“But in the nearly 4,000-page study, skeptics note, the term “low confidence” — jargon for findings where there is conflicting evidence — occurs almost 1,400 times. The term “likely” — which could mean a degree of certainty as low as 66 percent — appears thousands of times, including as to whether major hurricanes have increased in frequency since the 1980s.” (Jim Osborne, Houston Chronicle below)
The title of the featured story is loaded. The interview started from the premise of climate alarmism. But one Jim Walzel, 84 years young, did just fine in making the point that climate science is quite unsettled and not indicative of crisis–just like previous scares he has witnessed in his long lifetime.
James Osborne’s “These skeptics believe in climate change. Why is it so hard to convince them catastrophe is coming?” (Houston Chronicle, August 30, 2021) is notable for several reasons. One, while the bias frames the article, the deep context makes important points against the alarmist narrative. Two, Walzel is treated fairly, as he should be. And third, climate alarmists predictably weighed in against having the interview and the consideration of a different view, one that is well grounded and optimistic.
Osborne’s interview follows (in blue) with my comments.
Jim Walzel doesn’t fit the profile of what most people would think of as a climate denier — a term he rejects.
Comment: “Denier” is a pejorative, bully term. It should not be used to label those who disagree with the Malthusian agenda, from mass starvation to climate collapse.
A chemical engineer who made his money as a pipeline executive, Walzel lives in West University, a Houston enclave populated with academics from nearby Rice University. He points to his COVID-19 vaccination card as proof he trusts in science, and says he has little doubt that fossil fuels are warming the planet.
Comment: A “human influence on climate” or “warming the planet” is hardly the debate. In fact, lower warming scenarios are socially positive according to many climate economists. Warmer nights, warmer winters, longer growing seasons …. Thank goodness we have recovered from the Little Ice Age that ended in the mid-19th century!
But he’s not convinced that climate change will result in the cataclysmic future predicted by forecasters.
Comment: An understatement. “Not convinced” could be stated more strongly as “Quite unconvinced….” Or convinced on the optimistic side of the human influence on climate–a climate realist and optimist.
“I wouldn’t call myself a denier, but I am skeptical about the gravity of the thing,” he said. “I’m trying to look at the facts and say what’s the deal here. And from what I’m seeing the consensus of scientists is not as pervasive as you describe.”
Comment: See above. The climate changes without any human influence, as mainstream scientists such as James Hansen will also tell you.
Walzel’s views open a window on how and why climate skepticism persists, despite mounting evidence that global warming not only poses a serious threat to the planet but is already doing damage.
Comment: The reporter Osborne goes off on his own opinion. But “mounting evidence” is working in the opposite direction as the world gets greener, more productive, and safer–and as climate models overpredict real-world warming.
In Houston, long the unofficial capital of the world’s oil and gas industry, such strains of thought are particularly persistent, often grounded in the work of a small cadre of scientists who fixate on legitimate uncertainties within climate science.
Comment: The oil and gas industries are full of engineers and natural science professionals who have followed the debate in depth. And they see obvious holes in the alarmist narrative.
They do not question the fundamental notion that greenhouse gas emissions are raising global temperatures but rather that it will all end in catastrophe. Dismissed as kooks or contrarians, these scientists continue to find followings among those like Walzel who believe if the world is going to shift from fossil fuels in just a matter of decades, we better be certain on the science.
Comment: Sorry, but consensus is not science. And the Malthusian consensus did not start with climate but with the Population Bomb (1968) and continued with Peak Oil and Peak Gas. The interesting question is, why the mass, repeated error on the future of man and resources?
Go to NASA’s website, and it states 97 percent of published climate scientists agree that manmade carbon emissions have caused the planet to warm over the past century. But once you get past the consensus that the planet is warming faster than it would naturally, agreement fractures over how fast polar ice caps are melting or whether climate change will cause more hurricanes and heat waves — hugely complex questions that require looking decades or centuries into the future.
Comment: The 97 percent study is quite disputable for both its data methods and conclusion. One can believe in anthropogenic warming and conclude that it is modest and positive–not drastic and negative. “Global lukewarming” is a term for these middle-of-the-roaders.
Climate skeptics, or realists as they prefer to be called, fixate on the details under debate, even though the overwhelming the majority of climate scientists agree that global warming will go very badly unless mankind takes immediate action.
Comment: The parts make up the whole. Again, the “overwhelming majority” of scientists is just another stanza of “consensus” that has marked Malthusianism ever since the MIT/Club of Rome computer study in the early 1970s. Trust is science is lower than it should be because of the behavior of climate scientists/activists.
For instance, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released another terrifying report calling climate change a “code red for humanity.”
Comment: The “terrifying” report was set up by political types to get COP26 on track (it is predictably failing). There is plenty of good science deep in the report, but beware of the Press Release, Summary for Policymakers, and media reporting.
But in the nearly 4,000-page study, skeptics note, the term “low confidence” — jargon for findings where there is conflicting evidence — occurs almost 1,400 times. The term “likely” — which could mean a degree of certainty as low as 66 percent — appears thousands of times, including as to whether major hurricanes have increased in frequency since the 1980s.
Comment: YES … thank you Mr. Osborne for being fair. And these caveats apply, most of all, to computer models and estimates of climate sensitivity–and the downplayed gap versus lower real-world warming.
When you add up that uncertainty, it amounts to a field of science that has a long way to go, said Steve Koonin, a physicist who worked at Caltech and MIT and served as undersecretary of science at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration.
Now the director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, Koonin published a book earlier this year entitled, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters,” prompting a wave of criticism from other scientists, accusing him of cherry picking data to suit his thesis.
Comment: No doubt that Koonin is being ostracized by the establishment just like Judith Curry was when she changed her views in the wake of Climategate. The “consensus” is one where many good scientists have dropped out–and would-be talent avoids a politicized profession.
“We should be making societal decisions in a fully informed way, and there are things in the (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports that contradict the narrative and nobody ever talks about them,” Koonin said. “Some of it is there are some scientists who really think they’re going to save the world. There’s others and it’s peer pressure. I’ve had scientists say to me, ‘You’re right, but I wouldn’t dare say it.’”
Climate scientists acknowledge the uncertainties, but stress there is plenty of well documented evidence showing that climate change and its dire consequences are not only real, but already happening, as wildfires and extreme flooding became regular events.
Comment: Dire and now? That is just what is in dispute from a reading of long-term weather/climate statistics. Again, the critics and dissenters have long disassociated themselves from the IPCC process. And the field is being joined by a new generation of agenda-driven scientists who can simply avoid doing research that moderates the alarm, assume an extreme scenario, and reap the rewards.
“You don’t need to agree with all the details to recognize there is a profound need to change the way we emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” said Chris Field, director of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment.
Comment: This is politics, not science. Mr. Fields needs to enter climate economics and other social science fields to reach this conclusion.
But in Koonin’s mind, there are simply too many open questions to express that level of confidence, and scientists have entered into a dangerous code of silence.
Among them: the rate of ice melt in the Arctic. While polar ice is melting faster than it did in the 1990s, historical data indicates it’s occurring at the same pace as during the 1940s.
Another unsettled question is whether climate change is causing more intense hurricanes — a phenomenon commonly cited by politicians. The latest United Nations report said category 3 or higher storms have only “likely” increased in intensity since 1980.
In those and other cases, the uncertainty comes from the relatively short period in which climate data has been collected. Satellites weren’t put into orbit until the 1960s, leaving scientists who track climate over the centuries to rely on murky historical records from say, a ship captain who spotted a hurricane at sea or a scientist observing in person the loss of ice in the Arctic.
The motivation for downplaying these uncertainties, Koonin says, comes from belief that talking freely about the unknown would fuel public skepticism when the world needs political agreement to act on climate change.
Comment: All fair, and a tribute to journalist Osborne to explore this part of the debate. He should keep going, too.
What sounds like a conspiracy theory stems in part from a 1989 magazine interview with Stephen Schneider, the late Stanford University professor and pioneer in climate science. Schneider described a “double ethical bind” that required scientists to “offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have” to attract public attention.
“As scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but,” he said. “On the other hand, we are not just scientists, but human beings, as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change.”
Comment: An agenda has been at work: The Malthusian anti-population, anti-progress agenda. Schneider, who had prominently warned against global cooling, was way too early in announcing a warming crisis. (The ‘deep ecologists‘ fear a human influence on climate in any direction, warming or cooling.)
That comment followed an infamous 1988 appearance before Congress by the climate scientist James Hansen, who traveled to Washington during a historic heat wave. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he proclaimed, “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
Comment: Hansen’s confidence was certainly a stretch, but compare his prediction then to where we are now with temperature. And this still begs the question of causality: natural or man-made. After all, we are in a happy warm period after an Little Ice Age.
Climate modeling, however, wasn’t nearly as developed as now, and other scientists took issue with what they viewed as a clever piece of stagecraft exaggerating their findings, said Deborah Coen, a science historian at Yale University.
”They believed he had compromised his integrity and their integrity,” she said. “This is less common now, but if you go back to the earlier days, there were credentialed scientists who were skeptical of the models. At that point, it wasn’t clear how bad the consequences were, and how much political opposition the science would face.”
Comment: Likely very wrong. Climate models are by no means reliable today. They are a mess, actually, a story I tried to explain elsewhere. NOTE that Osborne does not bring up Climategate (2009), which was uber-embarrassing for agenda-driven climate “science.”
The year after Hansen’s appearance, oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, formed the Global Climate Coalition to challenge findings that human activity caused global warming and campaign against regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.
The oil companies lobbied Congress and blanketed the media with claims that greenhouse gas limits would wreck the economy. They even distributed a video claiming increased carbon dioxide was positive because it would likely increase crop yields since plants need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.
Comment: Yes, they did. And yes, they should have. And Enron lobbied oppositely for self-interested reasons. The video above was and is excellent–and I showed it to Enron executives to make a case (unsuccessfully) that the alarm was misplaced.
They were not alone. A number of prominent scientists, including physicist Frederick Seitz, the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Freeman Dyson, the groundbreaking theoretical physicist from Princeton University, questioned whether global warming was the emergency that climate scientists portrayed.
“The skeptics kind of forced a lot of climate scientists to back off,” Coen said. “Toe the line on facts (not computer simulations) or be labeled alarmists.”
Comment: And that should still be the case today. Climate sensitivity is not settled, and the whole positive side of the climate equation is ignored, unmentioned. Judith Curry might be the most important scientist on either side of the debate. Her Climate Etc. is invaluable for the latest in climate science and related issues.
Eventually, mounting evidence that climate change was not only real but already happening made outright denial unfeasible.
Comment: This is a straw man. “Real”? “Happening”? Who is denying what? What are the hidden assumptions in these buzz words? Science is precision, and these words are hardly scientific.
To question the finer points of climate theory was no longer just scientific method but also a political statement. Disputing any aspect of accepted views of global warming risked scorn, ridicule and isolation.
Walzel, the retired president of the former pipeline company Houston Natural Gas, knows the feeling.
Comment: Yes, there is a lot of bullying going on by the climate alarmists qua activists.
While not a household name, the 84-year-old Walzel is prominent in Houston business and philanthropic circles. He has given so much money to Southwestern University that the school put his and his wife Pat’s name on a building.
As a young graduate of Rice University’s chemical engineering program, he advanced through Houston Natural Gas, working under the late Ken Lay before leaving the company in 1985 as it merged with Omaha-based Internorth to eventually form Enron. “I narrowly escaped being an Enron guy,” Walzel quipped.
Comment: See the Appendix below
Today, he serves on the boards of charities, and, in his spare time, reads frequently about climate change — his current stack is nine books tall.
Comment: Walzel is a thinker, a learned man. He reads books and studies–and probably knows as much or more about the science than most of his adversaries. His is the hallmark of the examined life, and in his case, a very successful one.
Earlier this summer, he wrote to this reporter, recommending Koonin’s book. “If enough people read it,” he wrote, “it might raise the level of discussion on climate to what it deserves.”
Comment: True. Let’s have book clubs discuss this book. Let’s have Rice University students study the book–UH, HBU, TSU, ST. Thomas too. And why not students at top high schools such as Kinkaid and St. Johns? And let this exercise be just the beginning. The science is not settled.
But climate change is not a subject Walzel discusses with friends and neighbors. He is reluctant to raise the issue outside a small circle of like-minded friends — even his wife disagrees with him — because it would inevitably lead to an argument. “There would be nothing to be gained from it,” he said.
Comment: Walzel is polite and does not talk a lot, much less crusade. Perhaps this quality is what got Osborne to write the story, a tribute to both men.
That sort of quiet division has emerged within science as well. Interview requests for this story were routinely declined or met with no response. Matthew Hersch, a science history professor at Harvard University, took umbrage with this reporter’s description of scientists like Koonin as “seemingly well-reasoned skeptics.”
“Generally speaking, I would not call a person inclined to ignore known, catastrophic dangers because they are ‘decades away’ to be ‘well-reasoned,’ especially if those dangers are already manifest,” he said in an email. “That seems to be a simple case of wishing for something not to be true that is, or a kind of self-interested shortsightedness.”
Comment: Mr. Osborne, you have just met an arrogant climate alarmist who is all in with emotion and politics. These are the ‘scientists’ who are out front and driving the issue. They are not only disrespectful but bullies. They will not debate a competent critic such as Koonin. (Another mad-at-the-world bully has been a Houston Chronicle favorite, Andrew Dessler.)
Differing viewpoints are common in science. But unlike say, biochemistry or theoretical physics, climate change is not just about who’s right, but also the future of the planet.
Comment: Maybe, but maybe not. Many believe that climate policy is a greater threat to the planet than physical climate change, at least in terms of human betterment.
The differences over climate science often correlate to the particular field in which scientists work. Physicists, like Koonin, are particularly well represented among skeptics, said Matthew Stanley, a philosophy of science professor at NYU.
Much of physics relies on precise measurements of the natural world. But climate science is too complex for such an approach. Instead it relies on computer models, which assimilate countless variables to project how the earth might respond to increases in temperature.
Comment: The theoreticians are more skeptical than the modelers and the activists. The climate models, in fact, can’t get the physics right.
In the early days, those models struggled, but over the past three decades, computer simulations have evolved to the point where scientists can quantify to which degree increases in flooding or wildfires were caused by climate change.
Comment: Yes, but not reliably, imparting bad information.
“Particle physics is the classic exact science,” Stanley said. “You expect an exact answer down to 30 decimal places, and if you don’t get that you failed. If that’s your perspective, the models are incredibly messy.”
Koonin came to the climate debate in 2014 when the American Physical Society asked him to lead an effort to review its statement on climate change, after a number of physicists objected to the description of the evidence of global warming as “incontrovertible.”
Until then, he said, he accepted climate science as dogma. But when he assembled a group of six climate scientists in Brooklyn, he realized they could agree that man was causing the planet to warm, but not much else.
“Is it going to be catastrophic? That’s where the discussion broke down,” he said. “I had a committee member say we can’t write about uncertainty because it will give ammunition to the deniers.”
Koonin ended up resigning from the American Physical Society and writing an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal claiming climate science was not settled, making him a pariah within the scientific community.
Former energy secretary Ernest Moniz, with whom Koonin worked at MIT and described as a “good friend and colleague for 30 years,” declined through a spokesman to comment about Koonin’s work.
Comment: Moniz knows and respects Koonin too. Koonin is too politically incorrect for Moniz to endorse. ‘No comment’ can be taken to mean, Koonin knows the subject, and I will not contradict him.
Asked about Koonin’s claims on ice melt and hurricanes, Field, the Stanford climate scientist, did not directly contradict him. On the question of why ice sheets are melting around the same rate as the 1940s, Field said it was “incredibly complicated” and “diverse interpretations” remain about how fast polar ice will melt and cause sea levels to rise.
Comment: Speaks for itself. Fact is, Koonin is correctly interpreting the (unsettled) state of the science in many areas.
But he expressed exasperation with those who suggest that uncertainty on ice caps or other details undermines the overall theory that climate change would be catastrophic.
Comment: The whole is the sum of the parts. And if the parts are iffy, so is the grand narrative of doom-and-gloom.
“You don’t get featured in The New York Times for saying I agree with that guy,” Field said. “That’s not the culture of science. Science is based on finding flaws and new interpretations.”
Science’s inclination to debate and reconsider itself has, in part, driven modern climate skepticism.
Walzel, the philanthropist and former executive, vividly recounts media coverage of a group of scientists warning in the 1970s that the world was headed for another ice age due to a perceived trend of “global cooling,” as well as forecasts of imminent global famines caused by overpopulation — predictions that didn’t come to pass.
Comment: This is a powerful point that each of the two generations behind Walzel do not understand. Alarmism is old hat. Different scares, same people, each convinced that this time, it is real.
Those theories never came close to achieving the consensus among scientists that climate change has amassed, or accumulating the empirical evidence that expanded the climate consensus over the years.
Comment: This is incorrect. The Malthusian consensus has always been very strong–with emotions to match. The Population Bomb. Peak Oil. Peak Gas. Correct, global cooling was not a consensus, but leading voices such as Stephen Schneider and John Holdren went on record as fearful. Sulfur dioxide from coal plants was the figured culprit back then.
But Walzel remains skeptical of anyone claiming the world is coming to an end. “People like a crisis.” he said. “It’s human nature.”
Comment: More than this, climate alarmism and forced energy transformation is the ultimate cause for those critical of capitalist institutions and economic progress, much of which has been enabled by mineral energies (versus dilute, intermittent energies such as wind and solar).
The climate bullies did not like this interview–and the fair part that was given to Koonin and Walzel. And true to form, the Chronicle published this letter the very next day atop the “Letters” section.
LETTERS: Ignore Skeptics on Climate
“Don’t add legitimacy”
Regarding “These skeptics believe in climate change. Why is it so hard to convince them catastrophe is coming?” (Aug. 26):
I’m a huge supporter of the Chronicle and the reporting that’s being done on the topic of climate change. The Chronicle reporting typically covers the areas of climate disasters in Texas and around the world, as well as the current scientific news such as the IPCC 2021 report. And as has been reported, the IPCC bases their information “on an assessment of over 14,000 scientific publications.”
Comment: This is a very professional counter-attack that, indeed, confirms the Chronicle’s editorial policy is very pro-alarmist. The author is an activist with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby in Houston.
With this background and context, I feel that this most recent article falls flat on its face as a huge disservice to every individual working as hard as they can to help solve climate change. We know all about the climate deniers, skeptics and disinformation that’s spread on a daily basis across the internet and social media. We seriously don’t need to have any legitimacy added by an article such as this in the Chronicle. Please continue with your other fantastic reporting to inform people of the scientific facts and the critical information. Joe Garfunkel, Houston
Comment: What a bully. Sort of like Joe Romm in the old days. Just can’t have a two-sided, civilized conversation. I hope even Jim Osborne sees what is going on with Mr. Garfunkel.
APPENDIX: JIM WALZEL AT HOUSTON NATURAL GAS
The following excerpts are from chapter 1 and 2 of Enron Ascending: The Forgotten years, 1985–1996 (Scrivener Press/John Wiley & Sons: 2018). Houston Natural Gas (below) would change its name to HNG-InterNorth in 1985 and then to Enron in 1986.
Jim Walzel, promoted from president of Houston Pipe Line to president and chief operating officer of Houston Natural Gas in 1984, introduced the new CEO, Ken Lay, around the office. Walzel knew his new boss from trade association meetings, and everyone knew Ken Lay by reputation. ….
Jim Walzel, responsible for all of HNG’s gas operations, was pleasantly surprised when Lay gave him an employment contract guaranteeing four years of salary in case a change in corporate control reduced his job responsibilities. HNG had never had employment contracts; nor had Transco. Mighty Exxon and other oil majors did not have them either. You just worked each day for your dollar until you retired or otherwise left the company. Ken Lay changed that. He also increased compensation for the board of directors.
Clearly, the message was: I am better than my industry counterparts, and so are you as part of my team. We should be paid accordingly. Everything will be first class, because good people working in top conditions more than pay for themselves. Aggressive compensation to attract superior employees and reward performance—something that Jack Bowen would not let him do at Transco—would be a defining part of Lay’s business strategy from the beginning. It was flattering, of course, and highly enjoyable, but this incremental challenge to strict and even ascetic frugality would become part of an economically and spiritually damaging trend….
Now, Ken Lay had his own show, and before long the word was out that HNG’s travel arrangements should go [his sister] Sharon’s way. Jim Walzel thought it “terrible” to mix the two businesses together, particularly knowing about Ken’s financial interest in Sharon’s business and after hearing that one employee’s international airfare was $1,500 above his prior arrangement. But who could really complain, with frugality deemphasized anyway? …
Lay had Jim Walzel to handle everything on the gas side and gained a right-hand man in John A. “Mick” Seidl for restructuring work….
Dan Gardner was nominally in charge, but Ron Burns was presiding. Ken Lay planned to attend but had to cancel, and Sam Segnar was who knows where. But just about everyone else of import, newly titled, was there. Corporate was represented by Mick Seidl, EVP and chief of staff; Bill Morgan, Lay’s special assistant who had been with Florida Gas; and Jim Walzel, whose reduced responsibilities in the restructuring triggered his buy-out clause and who would soon be gone.