Monday, November 29, 2010

Finally: a Rational Voice on Climate Change

In preparing a current curriculum on the respective domains of science and religion, I have been turned away by the shrill voices claiming they are incompatible, and have been drawn to the calmer, more reasoned voices who dwell on their similarities (while not disregarding their distinctions). The entire debate in the popular press about the "war between science and religion" seems to be, on closer inspection, an attempt to drum up either support for one particular camp against another, or else for sales of a particular author's books.

I may return to a discussion of my eventual findings in a future post, but for the present it seems both more fruitful, and more timely, to focus in upon a war whose impact and extent dwarf the alleged current conflict between science and religion. I speak of the war -- actual, and not imaginary or hypothetical -- between two political factions who each would draw upon science for their justification and support. These are the factions gathered on the opposite sides of an issue commonly called "global warming." The issue is so heated (sorry) and so sensitive that where one comes down on it may affect one's social invitations for the coming few years or so, to say nothing of one's position (and salary) at higher institutions of learning, or (more trivially) one's blogreader counts.

So much heat and light (sorry, again, but I'm afraid the punning analogies are inevitable) have been generated over this issue that it is extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible, to return the debate to a neutral starting point. Whatever one academic says in the furtherance of such a goal, he or she is immediately swamped in a flurry of hysterically ad hominem accusations and charges that render perilous further dialogue on the remarks so advanced. And now, mix in the recent series of purloined emails dubbed "Climategate", and one achieves a turbulence unmatched by anything one could encounter in the earth's atmosphere.

What the controversy obscures, however, is that science itself has precious little to do with partisan politics, while partisan politics has a great deal to do with what kinds of science are funded through government largesse. As a consequence, those in academia who need government funding to maintain their laboratories and research programs are very much inclined to stay on whatever current bandwagon is receiving the government's bounty -- regardless of the merits of the opposing scientific views at stake. The result is a self-perpetuating kind of scientific "orthodoxy", which dictates not only the prevailing winds of governmental benevolence, but also the kinds of open debate that will be tolerated.

Like Diogenes with his lantern, however, your curmudgeon daily sallies forth, looking for an honest man (or woman -- there is no bias here, but only a concern for good English prose style and grammar, which I am afraid mitigates against my continuing to bend my syntax in favor of the political correctness of inclusivity) who will venture to put such a perfervid controversy into an unbiased, yet still understandable, perspective. And so I am very pleased to report to my readers that such a person does exist -- in the figure of the current Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Dr. Richard Lindzen.

Now before the believers/supporters of the global warming crisis hyperventilate, and begin to twitch, let me assure them that, as a longtime student of this controversy, I am well informed about where Dr. Lindzen stands on the general scale of those who have publicly taken a position with regard to it. It is not a man's particular position which concerns me, however, but the way in which he justifies that position, and describes how he arrives at it, which to me weighs most in the balance. And on this scale, Dr. Lindzen comes in with flying colors -- as best evidenced by his latest (November 17) testimony before the United States House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology. The reports of his appearance before that Committee were lost in the ensuing Thanksgiving festivities and the related brouhaha over TSA body scans, but you can still access a modified version of his written testimony online (.pdf download here). It is that version which forms the basis for the rest of this post.

Let me show why one can give Professor Lindzen such a strong endorsement by quoting here his initial paragraph, which wastes no time in getting down to brass tacks. It is at one and the same time refreshing, candid, and disarmingly honest in its attempt to boil the controversy down to its crucial point (I have added the bold type to emphasize his points of candor):
I wish to thank the House Committee on Science and Technology for the opportunity to present my views on the issue of climate change – or as it was once referred to: global warming. The written testimony is, of course, far more detailed than my oral summary will be. In the summary, I will simply try to clarify what the debate over climate change is really about. It most certainly is not about whether climate is changing: it always is. It is not about whether CO2 is increasing: it clearly is. It is not about whether the increase in CO2, by itself, will lead to some warming: it should. The debate is simply over the matter of how much warming the increase in CO2 can lead to, and the connection of such warming to the innumerable claimed catastrophes. The evidence is that the increase in CO2 will lead to very little warming, and that the connection of this minimal warming (or even significant warming) to the purported catastrophes is also minimal. The arguments on which the catastrophic claims are made are extremely weak – and commonly acknowledged as such.
Professor Lindzen continues, in the same disarming vein (with emphasis again supplied):
In my long experience with the issue of global warming, I’ve come to realize that the vast majority of laymen -- including policymakers – do not actually know what the scientific debate is about. In this testimony, I will try to clarify this. Some of you may, for example, be surprised to hear that the debate is not about whether it is warming or not or even about whether man is contributing some portion of whatever is happening. I’ll explain this in this testimony. Unfortunately, some part of the confusion is explicitly due to members of the scientific community whose role as partisans has dominated any other role they may be playing.
And here we have the nub of the problem: the drafting of science into the lists of politics. For the two are wholly incompatible. Politics, "the art of the possible", proceeds (in a democracy or a republic, at least) largely by consensus -- the majority on a given point prevails. Science, however, is the antithesis of politics in that regard. "Consensus" is not science. A theory is either disproved, or not yet disproved -- it matters not how many scientists would vote to say that a theory is correct, or incorrect. A theory which has successfully stood all experimental tests to date is still not "proved", in the eyes of science, because there remains an infinity of opportunities to disprove it in the future -- far more opportunities, accordingly, than have existed to do so in the past. Thus the consensus of a group of scientists -- no matter how large, no matter how many thousands might sign on to the current belief -- does not, by itself, establish what is known by science.

Those who belong to the majority in a given democracy, or republic, are entitled to put their chosen policies and programs into effect. But just because a "majority of scientists" (whatever that may mean) believes that there may be looming catastrophes due to "global warming", their belief does not translate into a reason that the catastrophes feared will ensue. It is not a matter of majority vote, but of cause and effect. As Professor Lindzen goes on to testify (emphasis in original):

The claims that the earth has been warming, that there is a greenhouse effect, and that man’s activities have contributed to warming, are trivially true and essentially meaningless in terms of alarm.

"Trivially true" is a devastating way of summing up all the "scientific evidence" for so-called "global warming" to date. It puts the claim into perspective. Despite the fact that mankind's cumulative effects on CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to date are not physically relatable to earlier periods, before there even was a mankind to speak of, the physical and historical evidence remains: (1) the concentration of CO2 is a miniscule part of the atmosphere's total composition (on the order of 390 parts in a million), and (2) there have occurred periods in earth's history, long before the current ecological impact of mankind, when the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were far higher than those being projected (or even observed) today.

Consider, for just one example, the hysterical claims that the polar ice caps are disappearing as a result of man-caused global warming. In a series of graphs accompanying his testimony, Professor Lindzen puts this claim into an understandable perspective. The fluctuations reported in the Arctic ice field are completely seasonal, and proceed according to an established pattern, as shown in this graph of the extent of the ice fields since the year 2000 (click it to enlarge):

The amber line which represents the calendar year 2010 shows an ice extent which is thoroughly consistent with the data from the previous nine years. Professor Lindzen underscores the silliness of the claims of "polar bears adrift," and similar ecological disasters, with this quotation from an earlier U.S. Weather Burueau report on the state of ice in the Arctic Ocean:
. . . the arctic ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot. [R]eports all point to a radical change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the arctic zone. [E]xpeditions report that scarcely any ice has been met with as far north as 81 degrees 29 minutes. [G]reat masses of ice have been replaced by moraines of earth and stones, while at many points well known glaciers have entirely disappeared . . .
Such were the calamitous observations of the Weather Bureau -- in 1922.

There are much more data and technical graphs in Professor Lindzen's testimony before Congress. I commend them to your leisurely perusal and detailed study, as both are equally informative. The essential point he makes, and which most media accounts ignore, is that the predictions of all the computer-based models, which have been so touted in the gloom-and-doom news stories to date, depend "on positive feedbacks, and not just [on] the modest effects of CO2." By "positive feedbacks", Prof. Lindzen is referring to a claim of a scientific mechanism, such as a supposed increase in other atmospheric greenhouse factors (principally clouds and water vapor) which are said to follow necessarily any rise -- including a projected doubling -- in the current levels of atmospheric CO2. As he shows in the detailed graphs accompanying his testimony, there is simply no present evidentiary support to back up any such claim of a "positive feedback" mechanism connected to the level of atmospheric CO2. There are, instead, only computerized models which to varying degrees assume there is such a feedback.

And here is where the "science" of global warming affects political policy. Because the feedback factor is a matter of sheer conjecture in all the current models, with no atmospheric temperature data to provide a basis for the projections, it is blatant alarmism to claim that all the models show a catastrophic rise in global temperatures if current CO2 production increases according to the present trend. The models in question have no basis in current science, because no one can quantify, based on available past data, the precise cumulative effect of an increase in what is an admittedly miniscule concentration (0.04 %) of atmospheric CO2, given the far greater concentrations of such major greenhouse components like clouds and water vapor -- which together account for one hundred times the current concentrations of carbon dioxide (measured by volume). The claims here are based on an abstract mathematical "forcing analysis", the outcome of which depends wholly on the arbitrarily selected parameters and the formulae chosen, and which thus has zero support in the physical data available to date.

Indeed, Professor Lindzen tosses in -- almost as an aside -- this zinger, which looks at an earth warmed by a much fainter sun, long before mankind appeared on the scene:
Discussion of other progress in science can also be discussed if there is any interest. Our recent work on the early faint sun may prove particularly important. [Two and a half] billion years ago, when the sun was 20% less bright (compared to the 2% change in the radiative budget associated with doubling CO2), evidence suggests that the oceans were unfrozen and the temperature was not very different from today’s. No greenhouse gas solution has worked [to explain this discrepancy], but a negative cloud feedback does.
In other words, well back in prehistoric time, before man and his activities ever could have affected earth's atmospheric composition, the cover of the clouds and water vapor alone accounted for the prevailing temperatures and the liquid condition of the oceans. This observation simply confirms our common-sense intuition of the relative contribution made by an environmental factor which is ten million times greater than the one the alarmists are isolating today.

It is fitting to conclude with this quotation from Prof. Lindzen's presentation to Congress:
You now have some idea of why I think that there won’t be much warming due to CO2, and without significant global warming, it is impossible to tie catastrophes to such warming. Even with significant warming it would have been extremely difficult to make this connection.

Perhaps we should stop accepting the term, ‘skeptic.’ Skepticism implies doubts about a plausible proposition. Current global warming alarm hardly represents a plausible proposition. Twenty years of repetition and escalation of claims does not make it more plausible. Quite the contrary, the failure to improve the case over 20 years makes the case even less plausible as does the evidence from climategate and other instances of overt cheating.
Instead of a catastrophic rise in global average temperatures, Dr. Lindzen reads the historical data, and the science known to date, to make a forecast of a phenomenon far more familiar to earth's recent denizens -- the approach of a new ice age. He is not alarmist, however, but projects its advent well beyond our own current lifetimes:
In the meantime, while I avoid making forecasts for tenths of a degree change in globally averaged temperature anomaly, I am quite willing to state that unprecedented climate catastrophes are not on the horizon, though in several thousand years we may return to an ice age.


  1. "It is not a man's particular position which concerns me, however, but the way in which he justifies that position, and describes how he arrives at it, which to me weighs most in the balance."

    Exactly! Let us reason together. Even in the worst possible case - our sins (Is 1:18) - God Himself begins with truth (TRUTH in His case).


  2. Thank you, Curmudgeon, for shedding some much needed light on a rather touchy and heated subject -- you are right, the temptation to pun is great!

    Finally, someone with enough common sense to be able to explain to Congress just what is going on. Will our representatives listen to reason, or continue to use such faux catastrophes to further their own agendae???

  3. Makes sense to me. No wonder it was not on the nightly news. Nobody wants to hear the voice of calm. Fear mongering makes for higher ratings.

  4. Dear Curmudgeon,

    I wish Professor Lindzen had testified three or four years ago. My M.S.-level work was in physics (mainly physical oceanography, meteorology, and mapping/charting/geography), B.A. in geology & geophysics.

    About 2007-2008 I was getting in blog discussions about anthropogenic global warming (AGW) but had not undertaken a detailed examination of any of the published data. What I did know from geology was that we have had seventeen identified glacial episodes in the past ~2,000,000 years, each followed by a major retreat of the polar ice caps (viz. the Great Lakes, Yosemite Valley, etc.

    The individuals with whom I was engaged wanted hard evidence that what I was saying was accurate, but that was the height of the frenzy from the pro-AGW crowd and they were simply smeared their opponenets via ad hominem attacks and calling them "global warming deniers." The PDF and transcript of his testimony would have been a very handy reference to convince some of the folks with whom I was debating that what I knew was based on physical evidence rather than numerical modeling. I do have some first-hand experience-based knowledge as to just how inaccurate and inapt numerical models can be.

    It is certainly good to see this testimony—at long last someone who can speak with authority and reason against the fear mongers of the pro-AGW crowd. And kudos to you for your post—I may well have occasion to refer people to it from other blogs.

    Best regards,
    Keith Töpfer

  5. I think you might be interested in Eric S. Raymond's analysis of the state of the research community; he demonstrates with clarity and analogy to other situations how the bandwagon effect you referred to plays out in practice.

  6. Thank you for that link, chrylis -- I found both the analysis, and the blog itself, fascinating.