why it matters

This is not based on data, but is instead intended for illustrative purposes.

Imagine the following: the IPCC releases a report comparing the growth in electricity sector emissions to the growth in sequestration resulting from reforestation projects. The report cites statistics from 1995 – 2008, finding that emissions from the electric sector are growing at a rate that far outpaces the rate at which CO2 is being taken up by reforestation efforts (shown on the left in the graph above). Their conclusion, based on this data, is that reforestation efforts are not going to be sufficient to slow the pace at which CO2 from the electricity sector accumulates in the atmosphere, and therefore additional measures (cap-and-trade, carbon tax, etc.) will be required to prevent damages from increased global temperatures.

Unfortunately for the IPCC, the data behind that graph is publicly available, and someone reveals that the picture looks much different when you include 2009 (shown on the right in the graph above), due to a significant decrease in electricity sector emissions from 2008 to 2009. The climate skeptic community erupts in anger, and the IPCC takes a huge hit in credibility.

Actually, it’s not that hard to imagine that scenario. It would be a more serious version of “Climategate“, one in which the omitted data could actually lead to a substantially different conclusion. The Climategate faux-scandal is likely one of the factors that led to a decrease in the percentage of the population that believes climate change is a real problem, which fell from 71% to 57% between October 2008 and January 2010.

Meanwhile, as I pointed out in my last post, James Fallows committed a similar omission in his article about the future of clean coal. But there has been no similar outrage, no cries of “coalgate!” (alright, that’s probably a bad name for it…), not even a correction or note in the article. The chart below shows the difference that results when you include 2009:


Fallows has confirmed in an e-mail that he is aware of the decline between 2008 and 2009, but notes that he does not know whether this dip is an anomaly or the beginning of a trend. I think that reservation is fair, because one year of decline does not a trend make (though data from the EIA on generation shows that the trend is continuing, with coal generation from January to July 2010 down from 2009 levels).

To explain why this upsets me so much, I’ll borrow a quote:

By the end of the [book, Muller] has forcefully re-established the principle that real scientists view propositions as most convincing when all the doubts, caveats, and contrary bits of evidence are admitted — whereas politicians and the public want to hear an all-or-nothing verdict with no hems or haws. Consistent with this approach, it is all the more powerful when Muller concludes that there really are reasons to worry about man-made climate change. . . If this latest George Will opus serves to drive readers to Muller’s book, it will have done some good.

The author of that quote is exactly right. Propositions are most convincing when all of the potential flaws are addressed in the open, rather than swept under the carpet. And the more people who read comprehensive analyses (that include the doubts and caveats) of climate change and other energy issues like Muller’s, the better.

Can you guess who said that? Yep. Mr. Fallows himself.


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