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Global Warming Debate at Rice University: Soon vs. Sass

By Charles Battig -- October 27, 2016

“Ronald Sass noted that ‘scientists should agree, not debate,’ a statement puzzling to me. He did agree that we do not yet have enough data. To which I comment: why promote uncertain science and political policy that might do more harm than adapting to real (versus computerized) futures?”

Little did I realize that in moving to Houston, Texas I would soon witness a rare climatic event. It was not another hurricane like Ike, snow in summer, nor any other such rarity. I would be able to attend a climate debate in a welcoming and civil atmosphere between two opposing debaters well qualified in their particular fields of climate research.  Such open debates are a rarity in the current emotionally defined microcosm of consensus science and settled science. The PC thought police, including at the  James A. Baker III Institute under gatekeeper Neal Lane, were conspicuously absent.

Rice University’s Federalist Society sponsored a program titled “A Heated Debate: A Discussion on the Science and Policy of Climate Change” on campus Wednesday, October 19, 2016. The featured speakers were Dr. Willie Soon and Professor Ronald Sass. A video of the presentations, including rebuttals and questions from the audience has been posted on the Federalist website:  www.ricefedsoc.com.

As there is no substitute for the original, readers are encouraged to view the debate. However, I offer the following comments.

Soon Presentation

Soon’s presentation began with an illustration of the multiple and diverse sciences making up the catch-all term of climatology–thus concluding that there is no single person expert in all these fields, and certainly no single expert on climate.

Soon then identified the key factors which drive climate change. He pointed about the arbitrariness of the current definition of the term “climate” as it uses a 30 year average sampling time-span…why not 50 years? (I am reminded of Edward Lorenz’s comment questioning if such a thing as “a climate” actually exists in the context of such a dynamic system.)

Another issue Soon raised was the validity of long-term temperature records which are used as the basis for many climate-related studies, and the consequential errors introduced into many such studies. The urban heat island effect was acknowledged by both Soon and Sass.

Soon emphasized the relative scarcity of reliable and accurate long-term, single-location temperature records. He presented the results of his own efforts to identify the most reliable locations.

The inherent fallibility of current global climate models in predicting long-term global temperature trends was illustrated by graphs showing the increasing divergence between multiple such computer runs and the actual, observed satellite and weather balloon temperature records since 1979.

When the spaghetti-like computer outputs from multiple computer runs are averaged, the resultant graph increasingly diverges upward from the more modest temperature increase in the observed world.  Soon made the point that averaging half-truths does not produce a whole-truth. This is akin to the quip that a faster computer will just enable one to obtain a false result quicker.

Soon also noted that these various general circulation computer programs necessarily have built in numerical assumptions for a variety of parameters for which valid data or theory are lacking. Such programs are thereby  purposely or inadvertently tuned to give desired outputs, which may not reflect the real world. Soon showed a slide quoting the head of United Airlines planning to use the Farmer’s Almanac for forecasting upcoming winter operations.

Both Soon and Sass both agreed that water vapor is the prime green-house gas. Soon sought to illustrate the minor role that CO2 plays in the Earth’s climate mechanics in comparison to solar energy. He concluded by emphasizing the major role of the sun in driving the climate of the Earth and noted that the climate is “not connected to CO2 even if reduced to zero.”

Sass Presentation

Sass began with four points of agreement with Soon: he stated that best thing about his association with the U.N. was the perk of traveling first class, but was fired for a report of his not meeting the expectations of the U.N.; the sun is the prime driver of our climate; CO2 is not a major greenhouse gas; and he does not believe in climate models either.

Sass then proceeded with his contention that there is a role for CO2 in the climate and energy balance of the Earth. Sass used the Stefan-Boltzmann black body equation to derive a 5 degree F contribution (out of a total warming of 57 degrees F) of atmospheric CO2 to the Earth global warming energy balance by using the near 100 per cent CO2 atmosphere of Mars as a reference. He claimed a doubling of atmospheric CO2 would result in about a 5 degree F of warming as predicted by computer modeling.

He presented a series of probability curves derived from sequential decades of mid-summer temperatures, and concluded that there was a shift of the mean peak temperature to the right, portending ever increasing global temperatures (at least over the time span he had chosen). One in a 1000 year extreme weather events were said to be on course to be perhaps one in 50 year events.

Sass then presented data derived from ENSO events which he claimed to show an average of 0.7 degree C per decade of global warming. He also demonstrated a discrepancy between Earth surface temperatures and upper stratosphere temperatures, which he related to greenhouse-gas radiative warming.

He concluded with a simple 2×2 decision grid which presented his argument that the Earth’s temperature is increasing because of the CO2 resulting from the use of fossil fuels, and that this presents a threat to the future of mankind (and his grandchildren).

Akin to the famous Pascal’s Wager about the belief in God, Sass’s grid would push the viewer into doing something because the alternative would be a disaster, a “global economic catastrophe.”

Some Criticism

Sass implies that global warming had no benefits, only future disasters. Benefits to plant growth of increased CO2 are ignored. Human welfare has been documented to thrive in warm periods in contrast to prolonged periods of cold. None of these facts or nuances made it into Sass’s black-or-white simplistic matrix.

He later noted that the Earth would be a “difficult place to live in 30 to 40 years” should no action be taken to limit CO2 production from fossil fuel combustion. I was particularly surprised to hear him repeatedly refer to such CO2 as “garbage.” He advocated sequestration of CO2 as a safe way to continue to use fossil fuels.

In the brief rebuttal period, Soon again emphasized the poor quality of global temperature records, the too-short sampling time for these analyses and resultant conclusions, and the overriding solar influence. I would like to have heard a bit more discussion of the composition of solar energy…visible vs. non-visible, as well as the nature of cosmic energy. Soon rebutted Sass’s claim that CO2 was “garbage.”

Ronald Sass noted that “scientists should agree, not debate,” a statement puzzling to me. He did agree that we do not yet have enough data. To which I comment: why promote uncertain science and political policy that might do more harm than adapting to real (versus computerized) futures?

This need to ‘do something’ seems driven by emotional fear where definitive data are not available. We live in the era of  “post-normal science”  as defined by Jerome Ravetz. Politicians eager to appear in charge are only too willing to spend taxpayer monies to solve problems, even imaginary ones.


  1. Ed Reid  

    “Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong” usually results in doing something wrong; and, in doing damage as a result.

    The current global effort to reduce annual CO2 emissions is a clear case of “beginning vast programs with half-vast ideas”, as Dr. Soon suggests.

    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

    H. L. Mencken


  2. Dan McKay  

    Dr. Soon explains his reasoning well enough for a layman to understand.


  3. tomwys  

    Thank you Charles, for an erudite and insightful analysis, of a most worthy event. Dr. Willie Soon gave me even more reasons to hold him in high esteem, injecting a dose of reality into a polite audience willing to be inoculated with a realistic look at the state of our climate.

    Dr. Sass, on the other hand, exhibited some real technical prowess, but in the end built supposition upon supposition, ending with the 2 x 2 decision grid that is the cornerstone of those adhering to the precautionary principle. The simplistic foolishness of its use should have been far beneath him, VERY far.

    All the above being said, I celebrate the Federalist people and Rice University for hosting the event. I guess it is no accident that one of the worlds greatest oceanographers, Maurice Ewing, was a product of the academic integrity that Rice University represents.

    I hope more these events take place, and I will make every effort to attend when they do!!!

    & Charles? NICELY DONE!!!


  4. Herman A (Alex) Pope  

    I attended the debate, I was late and missed the first few minutes of Willie Soon’s presentation, but I watched the video of all of the debate, some twice.

    Charles Battig provided an excellent report of what was said.

    About 2000 years ago, there was a Roman Warm Period and then it got cold. About 1000 years ago, there was a Medieval Warm Period and then it got cold. That was called the Little Ice Age. It is warm now because it is supposed to be warm now.

    Oceans warm, Polar Oceans Thaw, Snowfall increases. Ice is replenished on Antarctica, Greenland and Mountain Glaciers. Ice builds up and spreads out, reflecting more energy, dumping more ice and ice cold water into the oceans and on land until earth cools. Polar oceans freeze and the sun takes away ice every year until earth warms again.
    It is a natural cycle and we did not cause it.
    CO2 just makes green things grow better, while using less water.
    They scare us so they can tax and control us.
    Ronald Sass fell for it, Willie Soon did not.


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