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A Skeptic of Climate Alarmism Speaks: Does Walter Cunningham Have More of a Case than His Critics Contend?

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- August 19, 2010

“As I have argued for years, we simply do not know the answer [to the sensitivity of climate to greenhouse gas forcing]. There is a wide margin of error in many of the ingredients that go into the [climate] models. For example, we do not know some of the radiative properties of the aerosols to a factor of 5. No matter how good your climate model is, you cannot compensate for that uncertainty. The range of uncertainty is broad enough to accommodate [Patrick] Michaels (well, maybe North) and [Jerry] Mahlman.”

– Gerald North (Texas A&M) to Rob Bradley (Enron), September 17, 1999

“One has to fill in what goes on between 5 km and the surface. The standard way is through atmospheric models. I cannot make a better excuse.”

– Gerald North (Texas A&M) to Rob Bradley (Enron), October 2, 1998

“We do not know much about modeling climate. It is as though we are modeling a human being. Models are in position at last to tell us the creature has two arms and two legs, but we are being asked to cure cancer.”

– Gerald North (Texas A&M) to Rob Bradley (Enron), November 12, 1999

The quotations above are what Gerald North privately believes–or believed prior to Climategate, an event that pushed him to the Left unlike his scientific colleague Judith Curry. I reproduce his quotations (there are many others) in light of a recent op-ed published by geophysicist and Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham in the Houston Chronicle , “Climate Change Alarmists Ignore Scientific Methods.”

Cunningham makes a number of worthy points that should not be dismissed by the political “mainstream” climate scientists such as Andrew Dessler at Texas A&M. Cunningham can find support from many sources, from pollsters to economists to physical scientists.

Consider all three in turn:

Public Concern: The public is fatigued by and skeptical of sky-is-falling environmentalism when most objective indicators of environmental welfare are trending positive. (Even the worst-case oil spill by “beyond petroleum” BP has not turned into the disaster that anti-technology, anti-capitalism environmentalists had expected and hoped–the subject of a forthcoming post at MasterResource.)

Political Economy: Programs to regulate CO2 are all pain and no gain. Compare the costs of any local, state, federal, or international climate program versus the associated temperature reduction. It is tears in the ocean of benefit versus economic waste and politicization–and a loss of freedom.

We know more than ever before how government failure of  regulating  CO2 is as great or greater than the alleged market failure of not regulating CO2. International and national efforts to regulate CO2 smell so bad that more and more environmentalists are holding their nose.

Physical Science: Cunningham’s case against high-sensitivity warming can find support from not only middle-of-the-roaders such as Gerald North of Texas A&M (see quotations above) but also the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on close inspection.

Here are two salient IPCC quotations that were part of John Droz’s recent post at MasterResource:

“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.

And turning to public policy:

“Limited and early analytical results from integrated analyses of the cost and benefits of mitigation indicate that these are broadly comparable in magnitude, but do not as yet permit an unambiguous determination of an emissions pathway or stabilization level where benefits exceed costs.”

– IPCC, Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change (Working Group III Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 18.

Cunningham correctly sees climate alarmism as the exaggerated notion that anthropogenic climate change portends known or unknown catastrophy. He exposes the religious nature-is-optimal, the-human-influence-is-bad worldview as really an anti-capitalist mentality full of raw politics and a Malthusian mindset–all of which must be rejected as anti-scientific.
This said, Cunningham ventures from skepticism to ultra-skepticism by demoting anthropogenic global warming (AGW) almost in its entirety. Others in the skeptic camp contend that the human contribution to warming is recognizable now and will continue to, other things equal, warm the earth on average. But why can’t we just accept this fact in a nonpolitical way to conclude that the warming has distinct benefits, not only costs, and that trying to reverse out the human influence fails any sort of basic cost/benefit test.

Let’s move on, in other words, to real environmental problems. After all, we live in a world of opportunity costs where resources spent in one direction cannot be used in another.

APPENDIX: Walter Cunningham, “Climate Change Alarmists Ignore Scientific Methods,” Houston Chronicle, August 14, 2010.

When it comes to global warming, the public at large doesn’t know what to believe anymore. Global warming alarmists have been hammering at us for years; the media is made up mostly of true believers; and politicians, who, in the absence of understanding and knowledge about climate science, have put themselves out on a limb from which it is difficult to retreat. Given the economic interests and the political powers involved, this dilemma will not go away quietly.

Alarmists are appealing to so-called “consensus science” and trying to scare the world into throwing away hundreds of billions of dollars in a fruitless effort to control the temperature of the Earth. In the absence of supporting facts, they have moved the issue into the court of public opinion where politics, media and money play important roles.

The question of human-caused global warming should not be resolved on the publicized opinions of influential journalists, but in the court of scientific inquiry based on the scientific data. The interested public can find legitimate and easily understood empirical data online. None of it supports the alarmists’ belief in human-caused global warming.

It makes good sense to look at the history of climate science.

Empirical data, collected over several centuries, led to a provisional theory of climate change. Scientists have long known that the sun, oceans and variations in the Earth’s orbit are the principal drivers of climate change. Although we don’t fully understand all of the mechanisms or interactions involved, this theory has stood the test of time. In the process, it became the de facto theory of climate change.

It is the job of science to develop the theories that explain our natural world. Scientific theories, even those that evolved over centuries, are subject to challenge and change — when supported by the appropriate scientific data. This enables new hypotheses to modify, or even replace, currently accepted theories.

About 20 years ago, a small group of scientists became concerned that temperatures around the Earth were unreasonably high and a threat to humanity. In their infinite wisdom, they decided: 1) that CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels were abnormally high, 2) that higher levels of CO2 were bad for humanity, 3) that warmer temperatures would be worse for the world, and 4) that we are capable of overriding natural forces to control the Earth’s temperature.

Not one of these presumptions (opinions) has proven to be valid.

The group decided to challenge the accepted theory of climate change when they hypothesized that human-generated CO2 was responsible for global warming. They have been trying to generate support for their beliefs ever since. Their new hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) gained immediate traction with environmentalists, the media and, eventually, politicians. It has gained little acceptance among legitimate scientists.

For a new hypothesis to be accepted by the scientific community, it must be confirmed by considerable evidence and must survive all attempts to disprove it. The hypothesis claiming that human-generated carbon dioxide is a principal driver of the earth’s temperature has not satisfied either of these criteria.

AGW alarmists could have made their case quite simply by collecting and making available solid evidence to support their hypothesis, and by defending it in the court of scientific inquiry. Not in the court of public opinion. Instead, they refused to release their data that would permit other scientists to look at the problem and come up with similar results – if possible.

The only thing alarmists are able to cite in support of their simplified hypothesis are mathematical models that they have developed to make their case. The earth’s atmosphere is currently impossible to model well, so it is no surprise that their models have been unable to use past data to correctly predict today’s temperatures. In any event, models are not data.

When alarmists could produce none of the required confirmation for their hypothesis, scientific principles were put on the back burner in favor of interpretation and opinion. They invented something called “consensus science,” switched from “global warming” to “climate change” and appealed to fear with the question, “What if CO2 is responsible and we do nothing?”

The media, in general, have lost some enthusiasm for consensus science. While journalists cannot be expected to understand the science without specialized training, that doesn’t keep individual journalists from aggressively pushing AGW and influencing a great many readers.

Take Paul Krugman, a nationally syndicated columnist and Nobel Prize winner in economics who has no understanding of the science of climate change. In “Greed, cowardice killed climate bill” (Page B7, July 27), he whines about the $23 million that Exxon Mobil spent over 10 years trying to support objective climate research, while ignoring the $30 billion selected scientists have received from the government in the last 20 years to support an alarmist global warming hypothesis.

Thirty billion dollars may influence scientists and public opinion, but it has not added a lot to understanding climate change.

Krugman further claims, “Every piece of valid evidence – long-term temperature averages that smooth out year-to-year fluctuations, Arctic sea ice volume, melting of glaciers, the ratio of record highs to record lows – points to a continuing, and quite possibly accelerating, rise in global temperatures.” He is obviously not familiar with the empirical data.

Saying a tax on carbon will have little or no impact on our economy is ridiculous, especially for an economist. He is presupposing that it would save the world from a global warming disaster while ignoring the fact that man-made CO2 represents only .0002 percent of the atmosphere and 0.12 percent of our greenhouse gases. Eliminating the human contribution of CO2 completely would not mitigate any ongoing global warming.

Most readers will listen to Paul Krugman without ever realizing how far climate science is removed from his specialty – as it is with almost all journalists.

The “greed” referred to in Krugman’s column is the greed for money and control by the Washington power elite. The “cowardice” is what is displayed by those afraid of letting the question of global climate change be answered by the science, not by opinions or the politics.

Most alarmists refuse to accept the evidence disproving AGW. True believers in global warming are loathe to admit how little control we have over nature. That’s why AGW is frequently referred to as a religion with them.

But global warming is not something that you have to take on faith. It is your prerogative to reject what has been learned about climate change over several centuries and to embrace the unproven hypothesis of humans being responsible for global temperature changes.

Objective science is slowly making inroads with politicians and the public. That is why prospects for a bill to tax and restrict CO2 emissions is losing support. A growing percentage of the public is coming to their senses on the limits of what humans can do to influence the Earth’s temperature.

But climate change is a scientific question, and you should look at the empirical data that is made available by objective scientists. Empirical data speaks for itself. The last place you want to look for objective data is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Individuals should look at the evidence/data, and then judge for themselves whether the evidence supports the alarmists’ hypothesis. I have, and it does not.

Human-caused global warming is simply not a threat to be concerned about. It is nature, not human activity, that rules the climate. Humans have adjusted to temperature changes for at least 100,000 years, and they will certainly do so in the future.

Twenty years ago, the alarmists were talking about the science. Now, without the facts on their side, they are reduced to talking about other justifications, like consensus science. Those of us who never bought into AGW talk about empirical data. After years of looking, I have not found one piece of empirical evidence that man-made CO2 has a significant impact on global climate.


  1. Steve C.  

    Is it a historical irony that Keynesian theory is being subjected to open skepticism as well? Both theories are based on accepted principles about how the world works. Both theories attempt to model billions (trillions?) of interactions between a multitude of factors. And both theories have practitioners who do admit there are unknown factors that may, or may not, have a large influence on the results.


  2. rbradley  


    There is a ‘pretense of knowledge’ problem that results in a “fire, ready, aim” mentality.


  3. Noblesse Oblige  

    On the matter of uncertainty, please take a look at a fairly obscure corner of the 2007 IPCC AR4: Chapter 10, page 798, Box 10.2, Fig.1a, entitled “PDFs [probability distribution functions] or frequency distributions [of climate sensitivity to CO2] constrained by the transient evolution of the atmospheric temperature, radiative forcing and ocean heat uptake.” The chapter is available here http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter10.pdf. The figure shows empirically derived estimates of climate sensitivity from nine studies published between 2001 and 2006. The remarkable things about this graph are: (1) the distributions are so broad that virtually any value of climate sensitivity is admissible; (2) most of the distributions show peaks around or below 2 degrees C for CO2 doubling, with one as low as 1 degree C. That is, a “meta study” would find that the IPCC’s reported empirical estimates are at odds with the models, which give a most likely value of 3.2 degrees C and very little chance for a value at or below 2 degrees C. In its Summary for Policy Makers, IPCC chose to side with its model results over empirical estimates when it announced that the range of climate sensitivity “is likely to be in the range 2 to 4.5°C with a best estimate of about 3°C, and is very unlikely to be less than 1.5°C. Since that time, several studies have found empirically derived values of climate sensitivity at or below 1 degree.

    Cunningham is right when he says, “But climate change is a scientific question, and you should look at the empirical data that is made available by objective scientists. Empirical data speaks for itself. The last place you want to look for objective data is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.” But it turns out that even the IPCC report contains empirical information not quite consistent with its overall posture.


  4. Charles  

    The killer argument of course is the fact we are responsible for, and have some influence over, only slightly more than 3% of all atmospheric CO2.

    Even taking into account the fact that at 390 ppm CO2 is still only a trace gas in the atmosphere, changing the composition of 3% of that small amount, represents something that will have no short term or long term influence on anything.

    The courage to do nothing is still the best strategy.


  5. Paul in Sweden  

    rbradley { 08.19.10 at 1:21 pm } #2
    There is a ‘pretense of knowledge’ problem that results in a “fire, ready, aim” mentality.

    You sum that up quite well!


  6. Bill Chaffee  

    The obvious “solution” to the “problem” is to increase photosynthesis by 3% or more. Ripping out the needed 20 acres of forest for each wind powered generator installed has the opposite effect. CO2 in the atmosphere decreases during northern hemisphere late spring and summer. If there was more year around photosynthesis that would be help to decrease CO2. Sequestering 11 tons of CO2 sequesters 8 tons of O2 and three tons of C.


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