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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter
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A Look at Some Specific Cases

In dissecting the cases I look at here, I am in no way seeking to denigrate everyone who questions the mainstream view of global warming. I recognize that there are legitimate questions about many facets of the theory. Nor do I seek to demonstrate that any of their alternative explanations is wrong. I have neither the time nor the scientific expertise to do that. Also, I am not concerned here with conflicts of interest on the part of the authors. (But this possibility should always be kept in mind.)

What I'm going after here is the instances of sloppy thinking, lapses of logic, misrepresentation, misquoting... in short, carelessness — the sort of carelessness that weakens all arguments against the mainstream case. It is great fun to pick one side in this battle and throw virtual brickbats at people on the other side. But if there is any error in mainstream scientists' projections of climate catastrophe, it's in everyone's best interest to find it as soon as possible. The interminable cascade of confusion from Denialists only interferes with that effort.

There are larger implications as well. It's important to understand how widespread the tendency to careless reasoning is. If we are caught in a culture of disinformation, it interferes with every intellectual effort we undertake.

Here I depart from the format of my other pages on this topic. I discuss the following documents:

The authors of all these documents have two things in common: they misrepresent the true nature of the situation they write about, and they apparently do so knowingly. I say "apparently" because I do not know for a fact that this is true in every case. But this much I do know: When authority figures present information on a topic that lies within their area of expertise, or when they identify themselves as journalistic sources, they have an obligation to be accurate — to get the facts right, and to avoid misleading interpretations. The writers I discuss here fail in that obligation.

It's not the incorrect statements that I object to; everyone makes mistakes. I have made some fine ones. It is that the nature of these statements reflects at best a superficial understanding of the subject and at worst a willful ignorance that can only be seen as politically motivated.

The cases

Peer review is an essential part of the publication process. Any paper submitted to a reputable journal is sent to several scientists working in the relevant field. Their job is to identify any shortcomings in the paper and advise the author(s), in order that these faults are corrected before the paper is published. This validates the scientific integrity of the work. Or at least, it is supposed to.

Consider the journal Climate Research. In January 2003, it published a paper by Soon & Baliunas.1 This paper surveyed 240 studies of climate proxy records and concluded (to put it simply) that they were all mistaken, that the 20th century was not the warmest after all. I'll summarize the rest of the story.2 The paper, approved by four reviewers, was found to be "fundamentally flawed" as detailed in an extended rebuttal,3 and Climate Research received many letters of concern. Ultimately, five of the ten editors resigned in protest. But the editor who handled the Soon & Baliunas paper stayed on.

A high school textbook is not a scientific paper, but it is also expected to meet certain standards. Namely, it should avoid misstatements of fact, slanted information, and omissions that give an incomplete or misleading picture. While today's textbooks do not change the outcome of the current debate over climate change, they will affect the understanding of the next generation of citizens. Equally important is what they reveal about the culture of disinformation.

Matthew LaClair, a senior at a New Jersey high school, found that one of his textbooks, American Government: Institutions and Policies, says this about climate change:

"Science doesn't know whether we are experiencing a dangerous level of global warming or how bad the greenhouse effect is, if it exists at all."

This was the 10th edition of the textbook, published in 2005, which is in high school classrooms now. In the "corrected" 11th edition, revised by Houghton-Mifflin after a media storm and complaints by the Center for Inquiry, that sentence reads:

"Science doesn't know how bad the greenhouse effect is."

This is still wrong, and the textbook has other defects. In addition to misleading students about climate change science, it misinforms them on several areas of law and civics.4

For all their eagerness to have their ideas respected by the scientific establishment, Denialists devote a surprisingly small amount of effort to actual investigation.

Pat Michaels is a scientist specializing in agriculture and climate. Here, in a newspaper article, he presents his "investigation" of how heat waves affect human mortality in large cities:

"Static projections of global warming death and destruction assume what is known in my profession as the 'stupid people hypothesis,' which is that people will just sit around and slowly fry and die, without making any attempt to adapt through technological change.

"That's a testable hypothesis. Our cities have been warming for decades (with or without global warming) because the bricks, buildings and pavement retain the sun's warmth. But as they have warmed, heat-related deaths have fallen. Indeed, in some large North American cities, there is no longer any significant association between hot weather and mortality. The same technology (electrically powered air conditioning) that emits "polluting" carbon dioxide also prolongs life and makes it more comfortable." [ 5 ]

Since this is a testable hypothesis, you might think that Dr. Michaels would have come up with some actual data to support or refute it. Apparently not. A blogger noted that a few minutes' Googling brought up this study, which says:

"This research investigates heat-related mortality during the 1980 and 1995 heat waves in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis has a long history of extreme summer weather, and heat-related mortality is a public health concern. Heat waves are defined as days with apparent temperatures exceeding 40.6 degrees C (105 degrees F). The study uses a multivariate analysis to investigate the relationship between mortality and heat wave intensity, duration, and timing within the summer season. The heat wave of 1980 was more severe and had higher associated mortality than that of 1995. To learn if changing population characteristics, in addition to weather conditions, contributed to this difference, changes in population vulnerability between 1980 and 1995 are evaluated under simulated heat wave conditions. The findings show that St. Louis remains at risk of heat wave mortality. In addition, there is evidence that vulnerability has increased despite increased air-conditioning penetration and public health interventions." [ 6 ]

as well as this 1984 CDC bulletin about New York City. [ 7 ] Both refute Dr. Michaels' assertion, showing that air conditioning is not the death-defeater he imagines it to be.

Several prominent scientists have carried on a crusade against what they regard as flaws in mainstream climate science and the fact that their corrections for these flaws are being suppressed by a scientific establishment dead set on debasing the dedicated dissenters. One of those dedicated dissenters is Dr. Richard Lindzen.

Richard Siegmund Lindzen, Ph.D., is a Harvard-trained atmospheric physicist and was the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT (he retired in 2013.) He has published over 200 books and scientific papers and was lead author of Chapter 7 (physical processes) in the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC on global warming (2001). He is a reputable scientist.

He is also a strong and persistent critic of the way climate science is being conducted. Summarized, his view is that mainstream climate science goes far beyond the evidence, and that there is a concerted effort to prevent this from becoming known. For over a decade, his interviews and opinion pieces have been appearing in various newspapers. Here is one example (at the Internet Archive, 2007).

"There have been repeated claims that this past year's hurricane activity was another sign of human-induced climate change. Everything from the heat wave in Paris to heavy snows in Buffalo has been blamed on people burning gasoline to fuel their cars, and coal and natural gas to heat, cool and electrify their homes. Yet how can a barely discernible, one-degree increase in the recorded global mean temperature since the late 19th century possibly gain public acceptance as the source of recent weather catastrophes? And how can it translate into unlikely claims about future catastrophes?

"The answer has much to do with misunderstanding the science of climate, plus a willingness to debase climate science into a triangle of alarmism. Ambiguous scientific statements about climate are hyped by those with a vested interest in alarm, thus raising the political stakes for policy makers who provide funds for more science research to feed more alarm to increase the political stakes. After all, who puts money into science—whether for AIDS, or space, or climate—where there is nothing really alarming? Indeed, the success of climate alarmism can be counted in the increased federal spending on climate research from a few hundred million dollars pre-1990 to $1.7 billion today. It can also be seen in heightened spending on solar, wind, hydrogen, ethanol and clean coal technologies, as well as on other energy-investment decisions.

"But there is a more sinister side to this feeding frenzy. Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change gain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis." [ 8 ]

Let's overlook Dr. Lindzen's inflammatory language (unlikely claims, triangle of alarmism, a vested interest in alarm, feeding frenzy, etc.) and focus on two questions. One is a science-type question: Why does Dr. Lindzen consider a one-degree rise in the world's average temperature "barely discernible"? Is he speaking as a scientist? If so, surely he understands that modern instruments can measure ("discern") far smaller temperature changes. As for effects, he must be aware of many physical systems where a one-degree change makes a big difference. One such is black ice on a roadway when the temperature changes from 32 to 33°F. Steven Sherwood, in his excellent Global Warming FAQ, writes:

"1°F is enough to bleach corals, for example. A tree, animal, or skier has to move about 100 miles poleward for each 1°F of global warming to maintain the same climate envelope. At current warming rates this is several miles per year, which is impossible for most plant species, so forests will get left in the dust." [ 9 ]

I can forgive a Harvard-trained physicist for not knowing biology in such detail; but I won't excuse his missing the effect of temperature on the phase change of water. If the claimed effect of a small temperature change on storm frequency or intensity is new and tentative, that does not ipso facto invalidate the claim; only lack of evidence can do so.

The second question is a policy question. How can Dr. Lindzen say, or even imply, that some sort of threat is the only reason science ever gets funded? This is absurd on its face.

But what Dr. Lindzen is really suggesting with his question is, how can the public be convinced that such a small temperature change is of any concern? He should also know the answer to that: the public can be convinced of this by conscientious researchers who discover and describe genuine reasons for concern. Conversely, if the reasons they describe are not genuine, they will be supplanted by whatever the truth turns out to be — just as the medical establishment was eventually convinced that Helicobacter pylori is the true cause of stomach ulcers.

Denialists have the unfortunate tendency to cite papers that they claim refute some aspect of global warming when those papers actually don't. A case in point is Senator James Inhofe, who (as I note elsewhere) in December 2008 misquoted a Swiss research team. This is even more true in the blogosphere, where people who don't like to think about global warming seize on the slimmest possibility that they can stop doing so.

About two years ago, Ferenc Miskolczi published a paper10 that purportedly shows it is impossible for Earth to undergo a runaway greenhouse effect. Miklos Zagoni, described as Hungary's most outspoken supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, read this paper and recanted. Or so we are told. And the AGW-skeptic sector of the blogosphere is in deep exult over the result — unwisely, in my opinion.

Miskolczi, an atmospheric physicist with a 30-year career, resigned from Langley Research Center after NASA would not publish the paper. It was published by the Quarterly Journal of the Hungarian Meteorological Service. (Apparently Miskolczi has the comments from reviewers that rejected it on his Web site.) I don't know enough to determine whether Miskolczi's paper is wrong. My point in bringing it up is that the exultation I'm witnessing is premature. It's well known that the greenhouse effect makes Earth livable. There's also the example of our sister planet Venus, where a thick CO2 atmosphere keeps its surface hot enough to melt lead. And of course there's the IPCC's extensive study of radiative forcing by CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Even if Miskolczi is right — which is doubtful — his result can't preclude the smaller temperature rise that mainstream climate researchers warn about.

Here's the real scoop on Miskolczi's paper:

  1. Why Ferenc M. Miskolczi is Wrong
    Barton Paul Levinson, 2008 (at the Internet Archive, 2015)
  2. GIGO
    Eli Rabett, 28 June 2008

But that hasn't stopped the ground swell of acclaim from the blogosphere. Here is how a story on Miskolczi's paper is headlined by Michael Asher at DailyTech:

"Researcher: Basic greenhouse equations 'totally wrong'."

So let me sum up: NASA rejected a paper by one of its own researchers. He resigned in protest. The paper was then rejected by other places before being published in the researcher's homeland. Now online, it's being praised to the skies all over the Web, except where people who know some science hang out. There, even on skeptical sites, a lot of hard questions are raised about it. Where the real climatologists spend some off-duty time, it's held to make three fatal errors11 and to be the latest in a long line of wishful thinking. Yet the Denialists act as if it negates the entire basis of AGW.

I guess it's a good thing that skeptical scientists don't always follow the same script. It can be confusing though. Different ones can claim diametrically opposite things about a single organization. That's especially puzzling when they contradict each other on what amounts to an article of faith among them: that skeptics are being muzzled.

NASA is a case in point. It's been well documented that NASA (almost certainly on the orders of the Bush White House) interfered with press access to its climate scientists — James Hansen, an AGW proponent of long standing, being the most prominent example.

Yet, in his blog, Robert D writes an entry12 headlined:

"NASA Is Censoring Global Warming Skeptics"

Robert quotes extensively from an entry on Roy Spencer's new blog. That says, in part:

"In truth, it wasn't Hansen who was muzzled, but it was me in the Clinton-Gore years, who was asked to keep my mouth shut about my skeptical views. That was fine... if a little annoying. At least the flap Hansen caused has managed to force NASA to say that their scientists no longer have to march in lock-step on scientific issues. That's a good thing." [ 13 ]

Robert says NASA censors AGW skeptics today. This directly contradicts what the document he cites as support says. I think Dr. Spencer is closer to right on this, since he was there. But NASA did try to censor Dr. Hansen and other scientists during the GW Bush years. That is well established by reports from Congress as well as by this book.

Of course, in the blogosphere, criticism, too, frequently becomes... less rigorous. I give just one example below. Others, like John L. Daly misquoting a respected scientist in order to discredit him,14 you can find and examine for yourself.

You might think a Web site that calls itself "Climate Research News" and says it's "Bridging the gap between reality and official science" would be a bastion of accuracy and responsibility. Not this site. Its author mocks: "Another Flawed Computer Model: Man Prevents Next Ice Age".15 The paper being mocked was published in Nature, which is about as solid a scientific journal as you'll find. Here (unedited except for special characters) is how the Web site describes it:

Climate Science is often like a virtual reality computer game, where the players eagerly await the next release. A new climate model paper has been published in the journal Nature, innocently entitled: 'Transient nature of late Pleistocene climate variability,' by Thomas J. Crowley & William T. Hyde.

In common with all computer models in the virtual world of climate alarmism, climate sensitivity to CO2 is drastically over-estimated. The claim is that man-made CO2 will delay or prevent the next ice age. This is apparently a bad thing, as we eagerly await the Northern Hemisphere to be once again being covered in ice several kilometres thick. The authors predict, with stunning factor of ten accuracy, that the onset of the next ice age is due within the next 10,000 to 100,000 years unless, of course, you or I continue the 'evil' practice of heating and lighting our homes, or travelling, or even having a real job. Sorry guys, but dream on. You sound like James Hansen, which isn't a compliment. Whenever the next ice age is actually due, man won't be able to stop it. Why? Because CO2 doesn't drive climate. Never has, never will.

The sub-Marxist government propaganda machine, the BBC, is always eager to report on climate virtual reality and doesn't disappoint with this: Climate change 'to halt ice age'.

I'll leave you with a prediction from my Lotto computer model — all 6 Lotto numbers will fall between 1 and 49. Good luck — you'll need it!

And I'll leave you to decide whether this is a serious account, let alone accurate reporting.

And then there are the many columnists, or pundits, holding forth in the older, more professional medium of newspapers. Minimally cognizant of science, frequently remiss at checking their facts, they nonetheless feel entitled to write authoritatively that concern about global warming is a farce and the IPCC is, at best, exaggerating.

Take George Will, a veteran columnist who's long been syndicated nationwide. He had an error-riddled op-ed piece in the Washington Post on 15 February 2009. Among other mistakes in the column, Will wrote:

"As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979." [ 17 ]

Will's mistakes in that column have been pointed out in lots of places. I'll cite just two. An astute reader had a letter to the editor published in the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazettte on 3 March 2009:

"It's been very disappointing to read the recent attacks on climate science by our Champaign native son, George Will, who used to be known for making reasoned arguments. In his initial article, he made six major factual errors, all of which he is now defending or covering up. He claimed falsely that global ice area was a key indicator of warming, although the models say that only Northern Hemisphere area (which is shrinking rapidly) is an indicator. He claimed falsely that our local climate scientists said that total ice cover was unchanged, when it too is shrinking somewhat. He claimed falsely that in the 1970s scientists agreed there would soon be an ice age, when in fact there was concern that one might arrive in several thousand years, unless there was man-made global warming. (By the way, that doesn't make rapid major warming a good thing. Burning down your house is not a good way to prepare for winter.)

Rather than continue to list Will's errors and distortions, I'll try to make the general point. The flow of thermal energy to and from the Earth is governed by physical laws, not by Will's political ideology." [ 18 ]

Then Media Matters, writing on April 8, quoted primary sources on the actual sea-ice trend:

"On April 6, NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) released new data on Arctic sea ice levels that further discredit a widely criticized February 15 column by George Will in which he falsely suggested that sea ice data undermine the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming. The NASA/NSIDC press release stated that "the maximum [Arctic] sea ice extent for 2008-09, reached on Feb. 28, was 5.85 million square miles. That is 278,000 square miles less than the average extent for 1979 to 2000." [ 19 ]

This page no longer exists, but Media Matters debunks a number of George Will's columns on climate here.

My point is that Will's column, in casting doubt on the reality of a warming trend, is misleading throughout. To the best of my knowledge, neither Will nor the Washington Post has apologized for this. (It has, however, published stories taking its columnist to task for at least some of his mistakes.) Will has given at least one interview in which he defends himself by, basically, sidestepping the issue.

The Heartland Institute is a conservative think-tank based in Chicago. It bills itself as "a nonprofit group seeking deregulation and unfettered markets." Its recent climate-change conference (its second) was held March 8-10 in New York City, with the theme of "Climate Change: Was it Ever a Crisis?" Coincidentally, a near-contemporaneous conference was held March 10-12 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Its theme was "Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions." It is part of the runup to the December Copenhagen COP15 conference, and is intended to "provide a synthesis of existing and emerging scientific knowledge necessary in order to make intelligent societal decisions concerning application of adaptation and mitigation strategies in response to climate change."

One guest at the 2009 Heartland conference was Christopher Booker. Here's part of his report on the two conferences (his first sentence refers to the Copenhagen conference):

"None of the government-funded scientists making these claims were particularly distinguished, but they succeeded in their object, as the media cheerfully recycled all this wild scaremongering without bothering to check the scientific facts.

What a striking contrast this was to the second conference, which I attended with 700 others in New York, organised by the Heartland Institute under the title "Global Warming: Was It Ever Really A Crisis?" In Britain this received no coverage at all, apart from a sneering mention by the Guardian, although it was addressed by dozens of expert scientists, not a few of world rank, who for professional standing put those in Copenhagen in the shade.

Led off with stirring speeches from the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, the acting head of the European Union, and Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT, perhaps the most distinguished climatologist in the world, the message of this gathering was that the scare over global warming has been deliberately stoked up for political reasons and has long since parted company with proper scientific evidence." [ 20 ]

Mr. Booker's remarks invite comparison of the speakers at the two conferences. In fact, those at Copenhagen were quite distinguished. The plenary speakers included the Prime Minister of Denmark and two other Danish Ministers; dignitaries from Britain, China, Poland and Sudan, as well as IPCC Chairman Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri and Professor Lord Nicholas Stern. In addition to these, there were 50 professors and 29 Ph.D.s including one Dr. James E. Hansen.

The Heartland conference headliners included: Arthur Robinson (Ph.D. chemistry, OISM founder), keynoter; Hon. Vaclav Klaus (Czech Republic president, Ph.D.); Harrison Schmitt (Ph.D. geology); Hon. Tom McClintock (R-CA); Hon. John Sununu (fmr. R-NH, Ph.D. mech. engrg.); Robert M. Carter (Ph.D. geology, Hon. FRSNZ); John Theon (Ph.D., fmr. NASA official); Dr. Richard S. Lindzen (Ph.D., MIT atmospheric science), keynoter; Willie Soon (Ph.D. astrophysics), keynoter; Lawrence Solomon (National Post columnist); Lord Christopher Monckton (Lord, fmr. journalist), keynoter; S. Fred Singer (Ph.D., environmental science); John Coleman (Weather Channel founder.)

Heartland had an impressive roster, from the standpoint of most conferences. However, I would be hard pressed to name any "world-class" scientists from it excepting Dr. Lindzen and possibly Dr. Schmitt, and Dr. Schmitt is not a climatologist. Also noteworthy is who did not attend: Dr. Russell Seitz stayed away this year, and Dr. John Christy skipped both years to avoid, he said, "guilt by association." The total attendance was between 600 and 700 — better than last year's 500, but well under the 1,000 expected in advance. Fairly complete coverage is provided by Andrew Revkin, writing in The New York Times.21

So it's incorrect to say that the scientists at the New York City conference "put those in Copenhagen in the shade." But the comparison that really matters, of course, is between the outputs of the two groups of scientists. There, I will leave readers to decide for themselves.

The Bottom Line on Case Studies

I hope this digression into case studies will shed some light. Mainly what I'm trying to suggest is that the pattern of inadequate research, faulty logic, and conclusions based on sheer wishful thinking pervades the Denialist camp. I do believe that the great bulk of such abuses of the scientific process comes from their side. They talk a good game, but when you dig into the substance of their work, it usually falls apart. Also, they are quick to accuse mainstream scientists of failings that for the most part appear in their own ranks — most notably that of being "fearmongers," when the Denialists are the ones whose warnings are most dire and apocalyptic.

I don't doubt that mainstream climate scientists may have sometimes overstated their case, and even published flawed papers. And again, I do not say that all who doubt AGW must perforce be wrong. But the prevalence of incorrect statements in the work of such doubters, and their evident lack of concern about this, does not bolster their arguments. It troubles me that so many of them seem to care so little about accuracy and clear thinking. It should trouble you as well.

Now, back to the page where I discuss what's wrong with arguments commonly used by Denialists against the scientific process.

1 Soon, W. and Baliunas, S., 2003: Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years. Climate Research, 23, 89-110.
2 Mann, M.E., Ammann, C.M., Bradley, R.S., Briffa, K.R., Crowley, T.J., Jones, P.D., Oppenheimer, M., Osborn, T.J., Overpeck, J.T., Rutherford, S., Trenberth, K.E. and Wigley, T.M.L., 2003: On past temperatures and anomalous late-20th century warmth. EOS, 84, 256.
3 Clare Goodess, of Scientists for Global Responsibility, provides a more complete account.
4 Matthew LaClair, at the time a Senior in Kearny, New Jersey, brought this textbook to national attention. His story is covered by Andrew Revkin as well as others. The Center for Inquiry has a detailed critique of the textbook online. (PDF, 65 pages)
5 Michaels, Pat, Climate change warming the bench, Washington Times, 9 Jul 2006
6 Smoyer, K. E., "A comparative analysis of heat waves and associated mortality in St. Louis, Missouri—1980 and 1995", Int. J. Biometeorol., 1998 Aug; 42(1):44-50
7 "Heat-Associated Mortality — New York City", Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, July 27, 1984 / 33(29);430-2
8 Climate of Fear: Global-warming alarmists intimidate dissenting scientists into silence. (by RICHARD LINDZEN, 12 April 2006 — at Internet Archive, 2007)
9 Sherwood, Steven, "Global Warming FAQ", Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University
10 Miskolczi, F, M., "Greenhouse effect in semi-transparent planetary atmospheres," Quarterly Journal of the Hungarian Meteorological Service, Vol. 111-1 (2007). Online at IDÔJÁRÁS (40-page PDF)
11 I refer to RealClimate, and specifically to the comments of Nick Stokes.
12 "NASA Is Censoring Global Warming Skeptics" – Posted on Monday February 2, 2009 by Robert D
13 Another NASA Defection to the Skeptics' Camp (Roy Spencer, 29 Jan 2009 — at Internet Archive, 2 Feb. 2009)
15 The text of this is here (15 Nov 2008 — at Internet Archive, 19 May 2011).
16 As in this dialogue:
"Hey, George Will says Earth's temperature has been falling for a decade!"
"No way!!! Are you serious?"
17 George F. Will, "Dark Green Doomsayers", Washington Post, 15 Feb 2009
18 "Will's Climate science writing is flawed", Michael B. Weissman, Urbana, 3 March 2009 (dead link)
19 "New sea ice data further bury George Will's global warming credibility", Media Matters, 8 April 2009 2:16pm ET
20 Nobody listens to the real climate change experts, Christopher Booker, 14 Mar 2009
21 Revkin, Andrew C., "Skeptics Dispute Climate Worries and Each Other", New York Times, March 8, 2009
22 Greenfyre, What if the Oregon Petition Names Were Real? (Greenfyre, 12 July 2009)
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