Global Warming: The Campus Non-Debate

Russell K. Nieli

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Minding the Campus on September 6, 2011.  

"I do not want us to shut down economic drive to support false science, and on the other hand, I do not want to leave behind a scorched earth. .... Let's get the science right! A better debate and research is needed by honest and believable scientists who study climate professionally." - Richard Lindzen, Professor of Meteorology, Massachusette Institute of Technology

Is the earth in a global warming phase?  If it is, how severe is this trend? Is the warming primarily a product of natural causes or do man-made factors play a dominant role?  If man-made factors are important, is the main culprit the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced from the burning of fossil fuels or are other factors more salient?  What is the evidence for and against the anthropogenic and CO2 theories of global warming? If we really are in a period of sustained global warming, will this trend prove a net benefit or a net loss to human welfare?  Who would benefit and who would be harmed by an increase in atmospheric CO2, the greater plant growth this facilitates, and a general increase in global temperatures? If the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to global warming, and if such warming harms many more people than it helps, is the radical curtailment of fossil-fuel dependence a politically and economically feasible response to the problem?  Is it feasible not only in the developed world but in developing regions like India, China, Indonesia, and Brazil?  If the radical curtailment of CO2 emissions cannot be obtained on a worldwide scale either for political or economic reasons, and if global warming proves to be the serious threat to human welfare that some contend, are there economically and scientifically feasible geo-engineering alternatives that could stop the warming or cool the planet down?  What might some of these geo-engineering alternatives be and how could they be implemented?

These are just some of the questions that need to be asked and debated in the ongoing controversy about global climate change.  Alas, they are rarely asked today on college campuses due to what can only be described as the stifling dominance of a smug orthodoxy that is so cocksure of itself — and of the general ignorance and malevolence of its critics — that genuine debate and interchange between divergent viewpoints rarely takes place.  So dominant is this orthodoxy that many college students today have never heard the case made by a responsible scientist against what we might call the dominant Gore-Hansen Model of anthropogenic global warming — the model so effectively propagated by former Vice-President Al Gore in his 2006 movie, An Inconvenient Truth, and by physicist and global warming activist James Hansen, the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.  While many critics of the Gore-Hansen Model would love to debate its defenders on college campuses, they are almost never asked, and the science on the issue is simply considered settled and incontrovertible. Critics of the reigning orthodoxy are arrogantly dismissed as crackpots, tools of the oil industry, or the climatological equivalent of Holocaust deniers.

Universities, the social philosopher Karl Mannheim used to say, should be places where people coming from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints share their competing perspectives and arrive at some kind of richer, more balanced, and more systematically vetted truth than would be possible in more parochial and narrowly-focused communities.  Mannheim specifically had in mind the clash between the differing social and political ideologies of his day, but much of what he had to say applies with equal force to inquiry in almost any academic field.  We get closer to the truth when differing theories, viewpoints, and ideas, together with their supporting evidence, are brought together in academic communities that ardently seek to distinguish truth from falsehood, facts from fiction, genuine insight from hype.  As the philosopher of science Karl Popper used to say, in any scientific or scholarly enterprise claims to truth must be subjected to ongoing confirmation or falsification by confrontation with the best available evidence, and conclusions must always be held tentatively, never finally or dogmatically. It is here that the dogmatism and unwillingness to confront informed dissent among our legions of Gore-Hansen "true believers" is a shameful travesty of the scientific and scholarly enterprise.       

Political Correctness Spreads to the Natural Sciences

Anyone with the least acquaintance with campus environmentalism today probably knows the Gore-Hansen litany by heart. Endlessly repeated without challenge or dissent either on our university campuses or in the mainstream media, the litany goes something like this: Science has definitively settled the issue — our planet is rapidly heating up and unless drastic changes are made very soon global temperatures will continue to rise at an alarming rate. This climate change is due primarily to man-made factors, especially to the increased CO2 emissions that derive from the burning of fossil fuels like coal and gas.  Left unchecked the warming will reach an out-of-control tipping point where greenhouse effects produce feedback loops that will lead to wild and unprecedented swings in weather patterns, the melting of the polar ice caps, the extinction of the polar bears, the rise in global ocean levels to the point where all the earth's coastal cities will be underwater, the expansion of the world's deserts, and the global spread of malaria and other tropical diseases.  In time, global surface temperatures will become so hot that the oceans themselves will begin to boil and evaporate and the earth will become a Venus-like cauldron incapable of sustaining human life — or any life.

What readers are perhaps not so informed about is that every one of these claims is highly problematic and hotly contested by intelligent and informed scientists — scientists who, as the Climategate scandal showed, the Gore-Hansen crowd has often tried to silence or discredit.  Here, for instance, is just a small sampling of what knowledgeable critics have argued against the Gore-Hansen thesis.  These arguments of critics are easily found on Internet websites but they are ones that most of our young people on college campuses have never heard expressed at the one place where such views should be most vigorously debated and discussed:

The atmospheric CO2 concentration was many times higher than today in almost all earlier geologic periods when no runaway greenhouse effect occurred.  For example, during the Jurassic period the CO2 concentration was at least 10 times higher than today, and during the Cambrian period it was at least 10-15 times higher than today.  Interestingly, during the late Ordovician period the earth experienced an extremely cold glacial period despite the fact that the CO2 concentration was at least 10 times higher than today.  In fact, most of the greenhouse effect that keeps the Earth warm is regulated by water vapor, not by CO2. … For human health CO2 is as essential to life as oxygen and water.  Carbon dioxide is the major food for plants, which in turn are food for animals, and of course for humans too.  Indeed, an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration would lead to accelerated plant growth and, therefore, to increased food production.  … Thus an increase of atmospheric CO2 concentration may … benefit humanity.  (Nicola Scafetta, physicist, Duke University)

There have been many warmings and coolings in the past when the CO2 levels did not change.  A well-known example is the Medieval Warming, about the year 1000, when the Vikings settled Greenland (when it was green) and wine was exported from England.  This warm period was followed by the Little Ice Age when the Thames would frequently freeze over during the winter.  There is no evidence for significant increase in CO2 in the Medieval Warm Period, nor for a significant decrease at the time of the subsequent Little Ice Age.  Documented famines with millions of deaths occurred during the Little Ice Age because the cold weather killed the crops.  Since the end of the Little Ice Age, the earth has been warming in fits and starts, and humanity's quality of life has improved accordingly. … The existence of the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period were an embarrassment to the global-warming establishment because they showed that the current warming is almost indistinguishable from previous warmings and coolings that had nothing to do with burning fossil fuel.  (William Happer, professor of physics, Princeton University)

Temperatures during most of the last 10,000 years were somewhat higher than at present until about 3,000 years ago.  For the past 700 years, the Earth has been coming out of the Little Ice Age and generally warming with alternating warm/cool periods.  Glaciers advanced from about 1890-1920, retreated rapidly from about 1925-1945, re-advanced from about 1945-1977, and have been retreating since the present warm cycle began in 1977.  … Because the warming periods in these oscillations occurred well before atmospheric CO2 began to rise rapidly in the 1940s, they could not have been caused by increased atmospheric CO2, and global warming since 1900 could well have happened without any effect of CO2.  (Don Easterbrook, emeritus professor of geology, Western Washington University)

That portion of the scientific community that attributes climate warming to CO2 relies on the hypothesis that increasing CO2, which is in fact a minor greenhouse gas, triggers a much larger water vapor response to warm the atmosphere.  This mechanism has never been tested scientifically beyond the mathematical models that predict extensive warming, and are confounded by the complexity of cloud formation — which has a cooling effect.  … We know that [the sun] was responsible for climate change in the past, and so is clearly going to play the lead role in present and future climate change.  (Ian Clark, hydro-geologist and professor of earth sciences, University of Ottawa)

One can have surface warming for a variety of reasons.  So the key layer of air to look at is the one-to-five-mile up layer of air [i.e., the lower troposphere].  Now, this is the layer of air sensitive to the human-made warming effect, and the layer that must warm at least as much as the surface according to the computer simulations [made by the defenders of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis].  Yet, the projected warming from human activities can't be found in the low troposphere in any great degree.  … Most of the increase in the air's concentration of greenhouse gases from human activities — over 80 percent — occurred after the 1940s.  That means that the strong early 20th century warming must be largely, if not entirely, natural [since little CO2 was thrown into the atmosphere at that time].  … The coincident changes in the sun's changing energy output and temperature records on earth tend to argue that the sun has driven a major portion of the 20th century temperature change.  (Sallie Baliunas, astronomer, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

I predict that in the coming years, there will be a growing realization among the global warming research community that most of the climate change we have observed is natural, and that mankind's role is relatively minor. … Our best satellite observations … suggest [that the climate system is relatively insensitive to CO2 concentrations].  If the climate system is insensitive [to CO2] this means that the extra carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere is not enough to cause the observed warming over the last 100 years — some natural mechanism must be involved.  …  My favorite candidate: the Pacific Decadal Oscillation [i.e., the observed cyclical shift in thermal currents in the Pacific Ocean].  (Roy Spencer, atmospheric scientist, University of Alabama at Huntsville)

The greenhouse effect is real.  However, the effect is minute, insignificant, and very difficult to detect.  … It's not automatically true that warming is bad, I happen to believe that warming is good, and so do many economists.  … The current warming cycle is not unusual. … The Earth consistently goes through a climate cycle marked by alternating warmer and cooler periods over 1,500 years (plus or minus 500 years). (Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental sciences, the University of Virginia)

Our team … has discovered that the relatively few cosmic rays that reach sea-level play a big part in the everyday weather.  They help to make low-level clouds, which largely regulate the Earth's surface temperature.  During the 20th century the influx of cosmic rays decreased and the resulting reduction of cloudiness allowed the world to warm up.  … Most of the warming during the 20th century can be explained by a reduction in low cloud cover. (HenrikSvensmark, director, Center for Sun-Climate Research, Danish National Space Center)

The Non-Scientific Appeal of Global Warming

With the science of climate change so uncertain, why, one must ask, are people like Al Gore, James Hansen, and (according to some surveys) the majority of scientists working in climate-related fields, so convinced of the truth of  the anthropogenic global warming thesis?  What explains their fixation on CO2, a minor greenhouse gas that is necessary for plant growth and comprises less than 4 parts in 10,000 of the earth's atmosphere?  The answer here is probably to be found in what an older generation of social scientists called "the sociology of knowledge." 

We like to think of scientists and scholars as honest truth brokers only minimally influenced by factors other than their overriding concern to assess the truth.  And in many cases this is clearly so.  But scientists and scholars, even some of the most gifted, are human beings and under the right conditions are subject to fads and foibles no different than anyone else.  Experience shows just how often the case is that scientists and others with specialty knowledge exaggerate the importance of their own field and their own projects and often distort the situation that concerns them most. Public health scientists have often exaggerated the importance of public health threats; military and defense analysts routinely exaggerate the threat of hostile foreign forces; homeland security experts exaggerate the threat of domestic terrorism.  The importance and prestige of those in any given field is usually enhanced by hyping developments in which their expertise would be called upon and their knowledge needed to prevent grave social harms. 

MIT's Richard Lindzen, a long-time skeptic of the Gore-Hansen Model of global warming, has explained how the serious challenge to American scientific and military dominance posed by the Soviet launching of the Sputnik satellite in the 1950s sent a clear message to the American scientific community that has stuck with it ever since.  After Sputnik, saysLindzen, it became clear that the way to gain status, prestige, and, above all, government funding for one's scientific research, was through the medium of public fear and crisis creation.  A similar dynamic was at work earlier, he says, in the creation of the Manhattan Project, which was originally established as a counterweight to what was believed to be an advanced Nazi atom bomb project.  The threats and crises for which the government will shell out big money may be entirely real, of course, and not in need of any exaggeration or hype.  But they may also be bogus or grossly inflated, a condition that Lindzen thinks accurately describes current global-warming concerns of the Gore-Hansen variety.

The New York Times science editor John Tierney offers a similar take on the global warming issue, stressing both the self-interest of scientists involved in crisis mongering and the more general, herd-like conformism that afflicts scientists along with everyone else.  "I've long thought that the biggest danger in climate research," Tierney writes, "is the temptation for scientists to lose their skepticism and go along with the 'consensus' about global warming.  That's partly because it's easy for everyone to get caught up in 'informational cascades,' and partly because there are so many psychic and financial rewards for working on a problem that seems to be a crisis.  We all like to think that our work is vitally useful in solving a major social problem — and the more major the problem seems, the more money society is liable to spend on it. … Given the huge stakes in this debate — the trillions of dollars that might be spent to reduce greenhouse emissions — it's important to keep taking skeptical looks at the data.  How open do you think climate scientists are to skeptical views, and to letting outsiders double-check their data and calculations?" (John Tierney).

The last sentence was an oblique reference to attempts by many climate scientists to suppress skeptical voices, which was so clearly in evidence in the scandalous Climategate emails.  A commentator on Tierney's blog adds the following valuable insight:  "To survive, most workers in scientific fields must follow the grant money.  If all the grants this year are for work on the crisis du jour, then that's the work which gets done.  The annoying fact is that somebody pays for science.  The 'somebody' may be an Evil Oil Company, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, or anyone else with bags of money.  We shouldn't be too amazed when we find that the 'somebody' tends to get the science he or it wants to see."

A Substitute Religion

That money, power, vanity, and prestige may influence a scientific debate — or non-debate in the case of global warming — should not be very surprising.  As I have said, scientists and scholars are human beings and prone to all the foibles and distortions of the human condition.  This was the great insight of the mid-20th century "sociologists of knowledge," and before them of most Calvinists and other discerning Christians (including most notably James Madison in Federalist No. 10). 

But I think there is an additional element here that is less talked about but probably as important as the kinds of issues Lindzen and Tierney bring up.  This is the attraction of global-warming orthodoxy not as a falsifiablescientific theory or source of research funding but as a substitute religion that engages all the energies and capacities to enhance meaning in life that an earlier generation of secular scholars and scientists often found in various brands of socialism or psychoanalysis.  With the general decline and discrediting of both Marxism and Freudianism over the past thirty years radical environmentalism in various forms has taken their place in the lives of many secular intellectuals as a source of existential meaning and purpose.  The insular, defensive, cult-like behavior displayed by so many global warming advocates when they are confronted with the concerns of informed skeptics reinforces such an interpretation and explains their refusal to debate dissenters.  True believers have no converse with heretics. And such cult-like behavior reinforces one final suspicion: like socialism and Freudianism, global-warming alarmism may prove in time to be a God that failed. 

Image: IFLScience!

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