Putting Climate Science and Kyoto in Perspective

Remarks by William O’Keefe delivered at the AREA Canada Climate Conference, October 7-9, 2002 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada

I am honored to be back in Calgary for this year?s conference. I want to commend your conference organizers for addressing climate change as your government considers ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Because climate change is such a politically controversial subject, open debate and discussion are not always welcome.

Although healthy debate should be the route to better policy, some Kyoto advocates resort to personal attacks on those who challenge their point of view. People like me are often dismissed as “skeptics”, as if skepticism was a character flaw instead of an essential part of the search for knowledge.

Before commenting on the state of knowledge about climate change, I want to make a few observations. It is frequently asserted that the climate science is “settled” or that there is a consensus on human impacts. Mark Twain must have had people like that in mind when he observed that he was not bothered by what people did not know, only bothered by all the things they knew that just weren?t so.

If the science of global warming was truly “settled,” or there was a widespread consensus, there would not be an on-going controversy over the science or the Kyoto Protocol.

If an impartial science court listened to evidence from both sides of this debate, I am confident that the proponents could not meet the legal standard of “a preponderance of the evidence.” This morning, I will lay out the case for healthy skepticism and why Kyoto is a triumph of speculation over scientific observation.

Staying the course on science based policy is more than an academic exercise. For this issue, science must be the foundation for policy. If it is swept aside as no longer being relevant, policy will be nothing more than a reflection of political whim or ideology. We can do better than that!

The debate over the human impact on our climate system has been going on for decades. It will not be settled soon. This reality is an important. The Kyoto Protocol is based on a presumption that we know enough to force significant near term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. We do not!

The extent and risk of human influence on climate is a legitimate issue. And, there is a case for prudent action. But, action should match our state of knowledge. It should not impose unreasonable and unnecessary costs on citizens today to avoid potential costs associated with a speculative problem many decades in the future. Some say that time is running out and that it?s time to move beyond the science. Either they have no faith in human ingenuity and innovation or they fear that increasing knowledge will further weaken their case.

Because the science supporting Kyoto is weak, advocates bolster their argument with the so-called “precautionary principle.” Professor Richard Lindzen of M.I.T. has defined that concept this way. ” Everything is connected. Everything is uncertain. Anything might cause anything. Something needs to be done.” In other words, you don?t have to prove anything to take action.

In explaining my views, I?ll start with what we know about the climate system and human impacts.

We know that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased from 280 PPM to 360 PPM over the past century.

We know that these concentration levels are almost certain to continue to increase over the course of this century. Inspite of the political focus on carbon dioxide, we know that it is not the primary greenhouse gas-water vapor is.

We know that the earth is warmer today than it was at the end of the 19th century, which marked the end of the Little Ice Age. Many believe that the earth is about 1(F warmer, but that is far from certain as a result of how temperature data are collected and analyzed. We know that a 1 degree increase is within the range of natural variability.

There is general agreement that a doubling of carbon dioxide levels from the pre-industrial level could lead to a warmer earth. However, the amount of such warming is far from certain.

We know that past climate changes were either not correlated with changes in CO2 or characterized by temperature changes that preceded changes in CO2.

We know that temperature increases over the past two decades are less than climate models predicted. Claims that this warming is a result of human activity are based on the assumption that models correctly reflect natural variability. That assumption is simply wrong!

Finally, we know that climate models are driven primarily by hypotheses; not established scientific facts.

Beyond these few facts, we are surrounded by a fog of uncertainty that severely limits our ability to forecast climate, global temperatures and impacts, especially over the course of this century. In a fog, it is prudent not to go faster than you can see. To extend this analogy, Kyoto proponents act as if they are on an open highway on a clear day.

Now I want to turn to the science, starting with the basic the greenhouse theory. The earth?s atmosphere is made up of gases that keep some of the sun?s energy from being radiated back to space. This natural “greenhouse” keeps the earth?s average temperature at about 59 degrees F instead of 32 degrees. Because of this natural phenomenon, it is contended that increased emissions from burning fossil fuels will cause even more of the sun?s energy to be trapped, resulting in a warmer earth. This sounds logical, but logic has to be tested by observation and measurement. If the increases in man-made greenhouse gases were trapping more of the sun?s energy and keeping it from being radiated back to space, the lower atmosphere would have to become warmer. That would represent the “greenhouse “fingerprint” of human influence. Satellite data since 1979 and weather balloon data prior to that do not show the warming of the lower atmosphere that would validate the theory behind Kyoto.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has looked at the differences between the surface temperature record and satellite measurements. It concluded that the differences were real and not consistent with the prevailing theory. Satellite measurements are more accurate and comprehensive than surface measurements. There also is recent research raising questions the accuracy of surface temperature measurements, which are the foundation for the Kyoto Protocol.

The pattern of assumed warming over the past century, as well as the longer paleoclimate record, also casts further doubt on the proponents?case. Let?s just focus on the past century. Most of that warming took place before 1940 and before the growth in CO2 emissions. From the early 1940s until the mid-1970s, there was a cooling trend. Since 1975, there has been a reported increase in surface temperature. This century long pattern is not what would be expected. When the leaders of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) say that most of the warming of recent decades is due to human activities, they are engaging in political hyperbole.

A reasonable question is how “scientists” on the IPCC could make such statements if they are not consistent with scientific facts? The leaders of the IPCC may be trained in science, but they are first and foremost representatives of their governments. Since many of these governments have made a political commitment to Kyoto, their representatives can?t act in ways that conflict with those commitments. This is obvious from a comparison of the IPCC?s Summary for Policy Makers and Synthesis Report, which is prepared by the IPCC leadership, and the underlying report prepared by scientists. The basic document, which reviews the state of peer-reviewed literature, makes clear that there are many gaps in our state of knowledge and major uncertainties associated with both natural variability and human influences. That is not the core message of the Summary for Policy Makers.

Last year, the Marshall Institute convened an expert group to review the scientific bases for the IPCC?s recent conclusions about human influence. The group was co-chaired by former Secretary of Energy, James Schlesinger, and former President of the University of Rochester, Robert Sproull. Copies of our report are in the publications area. Our basic conclusion was that the IPCC findings were presented with a degree of certainty that is not consistent with the underlying science.

In the absence of convincing scientific evidence, advocates build their case with computer models, which they manipulate to reconstruct past temperatures and to project apocalyptic visions of the future. I find it surprising that so many people attribute a level of confidence to these models when it is a well-known fact that they are driven mainly by hypotheses and fudge factors; not a sound understanding of important physical processes and factors such as water vapor, aerosols, clouds, ocean currents, feedbacks, solar and lunar influence and natural variability. Each of these has a major influence on our climate system and better knowledge about them is essential to building more realistic models. Such models do not exist today.

My problem with models is misuse by people who substitute simulation for reality. The fact that so many politicians are willing to rely on these models for policy is a testament both to the persistence of folly and the use of fear and pseudo-science as campaigning tools.

Before turning to an agenda for action, I want to comment on one climate variable that only now is getting the attention it deserves-the Sun. Ten years ago, people who suggested solar cycles and output were influencing surface temperatures were essentially dismissed as loony. Today, there is an acknowledgment that solar activity influences our climate and surface temperatures. Two of the leading experts on solar influence are Harvard?s Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon, who also are affiliated with the Marshall Institute.

Scientists have long been puzzled by the strong statistical correlation between changes in solar outputs and surface temperatures because there was no good theory of causality. A credible theory has now been developed that ties together cosmic radiation, the sun?s output and magnetism, cloud formulation and surface temperature. This theory is evolving as more research is carried out. It could well be a major explanation for the warming that has taken place since the end of the Little Ice Age. I am certain that criticism of this theory will become more intense because it undermines the case against fossil fuel use and industrial activity.

Although I am a “skeptic”, I do not oppose responsible action. This debate is not about action or inaction. It is about whether proposed actions are consistent with our state of knowledge and other important societal priorities. So, where should we focus our efforts?

First, important gaps in our knowledge need to be addressed on a priority basis. I have already identified some major ones where our state of knowledge is meager. Closing those gaps quickly would make us a lot smarter about today?s climate and possible changes in the future.

Second, we need better observational data both about important physical processes and global temperatures. It is a sad state of affairs that oceans cover so much of the earth?s surface, yet we do not have good global measurements of ocean temperatures. And, we can not have great confidence in other surface measurements.

Third, we need to continue efforts to develop better climate models. But, we also need to respect their limits and put more emphasis on validation.

Fourth, we need to develop new technologies and promote their deployment in developing countries. Concerns about emissions growth is best addressed technology; not energy suppression.

Fifth, we should remove impediments to increased capital investment and the economic turnover of capital stock. Newer plants, facilities and equipment will be more energy efficient than the ones they replace. Increased efficiency means fewer emissions per unit of output.

Finally, we need to face up to the reality that nothing we do in the near term will have a significant impact on atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases. They will continue to grow. That may be a reality that many don?t like, but it is a fact of life. Because of this reality, we should think about how to use time more effectively. A good start would be to abandon the short run mentality that drives the Kyoto process. We also need to abandon the mindset that assumes that today?s knowledge is sufficient to make decisions covering an entire century. That is the height of arrogance and folly.

An iterative policy planning process will serve us much better than one based on the presumption of knowledge. Such a process would involve tying action to knowledge, investment in new knowledge and adjustments to actions as we learn. We also need a process that puts more emphasis on that which unites us and less on that which divides us.

In closing, I want to address the question of Canadian ratification of Kyoto. Prime Minister Chretien recently said that ratification would take place before the end of the year. As an American, I have no business telling you what your government should do. But, I hope that you will promote the healthy debate that should precede final government action. Those who support ratification should bear a responsibility for telling your citizens clearly and in some detail how those obligations will be met, at what costs and who will bear them. Actions have consequences and your citizens are entitled to know what they are.

I am not aware of any country that has laid out its plan of action with that kind of clarity. Being clear and honest about how emission reduction targets will be achieved is important because emissions are directly related to energy use, the driver of economic growth. Reducing energy use will inevitably lead to reduced economic growth. With technology, we can reduce the intensity of energy use but growing populations and economies need more energy, not less. A commitment to policy informed by sound science and rigorous analyses is the best way to serve the interests of this and future generations. Such a commitment does not exist today. In science facts are reality and perceptions are negotiable. In the world of Kyoto, perceptions are reality and facts are negotiable. A long term and effective strategy can not be sustained that way.

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