Global Warming and Government Work

The origins of the epithet, “Good enough for government work,” are not precisely known, but it is definitely a part of the American vernacular. It serves as a diminishing, if not downright demeaning, label for the perhaps adequate, but not particularly stellar result of some project, physical or intellectual, done by or under government auspices or contract.

Those dutifully toiling in their government endeavors might find such a term disrespectful of their own honest efforts…condolences to them. Such honest devotion to tedium is not deserving of scorn. The problem for them is that a famed governmental agency has just made a prominent public display of what fits the popular image of “good enough government work,” and has set the new standard by which it is defined.

As each calendar year approaches its end, there is a recurring event anxiously anticipated by a vast swath of the public, but in particular by academia, the media, and elements of the political establishments, here and abroad. It is discussed in the chatter of all these entities right up until the final announcement is issued. Excitement in the media rivals the anticipated winners of Hollywood’s academy awards, the teams chosen for the Super Bowl, or the winner of the Mega Millions lottery. Only “Who shot J.R.” of the “Dallas” television series might have garnered a more breathless audience awaiting the final revelation. 

The event is, of course, whether the final tally of the prior year’s temperature record has set… well, a new record. This year has been especially critical as the comments by a number of political leaders have been imbued with visions of pending climate catastrophes, and have elevated the climate vagaries of Mother Nature to astronomical importance. Against a global backdrop of multiple tribal warfare, televised images of beheadings, civil unrest, mass murders, and death threats acted out against the Western concepts of civilization, some of our own politicians have discerned an even greater threat.

Secretary of State John Kerry surveyed the global landscape and concluded: “climate change perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction…”

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that “The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.” Also, “The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.” He described rising temperatures as “the greatest threat to future Americans.”

Surveying the entire litany of worldwide conflicts and disasters, another world leader, Pope Francis, has announced that he has singled out climate change to be the topic of a papal encyclical this year in order  “to make all people aware of the state of our climate and the tragedy of social exclusion”.

With so much political and religious stock at stake, these leaders would certainly find it convenient to have some hard numbers from the science community to support their climate concerns. Global temperatures are but one of several imperfect gauges to define the vague entity popularly termed climate, but they are widely referenced as the prime indicator.

President Obama referenced “the best scientists” in his State of the Union address. What a tough spot to be in for those climate scientists upon whose ability to divine a correlation or temperature trend hangs the fate of the world and that of future generations.

Fortuitously, if not obligingly, the stewards of global temperature at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA) announced on January 16, 2015 that: “The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists.” And: “NOAA provides decision makers with timely and trusted science-based information about our changing world,” said Richard Spinrad, NOAA chief scientist.

NASA confirmed these findings with: “The 10 warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000. This trend continues a long-term warming of the planet, according to an analysis of surface temperature measurements by scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS) in New York.” 

Who could now be so callous as to harbor any thoughts regarding the merits of “government work”?  Having garnered headlines around the world documenting a febrile planet, the same NASA agency again made headlines when GISS’s director Gavin Schmidt “admitted NASA thinks the likelihood that 2014 was the warmest year since 1880 is just 38 per cent.” It all had to do with making accurate measurements of something rather tiny. If one has a yardstick to measure the thickness of a sheet of paper, these scientists belatedly acknowledged that it would be hard to trust the accuracy of such measurements… something to do with esoteric confidence bands and the like.

However, all is not lost. This agency has now put a number (real scientists like to do that) on the quality of “government work.” Hence forth, getting something correct to 38 per cent of certainty is the new benchmark for “good enough for government work.”

Charles G. Battig, M.D. , Piedmont Chapter president, VA-Scientists and Engineers for Energy and  Environment (VA-SEEE). His website is www.climateis.com