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No, Virginia, the sky is not falling Warming to debate Are we responsible for the planet's changing climate? I
Global warming: Is the sky really falling?

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Date published: 12/3/2006

N THE LAST two years, a remarkable amount of disturbing news has been published about global warming, mainly concerning melting of polar ice, tropical storms and hurricanes, and mass extinctions.

The sheer volume of these stories has resulted in some shifts in public attitudes. California has recently passed legislation to limit the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas. Several bills are being prepared for submission to the new Congress early next year.

What's going on? Can the news really be this bad?

The answer is simple: No. Not if mathematics is any guide.

Every time some "new" information is added to a weather forecast, it should have an equal chance of making it warmer or colder. In global warming, which is really just a super-long-range forecast, every new finding should also have an equal chance of making it warmer or cooler, or "worse than we thought" or "not as bad as we thought."

The weather forecast example is instructive. Every day, around the world, at 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. our time, weather balloons are released simultaneously to obtain a "snapshot" of the world's atmosphere. They measure temperature, wind, moisture and air pressure.

Within an hour, all of this information is fed into some of the world's largest computers, and by 10:30, the weather forecasting models have been run with the new data. The chance that, say, the forecast for Friday's high temperature will be raised or lowered is equal, unless something was initially wrong with the forecast model itself.

I decided to apply this logic to global-warming articles appearing in the world's two big science journals--Science, which is published by my Washington lobby, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Nature, a prestigious British weekly.

I sorted them into three piles: "worse," "better," and "neutral/can't classify." "Worse" means that global warming is going to be more severe or its effects will be worse than previously thought. The other categories are analogous.

I counted 115 articles in the last 13 months--52 in Science and 63 in Nature. Twenty-three were in the "neutral/can't classify" bin. In the remaining two categories, nine were in the "better" class, meaning things wouldn't be as bad as previously thought, and 83 were in the "worse" box.


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PATRICK J. MICHAELS is Virginia's state climatologist, a visiting professor in the Program in Natural Resources at Virginia Tech, and senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.