The Intersection

Media Matters has the latest on dubious statements about science by the editorial page of this seemingly august paper. It seems that two ed page folks have claimed that new findings about methane emissions from trees somehow undercut the case for concern about human caused global warming.

This is a ridiculous position: No matter what’s going on with methane, we’re still pumping oodles of CO2 into the atmosphere. That’s not changing fast, and CO2 is the greenhouse gas that everyone is most worried about (not to say that the others don’t matter). So this commentary from the Journal editors, delivered on their show the “Journal Editorial Report,” doesn’t even make sense on its face. The comments do, however, parallel something similar said recently by that reliable scientific source, Rush Limbaugh.

To be sure, this misuse of science hardly compares to previous transgressions from the Journal editorial page. In The Republican War on Science, I discuss an outrageous editorial from the paper suggesting there’s nothing to worry about from mercury in fish. And Media Matters previously caught the WSJ editorial page committing the granddaddy of abuses, an action so out of line that it just makes your jaw drop.

Last year, in an editorial debunking global warming (as usual), the Journal editorial page threw up a graph from the first IPCC report, circa 1990, to support its argument. Trouble is, the IPCC has done two reports since then, and, er, has changed its position considerably as the science has evolved. It’s pretty tough to believe that whoever decided to use that ancient graph wasn’t aware of this, but perhaps they just didn’t care.

And that, again, is why although you should certainly trust their science reporters, you should never trust the Wall Street Journal editorial page on global warming.


  1. #1 Matt F
    January 30, 2006

    Wow, that sounds like that old Reagan comment about trees causing pollution.

    The WSJ is a strange beast, its straight reporting is usually topp-notch, but its editorial page is populated by some rather nutty folks.

  2. #2 wcamps
    January 30, 2006

    HENNINGER: …Because the eminent Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, has just reported in Nature magazine that plants, trees, forests, emit 10 to 30 percent of the methane gas into the atmosphere. This is a greenhouse gas, the sort of stuff the Kyoto Treaty is meant to suppress. So, this is causing big problems for the tree-huggers if plants, in fact, do cause greenhouse gases; and I have just one message for them: The next time you are out for a walk in the woods, breathe the methane.

    So, the big news is that plants produce 10 to 30 percent of the methane gas released into the atmosphere.

    Why is there no mention of where the other 70 to 90 percent comes from? Which is better: breathing the methane or drinking the kool-aid?

  3. #3 skeptic
    January 30, 2006

    Listen, I’m a skeptic. I have doubts about global warming, and I don’t see enough clear writing that takes them into account. I’m a pretty intelligent guy, but some of the articles I see are, at best, simplistic.

    Here’s just a couple of things I wonder about:

    As a writer and translator, researching Chretien de Troye’s 12th century Conte du Graal made me learn that, in the 11th to 12th centuries, the temperature in Europe rose significantly, enough to increase crop yields, hence popluation, which led to the creation of the modern city. There have been other such temperature increases in the past – what caused them? I don’t think anyone knows…

    If CO2 is the culprit today, then why weren’t there other periods in the past where CO2 levels spiked? Since volcanic eruptions give off more CO2 than humans could create (though I’d like to see precise figures on this), have the number of volcanic eruptions in the past couple of centuries been above the norm?

    What about burning wood? While cars give off CO2, how much does a family who uses wood for heat and cooking give off? What about coal? Is it only industry that is the culprit?

    What about plants that are said to trap CO2? Why don’t they? (I mean, if there’s more CO2 in the air, then plants, which trap CO2 for photosynthesis should be growing more, right?)

    Those are just a few of the unanswered questions I have. If someone could point me to either a web site or book which looks at this issue clearly and addresses these questions I’d appreciate it.

    Note: I’m not some Republican fundamentalist; I’m just a guy living in Europe who finds that too much of the reporting has gaps in it. Convince me.

  4. #4 Chris Mooney
    January 30, 2006

    Dear Skeptic,
    The reporting isn’t necessarily intended to explain these things. Read IPCC reports for more detail on the science.

  5. #5 jackd
    January 30, 2006

    Chris, I had a thought when I saw the headline, and from the article I inferred that you’d sort of agree. There are two ways to modify the header to make it equally accurate and more useful. 1) Add “, Either” to the end, or 2) strike the last three words altogether.

  6. #6 Stig
    January 30, 2006

    It probably is true that all plant and animal life contribute, to some extent, in the over all, thermal regulation of the Earth’s atmosphere. My body gives off heat as well as CO2, as a result of the processes that maintain my life, as does the life of an oak tree releasing methane as a result of maintaining its own. These are but some of examples of life processes that have been in extent since life began on this planet and to argue that all such natural processes are to be blamed for our present situation, radical climate change, is truly absurd. Indeed the atmosphere came to be in the beginning as a result of photosynthezing algaes and plants!. Prehaps we should just wipe out all plant life on the planet, yes, that should care of the problem. No really, the problem has been recognized for quite some time now, even James Maxwell(1831-89) intuitively questioned the wisdom of his own age, where machinery pumped heat into the atmosphere.
    We humans are the culprits behind this present sitution of global warming, not because we are alive and that plants exist as they are, but simply because we pollute the enviroment by releasing concentrates of all sorts, gases and solids into it. And as far as I can see, nothing substantial will be done until the time when we recognize this fact. How we then deal with it is yet a another problem.

  7. #7 Urinated State of America
    January 30, 2006

    “As a writer and translator, researching Chretien de Troye’s 12th century Conte du Graal made me learn that, in the 11th to 12th centuries, the temperature in Europe rose significantly,”

    Yeah, but that was a localized, not global, effect. Records from tropical corals show a cooling during the same period (the author of said coral study joked about a “Medieval Cooling Period.

    “What about plants that are said to trap CO2? Why don’t they? (I mean, if there’s more CO2 in the air, then plants, which trap CO2 for photosynthesis should be growing more, right?)”

    Problem is, at least in tests at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge, increased temperature and CO2 lead to more plant pathogen activity.

    Also, the carbon that might be captured by increased plant growth, and least in the short term, just wouldn’t be that significant, based on the studies of increasing CO2 capture using reforestation and no-till farming.

    As Chris said, this is a complex subject, and it’s best to read either the primary literature or good summaries thereof, rather than relying on ad-hoc hypotheses which may already have been refuted. The IPCC’s Third Assessment Report is a good place to start.

  8. #8 Inoculated Mind
    January 30, 2006

    I would like to add to Urinate’s comment – Increased levels of CO2 also reduce the ability of plants to utilize nitrogen in the soil. For most plants, CO2 is not a limiting factor, while nitrogen is, so increased CO2 levels aren’t very good for plants.

    And Skeptic, you might want to try – They’re a really good source and they will answer specific questions.

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