Climate Alarmism on the Hot Seat: Eric Berger, Houston Chronicle Science Writer, Wants to Know What's Up
“For a long time now, science reporters have been confidently told the science is settled…. But I am confused [by recent developments]. Four years ago this all seemed like a fait accompli. Humans were unquestionably warming the climate and changing the planet forever through their emissions of carbon dioxide.”
- Eric Berger, Science Writer, Houston Chronicle, September 6, 2009 [SciGuy Blog]
In his post at MasterResource last week, Ken Green spoke of a potential “death spiral” for climate alarmism, in that the failure of the political process would make it less politically incorrect to challenge climate alarmism. “As hopes for a Gore-style ‘wrenching transformation’ fade,” wrote Green, “more mainstream scientists and opinion-makers will become more ‘practical’ toward the issue, meaning that alarmism may give way to sensible assessments of mitigation, adaptation, and geo-engineering.”
But the other problem for climate alarmism is nonalarmist data, as well as new studies by top climatologists questioning the guts of high-sensitivity climate models. Chip Knappenberger summarized a new study by Richard Lindzen that concluded that the “best guess” warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was radically overstated. Marlo Lewis’s summary, Is the Climate Science Debate Over? No, It’s Just Getting Very, Very Interesting (with welcome news for mankind), also lays out the latest from the quite unsettled–and nonalarmist–science. Are the Malthusians wrong again?
Enter Eric Berger, the open-minded, fair-minded science writer for the Houston Chronicle. With just a little courage, and no doubt a good deal of perplexity, he is asking the question that some have been asking for a long, long time: what is really going on here. And no doubt he will take some heat from his post, and no doubt he is going to get to the bottom of what is going on.
Jerry North (Texas A&M) Hints at the Problem
Eleven years ago, when I was director of public policy at Enron, I entered into a consulting agreement with Gerald North, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Oceanography at Texas A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, to tell me what was going on. North was as close as I could find to a ‘middle of the roader’ between climate alarmism and (ultra) skepticism. He is also highly decorated.
And this has not changed. North’s own intuitive estimate of climate sensitivity is now 50% below the IPCC’s best guess, and he has been critical of a number of the climate mini-alarms that would make headlines and then fade away (more hurricanes, disruption of the thermohaline circulation, etc.).
But I noticed a Malthusian streak in North, that unstated assumption that nature is optimal, and the human influence on climate cannot be good but only bad–and maybe even catastrophic. Still, North in his emails to me–then and now–was rather blunt about the shortcomings of climate modeling.
Here is a sampling of quotations over the last decade:
“There is no doubt a small ‘sociological convergence’ effect, that tends to work here (individuals and their managers hate to be the outlier). The biggest problem is that doubling CO2 leads to a 1 deg C warming (I think even Lindzen agrees). If water vapor doubles it, we are at 2.0 (Lindzen differs here, but I do not know of anyone else). Are there any other feedbacks? It is hard to dismiss ice feedback, but it might be small. Clouds are positive in most models — I have always taken them to be neutral, but with no substantial reason (it’s just easier that way).”
“I do not think there is enough thinking going on. Just plugging in the numbers or running the simulations. Dick [Lindzen] is clearly right on this one.”
“I believe the ocean simulations are very primitive and quite variable from one group to another. The underlying reason is this: How much of the deep layers of the ocean are really participating in the warming?”
“There are pitifully few ways to test climate models.”
“[Models] sort of fake it (we call it ‘parameterization’). They do it in very crude ways such as if the temperature profile of the atmosphere is unstable, they make the whole column overturn, etc.”
“[The models’ treatment of feedbacks] could also be sociological: getting the socially acceptable answer.”
“I go back to my old position: we need more time, maybe a decade to get a better grip on aerosols, water vapor feedback, cloud feedback, ocean participation.”
“We have only a very loose grip on aerosols.”
“[The models] treat the ocean differently. Somehow, they are fudging the parameters that govern ocean coupling so that they get the right ocean delay to agree with the data in spite of their differing sensitivities.”
But before you call North a radical or tattletale on the ‘consensus’, consider what the IPCC said in the back of their latest assessement of the physical science of climate change:
“The set of available models may share fundamental inadequacies, the effects of which cannot be quantified.”
- IPCC, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 805.
Is this a trick? Satisfy the science by stating the science–but do so on page 805 rather than in the executive summary where it belongs. It is this sort of thing that Eric Berger–and other open-minded middle-of-the-roaders–are going to find out. And they just might feel a little duped.
A ‘Skeptic’ Climate Model?
But if high-sensitivity models are errant, why isn’t there a “Lindzen” model? As it has been explained it to me, the microphysics of clouds and other key parameters are ‘sub-grid scale’ and beyond the capability of models. So models are inherently high-sensitivity and thus alarmist. Something, in this case, is worse than nothing.
What Eric Berger will find out, I believe, is that the ‘easy’ computable answer for climate models introduced an inherently biased, upward estimate of climate sensitivity. But the climate is much more complex that the (artificial) models, and more realistic physics (a la Lindzen) suggest climate to have less positive (and maybe neutral or negative) feedbacks. This would mean that CO2 is a benign, trace gas–not a harbinger of doom.
And given the political impasse (consumers like reliable, affordable energy, thank you), this is good news for mankind, indeed!
How wide will the rethink–and the confessions–be? Can Richard Kerr at Science help us here? How about other science writers at the New York Times or Wall Street Journal? Will the Society of Environmental Journalists sponsor climate debates between high-sensitivity ‘alarmists’ and low-sensitivity ‘skeptics’? Will alarmists agree to debate at the next Heartland Institute climate conference scheduled in Chicago in May?
What is needed now more than ever is a “challenge culture”–even if it involves a bit of political incorrectness. This is physical science, after all, not political science.
Appendix A: “Climate Scientists Should Talk About What “May” Happen, Rather Than What ‘Will’ Happen” by Eric Berger
I’m the science reporter for the Houston Chronicle, the daily newspaper in the petrochemical capital of the United States, if not the world. I’ve been called a global warming skeptic by environmentalists, and I’ve been called an environmentalist toady by the skeptics.
I’m neither of these things. Rather, I’m just trying to grasp what is happening to the planet’s climate, and how humans are impacting it.
For a long time now, science reporters have been confidently told the science is settled. That the planet is warming and humans are unquestionably the primary cause. We’ve been told to trust the computer models — the models which show a markedly upward trend in temperatures as carbon dioxide concentrations increase. And I’ve trusted the scientists telling me this.
Below you’ll find the computer model forecasts for the 21st century temperatures from the most recent IPCC summary for policymakers, which call for a 1.8°C to 3.8°C rise in global temperatures by 2100:
It seems pretty clear that the models forecast a steady upward trend in global temperatures as long as carbon dioxide levels rise. (Which they have). Yet according to satellite and surface temperature measurements the global average temperature has essentially remained flat for the last 12 years. This strikes me as somewhat curious.
When An Inconvenient Truth came out I believed the movie to be scientifically accurate. Carbon dioxide levels were rising and so were temperatures. And hurricane activity, especially after the disastrous 2005 season, was out of control.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the world: hurricane activity on the global scale is near historical lows. And the Earth seems to have, at least temporarily, stopped warming.
This, despite the fact that some of the country’s leading climate scientists say there is unequivocally a link between major hurricanes and climate change. And despite the fact that other leading climate scientists predicted 2009 or 2010 will go down as the warmest year in recorded history. Either prediction, if true, would be alarming.
Yet both of these predictions seem, at the present moment, to be off.
Then there’s this: a revealing story from an international meeting of climate scientists where a German climate scientist says the world may cool for the next decade or two. New Scientist reports:
One of the world’s top climate modelers said Thursday we could be about to enter “one or even two decades during which temperatures cool.
“People will say this is global warming disappearing,” he told more than 1500 of the world’s top climate scientists gathering in Geneva at the UN’s World Climate Conference.
“I am not one of the skeptics,” insisted Mojib Latif of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University, Germany. “However, we have to ask the nasty questions ourselves or other people will do it.”
Few climate scientists go as far as Latif, an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But more and more agree that the short-term prognosis for climate change is much less certain than once thought.
If we can’t have confidence in the short-term prognosis for climate change, how can we have full confidence in the long-term prognosis?
The article is significant for a couple of reasons. First of all it’s written by Fred Pearce, who has a history of forceful journalism outlining climate change’s perils, and it’s published by New Scientist, which has long advocated vigorous action to curb climate change. I respect both the author and the publication.
Secondly, the key point here is that scientists are acknowledging that natural variations are playing a very important role in our present and future climate, perhaps cooling it. Therefore it stands to reason that natural variations might also have played a role in the temperature run-up of the 20th century.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not a climate change skeptic. I do not deny that the planet warmed 0.6°C in the 20th century. I do not deny that humans played some part in that significant warming.
But I am confused. Four years ago this all seemed like a fait accompli. Humans were unquestionably warming the climate and changing the planet forever through their emissions of carbon dioxide.
The problem is that some climate scientists and environmentalists have been so determined to see something done about carbon dioxide emissions — now — that they have glossed over the uncertainties.
Uncertainties like: maybe there isn’t a linear relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature, and maybe the planet will cool for a couple of decades even as carbon dioxide emissions accelerate.
For the last few years some scientists and environmentalists have been telling us a lot about what “will” happen in the future if carbon dioxide emissions continue unabated. It perhaps would have been a lot better if they talked about what “may” happen.