Fact-Checking the Czech President

Last week, The Financial Times lobbed a Molotov editorial onto the international debate of what to do about global warming. The op-ed, written by Czech President Vaclav Klaus and called "Freedom, Not Climate, Is At Risk," trotted out many of the now-familiar arguments of those who claim that they don’t believe dangerous, human-caused global warming is taking place.

Rather than discussing the moral or ecological implications of warming, Klaus says the issue is more about how global warming limits our freedoms. Citing the popular sci-fi novelist Michael Crichton, an "authority" mentioned all too often in the press, Klaus argues that unnamed parties have used "global warming hysteria" to confuse people in an effort "to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning." According to him, evidence of approaching danger has been greatly exaggerated to advance the interests of a few at the expense of the rights of many. (Interestingly, this is the same spin strategy used by the NRA in its very successful campaign to loosen gun laws in other countries.)

Of course people don't want to be unnecessarily restricted, but doesn't climate change pose a real threat to us all? Fortunately for global warming deniers, they still have a few scientists they can count on to confuse the issue. Of these, the most prominent might be Richard Lindzen, an MIT climatologist who I interviewed last year for a profile in Seed magazine. Lindzen's name comes up frequently in global warming debates, especially when skeptics are scrambling to cover themselves with a modicum of scientific legitimacy. He's quoted extensively in Klaus's op-ed. Essentially, Lindzen introduces perfectly valid scientific uncertainties (problems with climate modeling, for example) into the public debate over global warming as proof that the whole case is bunk. Very quickly, these skeptical quibbles are exaggerated by lazy journalists' he-said, she-said reporting into an opposite and equal body of evidence; the immense aggregate of empirical data indicating that humans are causing climate change is presented as equivalent to a few skeptics' reasonable, but comparatively minor, caveats.

Skeptics are free to say whatever they want about global warming, but newspapers should hold their op-ed writers to some standard of intellectual honesty. Besides its dubious scientific support, the column has some pretty obvious howlers. (Klaus at one point writes, “I agree with Professor Richard Lindzen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who said: ‘future generations will wonder in bemused amazement that the early 21st century’s developed world went into hysterical panic over a globally averaged temperature increase of a few tenths of a degree…’”) On the other hand, given that Klaus is the head of a major European economy, it's probably better that people know exactly where he stands on the issue.

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