The cold weather has spurred on the global warming debate, with many folks using the cold snap to foment their pro or anti perspectives.
Into the fray steps Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology at MIT:
The Earth’s climate is immensely complex, but the basic principle behind the “greenhouse effect” is easy to understand. The burning of oil, gas, and especially coal pumps carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, where they allow the sun’s heat to penetrate to the Earth’s surface but impede its escape, thus causing the lower atmosphere and the Earth’s surface to warm. Essentially everybody, Lindzen included, agrees. The question at issue is how sensitive the planet is to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (this is called climate sensitivity), and how much the planet will heat up as a result of our pumping into the sky ever more CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for upwards of 1,000 years. (Carbon dioxide, it may be needless to point out, is not a poison. On the contrary, it is necessary for plant life.)
Lindzen doesn’t deny that the climate has changed or that the planet has warmed. “We all agree that temperature has increased since 1800,” he tells me. There’s a caveat, though: It’s increased by “a very small amount. We’re talking about tenths of a degree [Celsius]. We all agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. All other things kept equal, [there has been] some warming. As a result, there’s hardly anyone serious who says that man has no role. And in many ways, those have never been the questions. The questions have always been, as they ought to be in science, how much?”
Lindzen says not much at all—and he contends that the “alarmists” vastly overstate the Earth’s climate sensitivity. Judging by where we are now, he appears to have a point; so far, 150 years of burning fossil fuels in large quantities has had a relatively minimal effect on the climate. By some measurements, there is now more CO2 in the atmosphere than there has been at any time in the past 15 million years. Yet since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the average global temperature has risen by, at most, 1 degree Celsius, or 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. And while it’s true that sea levels have risen over the same period, it’s believed they’ve been doing so for roughly 20,000 years. What’s more, despite common misconceptions stoked by the media in the wake of Katrina, Sandy, and the recent typhoon in the Philippines, even the IPCC concedes that it has “low confidence” that there has been any measurable uptick in storm intensity thanks to human activity. Moreover, over the past 15 years, as man has emitted record levels of carbon dioxide year after year, the warming trend of previous decades has stopped. Lindzen says this is all consistent with what he holds responsible for climate change: a small bit of man-made impact and a whole lot of natural variability.
The real fight, though, is over what’s coming in the future if humans continue to burn fossil fuels unabated. According to the IPCC, the answer is nothing good. Its most recent Summary for Policymakers, which was released early this fall—and which some scientists reject as too sanguine—predicts that if emissions continue to rise, by the year 2100, global temperatures could increase as much as 5.5 degrees Celsius from current averages, while sea levels could rise by nearly a meter. If we hit those projections, it’s generally thought that the Earth would be rife with crop failures, drought, extreme weather, and epochal flooding. Adios, Miami.
It is to avoid those disasters that the “alarmists” call on governments to adopt policies reducing the amounts of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. As a result of such policies—and a fortuitous increase in natural gas production—U.S. greenhouse emissions are at a 20-year low and falling. But global emissions are rising, thanks to massive increases in energy use in the developing world, particularly in China and India. If the “alarmists” are right, then, a way must be found to compel the major developing countries to reduce carbon emissions.
But Lindzen rejects the dire projections. For one thing, he says that the Summary for Policymakers is an inherently problematic document. The IPCC report itself, weighing in at thousands of pages, is “not terrible. It’s not unbiased, but the bias [is] more or less to limit your criticism of models,” he says. The Summary for Policymakers, on the other hand—the only part of the report that the media and the politicians pay any attention to—“rips out doubts to a large extent. . . . [Furthermore], government representatives have the final say on the summary.” Thus, while the full IPPC report demonstrates a significant amount of doubt among scientists, the essentially political Summary for Policymakers filters it out.
Lindzen also disputes the accuracy of the computer models that climate scientists rely on to project future temperatures. He contends that they oversimplify the vast complexity of the Earth’s climate and, moreover, that it’s impossible to untangle man’s effect on the climate from natural variability. The models also rely on what Lindzen calls “fudge factors.” Take aerosols. These are tiny specks of matter, both liquid and solid (think dust), that are present throughout the atmosphere. Their effect on the climate—even whether they have an overall cooling or warming effect—is still a matter of debate. Lindzen charges that when actual temperatures fail to conform to the models’ predictions, climate scientists purposely overstate the cooling effect of aerosols to give the models the appearance of having been accurate. But no amount of fudging can obscure the most glaring failure of the models: their inability to predict the 15-year-long (and counting) pause in warming—a pause that would seem to place the burden of proof squarely on the defenders of the models.
Lindzen also questions the “alarmist” line on water vapor. Water vapor (and its close cousin, clouds) is one of the most prevalent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. According to most climate scientists, the hotter the planet gets, the more water vapor there will be, magnifying the effects of other greenhouse gases, like CO2, in a sort of hellish positive feedback loop. Lindzen disputes this, contending that water vapor could very well end up having a cooling effect on the planet. As the science writer Justin Gillis explained in a 2012 New York Times piece, Lindzen “says the earth is not especially sensitive to greenhouse gases because clouds will react to counter them, and he believes he has identified a specific mechanism. On a warming planet, he says, less coverage by high clouds in the tropics will allow more heat to escape to space, countering the temperature increase.”
If Lindzen is right about this and global warming is nothing to worry about, why do so many climate scientists, many with résumés just as impressive as his, preach imminent doom? He says it mostly comes down to the money—to the incentive structure of academic research funded by government grants. Almost all funding for climate research comes from the government, which, he says, makes scientists essentially vassals of the state. And generating fear, Lindzen contends, is now the best way to ensure that policymakers keep the spigot open.
There's much more and it's all enlightening.
Bottom line, follow the money.
It's nearly always the money.