Last week the National Academy of Sciences released a report on climate change, prepared in response to a request from the White House, that was depicted in the press as an implicit endorsement of the Kyoto Protocol. CNN’s Michelle Mitchell was typical of the coverage when she declared that the report represented “a unanimous decision that global warming is real, is getting worse, and is due to man. There is no wiggle room.”
As one of 11 scientists who prepared the report, I can state that this is simply untrue. For starters, the NAS never asks that all participants agree to all elements of a report, but rather that the report represent the span of views. This what the full report did, making clear that there is no consensus, unanimous or otherwise, about long-term climate trends and what causes them. As usual, far too much public attention was paid to the hastily prepared summary rather than to the body of the report. The summary began with a zinger — that greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise before following with the necessary qualifications. For example, the full text noted that 20 years was too short a period for estimating long-term trends, but the summary forgot to mention this.
Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled.
But — and I cannot stress this enough — we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future. That is to say, contrary to media impressions, agreement with the three basic statements tells us almost nothing relevant to policy discussions.
The panel was finally asked to evaluate the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, focusing on the Summary for Policymakers, the only part ever read or quoted. … Within the confines of professional courtesy, the NAS panel essentially concluded that the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers does not provide suitable guidance for the U.S. government.