SPOTLIGHT: Competing accounts of an historic climate hearing.
BIG PICTURE: June 23rd, 1988 is considered the day the climate crusade hit the jackpot. Thirty years ago, a sea of television cameras recorded NASA’s James Hansen testifying before a US Senate committee.
The “greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now,” he said. There was “99 percent confidence” that human-caused global warming was underway.
The person chairing the committee was Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth. Nine years later, when interviewed by PBS’s Frontline, he cheerfully revealed that the date of the hearing had been specially chosen.
We “called the Weather Bureau,” said Wirth, and then scheduled the hearing on a day that had previously broken heat records. Matters were then taken further:
What we did is we went in the night before and opened all the windows, I will admit, right, so that the air conditioning wasn’t working inside the room.
The fact that everyone, including television cameramen, felt overheated while Hansen was testifying helped emphasize his message. You can read that portion of the Frontline transcript here. There’s also a one-minute video clip:
I and others have responded to Worth’s tale by wondering why behind-the-scenes machinations were necessary. If Wirth and others felt sure of the science, why the stagecraft?
Fast forward eight more years and things get bizarre. As Marc Morano points out in his Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change, Wirth wholly recanted in 2015. Indeed, he advised the Washington Post that the above-described events actually didn’t happen.
Three different people told the Post Wirth’s story is false. In the words of Hansen: “I love Tim and his wife Wren, but he just made these up later to make it seem interesting.” Asked to respond, Wirth sent the Post a written statement three sizable paragraphs long. They say, in part:
Some myths about the hearing also have circulated over the years, including the idea that windows were left open or the air conditioning was not working. While I’ve heard that version of events in the past, and repeated it myself, I’ve since learned it didn’t happen. So let’s put those stories to rest and instead focus on the substance of the hearing…
In the video, Wirth sure sounds as though he’s describing his own actions. He tells the story with relish. But he uses the word “we” rather than “I.” So maybe he was just spreading fanciful rumours.
The Post‘s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, calls this “a quintessential example of Washington self-puffery.” He also observes:
It is rather remarkable that events that happened just 27 years ago could so easily get twisted and misreported, based on one overenthusiastic interview.
Kessler gave Wirth four Pinocchios, and urged PBS to “add a corrective note on the Web page containing the Wirth interview.” (Three years later, that still hasn’t happened.)
TOP TAKEAWAY: In the climate world, the line between real and fake is strangely murky.
|The Politically Incorrect Guide to Climate Change
- the full 2007 PBS transcript
- Washington Post, Setting the record straight: The real story of a pivotal climate-change hearing.
- my previous post, Journalists Relied on James Hansen’s Say-So
- Rupert Darwall points out, in The Age of Global Warming, that the first IPCC report (1990) “carried an implicit rebuke to James Hansen and his claim two years earlier to have detected the greenhouse effect.” He quotes the IPCC: “Because of the many significant uncertainties and inadequacies in the observational climate record, in our knowledge of the causes of natural climate variability and in current computer models, scientists working in this field cannot at this point in time make the definitive statement: ‘Yes, we have now seen an enhanced greenhouse effect.’”(my italics)