Last month, the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal feature a column signed by 16 scientists—a group of distinguished physicists and engineers—which challenged the conventional wisdom of an impending climate catastrophe. Its authors made the case that there are no compelling scientific arguments support the calls made by activists and politicians for drastic action to decarbonize the world’s economy. They did not, however, recommend taking no action at all.
Not surprisingly, guardians of the climate catastrophe orthodoxy overreacted with a vengeance by taking pot shots at the signers themselves rather than the argument. (More on that to follow.) What did these scientists who wrote the opinion piece say that produced such a backlash? They highlighted that the models used to forecast future climates and justify proposed policy prescriptions have consistently failed to predict temperatures:
The lack of warming for more than a decade—indeed, the smaller-than-predicted warming over the 22 years since the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began issuing projections—suggests that computer models have greatly exaggerated how much warming additional CO2 can cause. Faced with this embarrassment, those promoting alarm have shifted their drumbeat from warming to weather extremes, to enable anything unusual that happens in our chaotic climate to be ascribed to CO2 …
Speaking for many scientists and engineers who have looked carefully and independently at the science of climate, we have a message to any candidate for public office: There is no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to “decarbonizes” the world’s economy. Even if one accepts the inflated climate forecasts of the IPCC, aggressive greenhouse-gas control policies are not justified economically.
They also pointed out that alarmism over climate provides is rewarded with financial benefits (research grants, subsidies, etc.):
Why is there so much passion about global warming, and why has the issue become so vexing that the American Physical Society, from which Dr. Giaever resigned a few months ago, refused the seemingly reasonable request by many of its members to remove the word “incontrovertible” from its description of a scientific issue? There are several reasons, but a good place to start is the old question “cui bono?” Or the modern update, “Follow the money.”
Alarmism over climate is of great benefit to many, providing government funding for academic research and a reason for government bureaucracies to grow. Alarmism also offers an excuse for governments to raise taxes, taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses that understand how to work the political system, and a lure for big donations to charitable foundations promising to save the planet.
By repeatedly invoking claims of so-called “climate experts,” writers of the rebuttal attempt to undermine those 16 scientists with an appeal to authority: an age old tactic used by religions to protect their own self interests and lay the foundation for sanctioning those who question the prevailing orthodoxy. Martin Luther had his 95 theses nailed to a cathedral door and was excommunicated for identifying error. This rhetorical technique is often used, as it appears to be in this case, to mask substantial weaknesses in an argument.
The rebuttal’s lead author, Kevin Trenberth (a climate scientist who rose to infamy when the 2009 Climategate scandal made public his email which acknowledged “the fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.”), asserts that periods of small increases in surface temperatures are consistent with the understanding of how the climate system works, asserting that “the long term warming trend has not abated in the past decade.” Yet, his source for this knowledge, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, admits that our understanding of critical climate variables—clouds, water vapor, aerosols, oceans, and solar effects—is low. Moreover, global data from the UK’s Hadley Centre and the NASA satellite data from the University of Alabama at Huntsville show no real increase over the past 10 years—hardly a trend.
Yes, it is warmer than it was 50 years, even 100 years ago. And yes, humans do influence the climate system primarily through land use changes. However, no there is no compelling evidence that the world is about to experience levels of warming greater than any time in the history of the earth. Predictions to the contrary come from computer models that have consistently overstated the extent of warming by a factor of two.
While apocalyptics, like Trenberth, continue to claim that the use of fossil energy is leading to a climate catastrophe, a growing number of scientists are expressing doubt. Indeed, a number of scientists are now concerned about a prolonged period of cooling because a drop in solar activity that has not been observed since the Little Ice Age.
The original Journal piece called for investing in research to better understand the climate system and human influence on it. The rebuttal asserted that in spite of important uncertainties, climate science experts have sufficient knowledge to predict climate futures and restructure the globes energy system. It is more than interesting that the Trenberth gang criticizes the assessments of other scientists because they are not climate experts but feel free to offer advice on energy technologies and investments where clearly they are not experts.
This article appeared on the Fuel Fix weblog on Feb. 8, 2012 at http://fuelfix.com/blog/2012/02/08/debate-over-need-to-panic-about-global-warming-climate/