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Rice’s Baker Institute Climate Embarrassment (Sass’s ad hominem response to Rep. Smith)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- May 31, 2013

“The Baker Institute has some truing up to do in the multi-disciplinary field of climate change. Playing to its strengths, Rice University and Baker should host its third climate conference, titled something like ‘New Developments in the Physical Science of Climate Change.’

[Professor] Ronald Sass in his recent op-ed called for an ‘open, national debate on climate change.’ May Rice University and the Baker Institute lead the way.”

The Houston Chronicle this week ran opposing opinion-page editorials on the climate-change issue, one by Lamar Smith of the U.S. House of Representatives and the other by Ronald Sass, Fellow in Global Climate Change at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

Politician Smith politely makes multi-disciplinary arguments assuming the best intentions of his opponents. Academic Sass goes ad hominem on the Keystone XL pipeline issue and refers vaguely to a scientific consensus for his position.

This, unfortunately, is not atypical. Under gatekeeper Neal Lane, the Baker Institute has refused to allow fair, open debate about natural versus anthropogenic climate forces and has championed sky-is-falling government activism. For example, Lane/Baker:

    1. Killed publication of the proceedings of a fair climate-change conference held in 2000 with, for example, Patrick Michaels and James Hansen participating;
    2. Held a high-priced, widely publicized, assume-alarmist-science conference in 2008, Beyond Science: The Economics and Politics of Responding to Climate Change, featuring John Kerry and John Holdren.
    3. Refused to host a climate forum/debate in 2010 between Gerald North (Texas A&M) and Richard Lindzen (MIT), which ended up being co-sponsored by Rice’s Shell Center for Sustainability and the Center for the Study of Environment and Society.

Given Rice University’s prominence in the physical science fields, it is time to update developments in climate science to build upon their 2000 conference and correct their 2008 conference. But will Neal Lane admit to the current “stand-still” (Hansen) and “pause” in warming? Will he acknowledge what Georgia Tech’s Judith Curry calls “new perspectives on climate sensitivity“?  One hopes so for every good reason.

Rep. Smith’s Argument

Smith’s “Heated Rhetoric Doesn’t Serve Debate over Climate Change” politely questioned climate alarmism at its physical science root, and then made the undisputed point that unilateral U.S. carbon rationing would not have a discernible effect on climate without worldwide severe carbon cutbacks.

Despite those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty about climate science.

These uncertainties undermine our ability to  determine how CO2 has affected the climate in the past. They also limit our understanding of how anthropogenic emissions will affect future warming trends.

Further confusing the policy debate, the models that scientists have come to rely on for climate predictions have greatly overestimated warming. Contrary to model predictions, data released in October from the University of East Anglia‘s Climate Research Unit show that global temperatures have held steady over the past 15 years, despite rising greenhouse gas emissions…..

Also on firm ground, Smith disputes the link between man-made forcings and extreme weather events:

Further confounding the debate are unscientific and often hyperbolic claims about the potential effects of a warmer world. In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama said that extreme weather events have become “more frequent and intense,” and he linked Superstorm Sandy to climate change.

But experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have told the New York Times that climate change had nothing to do with Superstorm Sandy. This is underscored by last year’s IPCC report stating that there is “high agreement” among leading experts that trends in weather disasters, floods, tornadoes and storms cannot be attributed to climate change. While these claims may make for good political theater, their effect on recent public policy choices hurts the economy.

Sass Rebuttal

In his rejoinder “It’s Time for an Open, National Debate on Climate Change,” Sass, the academic, posits the debate as between climate scientists and “those who control the economic reins of the world and have so much at strake in our current and future ways of producing wealth.” Smith, he charges, “is more heavily invested in promoting  the Keystone XL pipeline than he is in policy for climate change.”

Directing readers to a rebuttal of Smith at Joe Romm’s Climate Progress (what scholarship!), Sass then elevates the ad hominem:

Smith has made it all too clear that he favors the Keystone XL pipeline and I grant him the right to pull together whatever he needs to promote his point of view.

But, because he is a public servant, I must admonish him to open his mind to all legitimate facts. I find it astonishing, for example, that the hearing had no witnesses from the community of nationally recognized climate scientists. I believe that by limiting the expertise of the participants in this discussion, he is distorting the facts and hindering the legitimate evaluation of policy options.

The pipeline is not the real, long-term issue. The real issue is: Can we afford to continue “business as usual” with fossil fuel energy?

We must recognize that climate change is a serious challenge to the future that needs to be dealt with immediately.

Sass concludes:

So, Rep. Smith, let’s get to the real issue. I invite you to join in a national dialogue based on all the facts about what we as a country intend to do about climate change – a change that will alter our weather, challenge our food and water supply, and subject us to the greatest challenges ever faced by humans.

And in so doing, truly serve the public interest.

This is very poor fare from any academic. It is much closer to a Sierra Club or Bill McKibben editorial than university fare.

Critical Evaluation

Where has Dr. Sass been in the last quarter century? We have had a quite “open, national debate on climate change” since NASA scientist James Hansen’s testified before Al Gore’s Senate subcommittee in the 1980s. What Sass and the alarmists are really saying is that they are losing this debate because it has not been fair.

On the contrary, the alarmists are losing the debate not only because of massive government failure in the face of alleged market failure. They are losing because the physical science, including global temperature records, is not being kind to alarmism.

Where is the physical science today? Good science is driving out bad, and the good news is that the case for high-sensitivity enhanced-greenhouse-gas forcing is weakening and just weak. Perhaps this is why Professor Sass’s piece went ad hominem.

Marlo Lewis, an indefatigable researcher at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (and a Harvard PhD for those counting), wrote this summary recently in the National Journal:

In 2006–2007, authors like Al Gore, Joseph Romm, and Fred Pearce popularized scary climate change impact scenarios, such as ice sheet disintegration and catastrophic sea-level rise, dramatic increases in extreme-weather frequency and/or severity, and climate-destabilizing releases of CO2 and methane from melting permafrost. Recent studies undercut the credibility of those scenarios. A partial list follows:

King et al. (2012): The rate of Antarctic ice loss is not accelerating and translates to less than one inch of sea-level rise per century.

Faezeh et al. (2013): Greenland’s four main outlet glaciers are projected to contribute 19 to 30 millimeters (0.7 to 1.1 inches) to sea level rise by 2200 under a mid-range warming scenario (2.8°C by 2100) and 29 to 49 millimeters (1.1 to 1.9 inches) under a high-end warming scenario (4.5°C by 2100).

Weinkle et al. (2012): There is no trend in the strength or frequency of land-falling hurricanes in the world’s five main hurricane basins during the past 50-70 years.

Chenoweth and Divine (2012): There is no trend in the strength or frequency of tropical cyclones in the main Atlantic hurricane development corridor over the past 370 years.

Bouwer (2011): There is no trend in hurricane-related damages since 1900 once economic loss data are adjusted for changes in population, wealth, and the consumer price index.

NOAA: There is no trend since 1950 in the frequency of strong (F3-F5) U.S. tornadoes.

National Climate Data Center: There is no trend since 1900 in U.S. soil moisture as measured by the Palmer Drought Severity Index.

Hirsch and Ryberg (2011): There is no trend in U.S. flood magnitudes over the past 85 years.

Dmitrenko et al. (2011): Even under the most extreme climatic scenario tested, permafrost thaw in the Siberian shelf will not exceed 10 meters in depth by 2100 or 50 meters by the turn of the next millennium, whereas the bulk of methane stores are trapped roughly 200 meters below the sea floor.

Kessler et al. (2011): Microbes digested the methane released during the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Any warming-induced “large-scale releases of methane from hydrate in the deep ocean are likely to be met by a similarly rapid methanotrophic response.”

Sistla et al. (2013): Over the past two decades, warming increased net eco-system carbon storage in the Arctic tundra as the growth of woody biomass outpaced the increase in CO2 emissions from subsoil microbial activity.

Goklany (2009): Global deaths and death rates related to extreme weather have declined by 93% and 98%, respectively, since the 1920s.

Range et al. (2012): There is no evidence of CO2-related mortalities of juvenile or adult mussels “even under conditions that far exceed the worst-case scenarios for future ocean acidification.”

Notwithstanding such studies, climate alarm persists. The main reason is that climate risk is easily confused with climate change risk. Due to their sheer magnitude and terror, natural catastrophes have an almost super-natural aspect. People by nature are prone to imagine that natural disasters have non-natural causes. Thus, each time disaster strikes, pundits – especially those with scientific credentials – can plausibly blame fossil fuels and declare “it’s worse than we predicted.”

Many commentators, for example, blamed Hurricane Sandy on climate change. That was politics talking, not science. What turned Sandy, a category 1 cyclone at landfall, into a “super storm” was the hurricane’s merging with a winter, frontal storm. MIT’s Kerry Emanuel cautioned that scientists “don’t have very good theoretical or modeling guidance on how hybrid storms might be expected to change with climate.” He added: “I feel strongly about that. I think that anyone who says we do know that is not giving you a straight answer.”

During last summer’s drought, NASA scientist James Hansen published an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Climate change is here – and worse than we thought.” His thesis: The worst hot spells of the past decade were “a consequence of climate change” and have “virtually no explanation other than climate change.” However, expert assessments of the European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010, the Texas-Oklahoma drought of 2011, and the Midwest drought of 2012 attributed each event chiefly to natural variability.

A Challenge to the Baker Institute

The Baker Institute has some truing up to do in the multi-disciplinary field of climate change. Playing to its strengths, Rice University and Baker should host its third climate conference, titled something like “New Developments in the Physical Science of Climate Change.” Climatologists such as Judith Curry, Richard Lindzen, Patrick Michaels, and Chip Knappenberger should be invited, as well as James Hansen, Gavin Schmidt, and Kerry Emanuel.

Ronald Sass in his recent op-ed called for an “open, national debate on climate change.” May Rice University and the Baker Institute lead the way.


  1. Rep. Lamar Smith on climate change | Climate Etc.  

    […] discussion at MasterResource points to an essay published in the Houston Chronicle by by Ronald Sass, Fellow in Global […]


  2. rbradley  

    Judith Curry at Climate Etc.: concludes:

    JC comments: … Rep. Smith’s statements about climate science itself are defensible, in fact support for these statements is provided in my testimony…. [C]riticisms of Rep. Smith’s op-ed make Rep. Smith look like more of a defender of science than his critics, which is not a good place for these critics to be.

    Apart from the ineptness of the responses to Rep. Smith’s op-ed, there remains genuine disagreement about aspects of climate science and acknowledged uncertainties ….

    I find the response to Rep Smith’s op-ed to be unfortunate, since he … does not hold scientifically irrational opinions or positions regarding climate change. In closing, I will repeat Rep. Smith’s opening statement: ‘Climate change is an issue that needs to be discussed thoughtfully and objectively. Unfortunately, claims that distort the facts hinder the legitimate evaluation of policy options.'”


  3. Dr NormanPage  

    Here’s is a link to a comment on my blog containing an email I sent to Professor Sass yeterday.

    “I saw your piece in the Chronicle this morning.I find myself genuinely puzzled when scientists with your outstanding qualifications continue to support the CAGW meme.
    There has been no net warming since 1997 with CO2 up over 8%. The SSTs show a cooling trend since 2003.”
    and goes on from there.



  4. John Garrett  

    A delightful piece. The Marlo Lewis compilation of papers is extremely handy and useful; I would add Otto et al (2013) to that list.


  5. Gerald Westbrook  

    Congratulations to Robert Bradley and his call for a conference to update the science on climate change. In particular his listing of critical evaluations on climate alarmism has been long overdue. I would add one more to this list, an opinion in the 05/09/2013 issue of the Wall Street Journal entitled: “In Defense of Carbon Dioxide.” This essay was by two writers:
    Harrison Schmitt was an Apollo 17 astronaut and a former senator from New Mexico.
    William Happer is a professor of physics at Princeton and a former director of the office of energy research at the U.S> Department of Energy.
    They conclude that “the incredible list of supposed horrors that increasing carbon dioxide will bring the world is pure belief disguised as science.”


  6. JohnInMA  

    Sass’ piece seems dripping with irony. My favorite line that illustrates the point: “In fact, everyone who cares for and values life on Earth has a moral obligation to engage in this conversation.” Why such resistance to having a two sided debate in the past? I think the more accurate translation might be: “Everyone who cares for and values life on Earth has a moral obligation to accept our ‘settled’ science with a plurality of climatologists in agreement…” Is there any other example where scientific discovery has been accepted via democratic vote? Insane.

    I agree on the point that the ‘scientists’ are more interested in pushing the topic towards a political disucssion now, moreso than even the politicians themselves. I’ve always said the loudest voices among the AGW elite were actually politicians masquerading as scientists, at least for the last decade, or so. Sass does nothing to change that impression.


  7. rbradley  

    Gerald: Thank you for pointing out that the scientific debates also involves the benefits of CO2 on the biosphere.

    John: Sass’s piece at times seems ghost-written by an environmental group, but he is a climate alarmist and policy activist as shown by this 2013 Baker Institute piece: http://bakerinstitute.org/publications/GCC-pub-PolicyRecommendations.pdf.


  8. david Hutzelman  

    On target (from June 2, 2013, Houston Chronicle letters) by Rob Bradley:

    Regarding “Heated rhetoric doesn’t serve debate over climate change” (Page B7, Wednesday), U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith soundly argues that global warming is an exaggerated problem, and carbon rationing by the U.S. government would increase energy prices without a discernible influence on global climate.

    Indeed, climate alarmism is looking more and more like the Enronization of science. The alarmists are the smartest guys in the room, calling their opponents “deniers.” Like Enron, climate-science “profit centers” are government dependent. And in the face of contrary evidence, a heavily vested establishment refuses to make midcourse corrections.

    Thanks to the Internet, bad or speculative science can now be refuted in real time. This is good news for the scientific method, but the far better news is that our carbon-based energy economy is not a “market failure” but, in the jargon of economics, a positive externality.

    Rob Bradley Jr., CEO and founder, Institute for Energy Research, Houston


  9. Global Warming Debate at Rice University: Soon vs. Sass - Master Resource  

    […] microcosm of consensus science and settled science. The PC thought police, including at the  James A. Baker III Institute under gatekeeper Neal Lane, were […]


  10. Al Gore at Rice University: More Climate Alarmism, Political Bias in Houston - Master Resource  

    […] posts at MasterResource have previously detailed [see”Rice’s Baker Institute Climate Embarrassment (Sass’s ad hominem response to Rep. Smith)],” Rice University has blocked climate skepticism and polluted diversity of intellectual […]


  11. Al Gore: Buyer Beware (tonight at Rice University) - Master Resource  

    […] Fellow in Global Climate Change at the Baker Institute. It was Sass who went ad hominem (see here) against climate realist Rep. Lamar […]


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