend in globally averaged surface temperatures falls within the range of the previous IPCC projections.”

Regardless, the globe had already warmed about 1 C between 1901 and 2016, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. NASA provides a similar figure — about 1.1 C since the late 19th century.

It’s also unclear why Smith only cites satellite temperature observations. When we asked his office, the spokesperson responded, “The op-ed noted satellite data to demonstrate that this is one piece of the observational puzzle that demonstrates a discrepancy between the predictive models and the actual observations.”

But scientists monitor global temperatures by integrating data from a variety of sources, including ocean buoys, ships, land-based stations and satellites. In fact, satellite data only supplement land and ocean based temperature measurements, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.

Data from all of these sources are “processed, examined for random and systematic errors, and then finally combined to produce a time series of global average temperature change,” NOAA explains. “The warming trend … is apparent in all of the independent methods of calculating global temperature change.” So satellite data, along with land and ocean data, confirm the trend, NOAA says. 

Smith made one other faulty claim related to global temperatures. He said research out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “shows that the [Paris] agreement would decrease warming only 0.16 degree Celsius by 2100 – over 80 years from now – and only if all 195 countries completely abided by the agreement.”

Smith’s office told us he meant to use the figure 0.2 C. But one of the authors of the MIT report has said that figure is “cherry-picked.”

We’ve written about this topic before, when President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt made similar claims when the president announced the U.S. would pull out of the Paris Agreement.

As we explained previously, the 0.2 C estimate doesn’t consider the full potential effect of the Paris Agreement. The MIT report assumed countries participating in the agreement wouldn’t further strengthen their commitments to combat climate change after 2030. But one central goal of the Paris Agreement is for countries to strengthen their commitments over time.

The Paris Agreement also builds on other commitments made by the countries party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate ChangeJohn Reilly, the MIT researcher, argued in a Washington Post op-ed that it’s the “cumulative effect” of all commitments made under this framework that’s the “relevant number, not 0.2 degrees.”

Reilly pointed to one analysis by the climate modeling nonprofit Climate Interactive that found this cumulative effect would be a reduction of 0.9 C by 2100, compared with business as usual.

Erroneous Claims About Extreme Weather

Smith made a few faulty claims about the link between extreme weather and warming as well, all of which we’ve written about before.

To start, Smith said, “Even the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has affirmed that they have ‘low confidence’ in climate change contributing to extreme weather.” That’s not what the IPCC said. Instead, it has different levels of confidence for different extreme weather events.

We’ve made this point repeatedly in articles, including one that looked at a similar claim Smith made back in 2015.

Smith’s spokesperson pointed us to a 2012 IPCC report, which says, for example, that scientists have “medium confidence” that human influences have contributed to extreme precipitation globally and an “increase in length or number” of heat waves in many regions. But the report has “low confidence” that there’s been “increases in tropical cyclone activity” globally.

The report clarifies that “low confidence” doesn’t mean there definitively haven’t been changes in a particular extreme event. Rather, it means the data don’t give scientists enough confidence to say one way or the other.

But the 2012 IPCC report is dated. About a year ago, we wrote about the varying levels of confidence scientists have when linking global warming to various extreme weather events, based on a 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. The report authors have high confidence when linking global warming to an increased likelihood of extreme heat events, for example, but medium confidence when linking it to an increased likelihood of droughts and extreme rainfall.

This brings us to another claim about extreme weather Smith made in his March 12 op-ed.

Smith said that “the historical record disproves” climate scientists who have “tried to link [recent hurricanes] and climate change,” adding, “Hurricane landfalls in the United States since 1900 are on a steady decline.”

For support, the spokesperson again referred us to the 2012 IPCC special report. That IPCC report looks at hurricane activity in general, not hurricane landfalls. As already noted, it does say scientists have “low confidence” that there have been “increases in tropical cyclone activity” globally.

However, a 2017 U.S. Global Change Research Program report says scientists have “medium confidence” that there’s a link between human activity and increased hurricane activity in the North Atlantic Ocean, where hurricanes that make landfall in the U.S. originate.

2017 Global Change report: Human activities have contributed substantially to observed ocean–atmosphere variability in the Atlantic Ocean … and these changes have contributed to the observed upward trend in North Atlantic hurricane activity since the 1970s.

To be clear, climate scientists don’t say climate change causes intense hurricanes to occur, but evidence suggests it makes them more likely to occur, an important distinction we’ve made previously.

So while the link between warming and hurricane activity is not as solid as the link between warming and other extreme weather events, such as heat waves, there is still evidence to suggest warming has an impact. 

Lastly, Smith claimed in his op-ed: “Examination of patterns of other extreme weather events in the United States shows that a changing climate does not increase the frequency of these events,” adding, “U.S. wildland fires are decreasing in frequency.” But scientists look at the total acreage of fires -– not the number of fires -– to evaluate links with global warming. And the total acreage has increased since at least the 1980s.

Kari Cobb, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center, explained to us by email: “It’s important to look at the acreage burned over the number of fires reported because that is what is indicative of fire behavior.”

The “acres burned can be tied to environmental factors like climate and availability of fuels,” such as dry leaves, brush or grass. But the number of fires “does not provide a correlation to most environmental factors that truly affect fire.” In other words, “All it provides is how many of fires were reported, not how that fire behaved or moved across the landscape,” she said.

We also spoke with Cobb for an article we wrote back in October that looked at whether global warming is linked to the increase in the total acreage of wildfires in the West — an increase that dates back to at least the 1980s. As we pointed out in that piece, researchers say a hot and dry summer — conditions more likely in a warmer world — caused widespread wildfires in Western states last year. But land use changes dating back to the 1800s have also played a role.

When we asked Cobb in October what role climate change plays in the severity and length of the fire season, she pointed to “longer summers, higher temperatures, decreased precipitation, and longer episodes of drought.” She added, “The combination of these changes has increased the availability of dry fuels and the ease at which fire ignites and spreads.” 

Overall, Smith’s Fox News piece twisted the words, findings and methods of climate scientists, making it what we’d call an error-filled op-ed.

Share the Facts
FactCheck.org rating logo FactCheck.org Rating:
Wrote that climate scientists have predicted “global temperatures would increase more than one degree Celsius by 2020," but observed temperatures have been only “half as high.”
Op-ed for Fox News
Monday, March 12, 2018