When I was director of public policy analysis at Enron in the late 1990s, I hired climatologist Gerald North of Texas A&M as a consultant to help me get to the bottom of the raging debate between climate ‘skeptics’ and ‘alarmists.’ I was Ken Lay’s speechwriter, and I was concerned that Enron’s embrace of climate alarmism (we had seven profit centers banking on priced CO2 from government intervention) was intellectually off base and thus violated the honesty plank of corporate responsibility.
It was money well spent. Dr. North was personable and honest, although he had a propensity to default toward alarmism if you did not challenge him. (Such is the neo-Malthusian propensity of most natural scientists who see nature as optimal and the human influence as only downside.) This is why I have called Dr. North, to his chagrin, the non-alarmist alarmist.
North distrusted climate models. He noted time and again the personal relationships and personality traits in driving the scientist’s views. And his own sensitivity estimate was at the bottom end of the IPCC range. (North’s climate sensitivity estimate of about 2ºC for a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases in equilibrium–with a plus/minus of .25ºC I would later find out–was an intuitive number.)
Some of North’s comments in the late 1990s may prove insightful when the science finally settles out, such as:
“As usual we may have been caught believing our models before we should.”
“[Richard] Kerr’s article delved a bit beneath the surface to find who some of the silent skeptics (really noncommittals) are. I suspect there are many more.”
“I think Dick [Lindzen] and I agree on the role of lag in the oceans and the freedom modelers have in using the oceans to help in the fit to the record.”
“I am buying the Lindzen story as far as the importance of upper level water vapor…. I am beginning to sense a sea change.”
North and I talked a lot about Richard Lindzen: his personality, his brilliance, his penchant to probe and forward hypotheses that he had to later take back. But what was important was that the theoretical pioneer was probing the weakest spot of the high-sensitivity estimates–and that a half-right Lindzen would win the debate against climate alarmism.
And so it is today that three recent peer-reviewed papers are questioning the all-important feedback effects of clouds and water vapor: Lindzen and Choi (Asia-Pacific Journal of Atmospheric Sciences); Spencer and Braswell (Remote Sensing), and Richard P. Allan (Meteorological Applications).
North’s colleague Andrew Dessler will have none of this–the science is reasonably settled in his view toward high warming and the need for public-policy action–but his own work is in dispute.
The science is not settled, much less settled in favor of climate alarmism.
Lindzen’s Response to Emanuel (and Frumhoff)
Richard Lindzen is an intellectual, not only a climate scientist, who recognizes the non-sequitur of jumping from a human influence on climate to alarm to public policy action. Marlo Lewis has forcefully made this point as well.
And so the MIT chair professor takes issue with his colleague Kerry Emanuel and a recent op-ed the latter coauthored with Peter Frumhoff. The rebuttal follows (and the op-ed is reprinted below).
The op-ed by Peter Frumhoff (with the environmental advocacy group, Union of Concerned Scientists), and the tropical meteorologist, Kerry Emanuel, epitomizes much of what is wrong with the public discourse on this issue.
The vast majority of scientists working on climate do agree that there has been a fraction of a degree of warming since the middle of the 19th century, that CO2 has been increasing, and that this should contribute something to the warming. This turns out to be a very innocent proposition. Nonetheless, a politician who acknowledges this statement is labeled by some who are opposed to global warming alarm as representing softness on the issue.
On the other hand, those who promote global warming alarm treat acceptance of this rather trivial position as tantamount to acceptance of alarm.
Sensitivity, not Warming Per Se, is the Issue
Of course, the real question is one of sensitivity. That is to say, how much warming does one expect further increases in CO2 (and other greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide, various fluorocarbons, etc.) will give rise to, and even the president of the National Academy of Sciences (Ralph Cicerone) and the previous president of the Royal Society (Martin Rees) agree that this is still unknown (or as they stated in a letter to the Financial Times, “Uncertainties in the future rate of this rise, stemming largely from the “feedback” effects on water vapour and clouds, are topics of current research.”).
Indeed, even if the increase in CO2 accounted for all of the observed warming, it would not imply a dangerous sensitivity. According to the IPCC, the current levels of anthropogenic greenhouse gases already represents approximately the greenhouse forcing that would result from a doubling of CO2. Thus, if the models on which alarm is based are correct, then man has contributed several times more warming than has been observed. Modelers skirt this issue by claiming that aerosols have hidden the difference, but this is simply the invocation of a fudge factor since the aerosol impact is unknown, and each model chooses a different value.
What the proponents of alarm are engaged in is nothing less than a ‘bait and switch’ scam, and it would appear that many of their opponents have taken the bait.
Peter Frumhoff and Kerry Emanuel, Candidates Must Deal with Facts, not Wishes, Miami Herald, September 14, 2011.
When it comes to foreign policy, the saying goes that politics stops at the water’s edge.
When it comes to climate science, we say that politics should stop at the atmosphere’s edge.
One of us is a Republican, the other a Democrat. We hold different views on many issues. But as scientists, we share a deep conviction that leaders of both parties must speak to the reality and risks of human-caused climate change, and commit themselves to finding bipartisan solutions.
Scientists have known for more than 100 years that carbon dioxide in our atmosphere traps heat. And today we know that the excess carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere from human activity – primarily, burning coal and oil and clearing forests – is altering our climate.
It’s a conclusion based on established physics and on evidence gathered from satellite data, ancient ice cores, temperature stations, fossilized trees and corals. And it’s a conclusion affirmed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, established by President Lincoln to advise our nation’s leaders on matters of science.
But as scientific understanding of climate change has advanced, the public discourse has split along partisan lines.
Republicans who identify with the Tea Party are particularly likely to deny the reality of global warming. Several of this year’s aspiring presidential candidates are rejecting the findings of climate science – and feeling the political heat if they don’t.
After former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reiterated his understanding that human activity is warming the planet, Rush Limbaugh denounced him for doing so, saying, “bye-bye nomination.” Romney now says that he doesn’t know what is causing climate change.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently accused climate scientists of “manipulating data.” In Wednesday’s Republican candidate debate, he made an argument like the one tobacco industry executives used to cast doubt on the scientific evidence of smoking’s health risks, saying, “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense.” Science is never truly settled and no responsible leader would wait for 100 percent certainty to respond to a serious threat.
Making misleading statements about science and picking on scientists is easy. Most would rather defend their findings in peer-reviewed journals than on cable TV. A lie can travel halfway around the world before we even get our lab coats on.
Some politicians, fortunately, are demonstrating a more responsible way to talk about climate change.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, for example, reaffirmed his acceptance of the science in Wednesday’s presidential debate. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also been speaking up for climate science, even as he has backed away from taking action.
“When you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and humans play a contributing role, it’s time to defer to the experts,” Christie said last month.
The right rebuked Christie for recognizing the reality of climate change. And the left lambasted him for using the same speech to pull out of a regional pact to curb emissions.
We question Christie’s policy decision. But we commend him for acknowledging the reality of climate change, and for providing New Jersey voters a chance to decide whether they agree with his policy choice. That’s how our democracy should work.
Republicans skeptical about climate policy should follow Christie’s and Huntsman’s lead and realize that they don’t need to misrepresent the science.
And Democrats must speak out as well.
Candidate Barack Obama spoke forcefully about global warming, but has been far too quiet as president. In a rare public statement on climate, he recently told two “kid reporters” with Scholastic News that climate change is one of the chief challenges their generation will face.
That’s not enough. Science tells us that the extent and severity of climate change faced by our children’s generation will be determined by the hard choices we must make today. Political leadership is about ensuring that we adults face up to this task.
We cannot afford to have those leading our nation misrepresent, or be silent about, the reality and risks of climate change.
Whoever wins the next election will lead a nation increasingly affected by climate change, command a Pentagon that calls climate change a national security threat, and preside over federal scientists already working to help states and cities prepare for climate change impacts.
It is time for leaders of both parties to take seriously what science tells us we are doing to our common atmosphere, so we can take up the urgent task of finding solutions on common ground.