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Science Fact, Climate Fiction—Clarifying the Debate

Dimitri Zenghelis

SCIENCE AS A CONTACT SPORT: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate. Stephen H. Schneider. viii + 295 pp. National Geographic Books, 2009. $28.

STORMS OF MY GRANDCHILDREN: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. James Hansen. xvi + 303 pp. Bloomsbury USA, 2009. $25.

CLIMATE COVER-UP: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. James Hoggan with Richard Littlemore. xiv + 250 pp. Greystone Books, 2009. $20, paper.

At a time of renewed backlash against climate science, three recent books—Stephen H. Schneider’s Science as a Contact Sport, James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren and James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up—collectively offer the bewildered public a timely guide to the emerging scientific consensus on human-induced climate change. Each includes a deeply personal account of making an effort to communicate the urgency of the situation to policy makers and the general public, only to be thwarted by powerful and coordinated resistance from organizations determined to sow confusion and prevent a common understanding of the climate problem. Schneider and Hansen, two of America’s most senior climate scientists, give firsthand accounts of being censored and of being subjected to smear campaigns and character assassination designed to marginalize them and damage their credibility.

2010-05BREVZenghelisFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageSchneider, who has been engaged in climate research since the 1970s, has often found himself in the thick of controversy. Now at Stanford University, he has played an important role on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which guides global policy makers.

In Science as a Contact Sport, Schneider explains the elementary physics of the greenhouse effect. That human beings release warming gases into the atmosphere has been known since Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect in the 1824. Yet accurately projecting the impact of greenhouse-gas emissions is far from straightforward. Complex multidimensional general-circulation models are needed to account for important processes known to be interrelated, such as ocean dynamics, cloud feedbacks, ecological changes, and ice and snow changes. “If you don’t model,” Schneider asserts, “you don’t know anything about the future.” We have no choice but to embrace this complexity and corresponding uncertainty, he believes. “We can never fully solve the climate prediction problem,” Schneider acknowledges. “But we can go a long way toward bracketing probable outcomes, and even defining possible outliers.”

The problem lies not so much with getting the public to understand the science as with “the political chicanery of ideologists and special interests,” Schneider believes. Worried over “decent people” being taken in by the campaigns of “greedy” corporations, he asks: “Can democracy survive complexity?”

If Hansen’s book, Storms of My Grandchildren, is anything to go by, there is little reason to be optimistic about democracies addressing the problem effectively. Hansen is an adjunct professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He has been derided as an alarmist and has been criticized for maintaining that in order to avert the major risks from climate change the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere must be reduced to a global mean of 350 parts per million, which is a more ambitious target than the IPCC and most of his peers are proposing. However, Hansen’s predictions about global warming have been more accurate than most. Each succeeding Assessment Report of the IPCC comes closer to bearing out his long-standing hypothesis that human-caused warming is occurring. The latest report proclaims that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Hansen began his career studying the evolution of Venus’s atmosphere. His understanding of that subject then influenced his understanding of another drama unfolding right in front of him—increasingly rapid changes in Earth’s atmosphere that he came to believe would surely affect the climate. Hansen takes pains to establish that paleoclimatological records provide the best guide to how Earth’s climate is likely to evolve in the future. He sees little value in theoretical models that have not been appropriately calibrated with past data.

Hansen explains why Earth’s climate flip-flops precipitously between ice ages and warmer “interglacial” periods. He concludes that modern human activities that emit greenhouse gases are sufficient to trigger a major climate switch. Although Earth is influenced by self-regulating, damping feedbacks over the very long term, large amplifying feedbacks are dominant over the shorter timescales during which humanity is rapidly changing the atmospheric balance. This spells trouble.

Two natural amplifying feedbacks stand out. The first is reduction in global surface reflectivity as the planet warms: Ice melts and cloud patterns change, so that less solar radiation is reflected back out to space. The second is that as the planet warms and the permafrost thaws, more greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor make their way into the atmosphere.

In the past, small changes in Earth’s tilt and orbit around the sun, or volcanic activity, have set these feedback mechanisms in motion. But the influence of humans is much larger. And the damping feedbacks that in the absence of human influence might move us into a new ice age are very small and slow—so much so that, according to Hansen, the effects of the emissions from a single chloroflourocarbon factory would be enough to overcome them.

The situation is dire, Hansen believes. Because different parts of the world will warm at different rates, pressure differentials will change and seasonal air currents will shift. As a consequence, regions previously inundated with rains may quickly turn to desert and vice versa. In addition, the climate will no longer be cold enough to keep the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica stable. Once they begin to melt, Hansen says,

there will not be a new stable sea level on any foreseeable time scale. Instead, we will have created a situation with continual change, with intermittent calamities at thousands of cities around the world.

Hansen also cautions that

If we continue on a business-as-usual path, with a global warming of several degrees Celsius, then we will drive a large fraction of species, conceivably all species, to extinction.

These urgent warnings have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

The book’s account of attempts by the administration of George W. Bush to have political appointees at NASA block Hansen’s publications and stop him from giving interviews is the stuff of Hollywood thrillers. One appointee explains that his job is to “make the President look good.” Hansen’s colleagues start to shun him, explaining that they have “been talked to” and “could be fired.” When Hansen argues that he has a duty to carry out NASA’s mission statement, which includes the promise “to understand and protect our home planet,” that phrase mysteriously disappears from the statement, and 20 percent of NASA’s budget for earth science research and analysis vanishes. “By 2005,” Hansen writes, “I was well aware that the NASA Office of Public Affairs had become an office of propaganda.”

Hansen is neither a radical firebrand nor a self-proclaimed liberal—he describes himself as an independent, equally well disposed to Republicans and Democrats as candidates for office. But he is primarily a scientist with a deep sense of social responsibility.

The fossil-fuel industry may have a short-term commercial interest in peddling disinformation. Scientists, in contrast, typically do not try to sell their findings broadly. “Scientists in general,” Schneider says, “are reluctant to pursue publicity in the wider world, preferring in general to make their reputations in peer-reviewed journals and other publications within the scientific establishment.” But Schneider and Hansen welcome the opportunity to publicize climate change research. And unlike many scientists, they are unafraid to speak of morality, for climate change is nothing if not a moral issue.

Clarifying the science and specifying the costs of action puts the onus on all of us to be explicit about our value judgments. Anyone who wants to argue that we needn’t concern ourselves with the well-being of future generations, or that the developing world should fend for itself, should do so explicitly, rather than speciously criticizing climate science or overstating the economic costs of action. On matters of ethics, Hansen does not mince words: Schneider notes that in a speech to the National Press Club in 2008, Hansen said that the CEOs of fossil energy companies “should be tried for high crimes against humanity.” In Storms of My Grandchildren, Hansen argues that American citizens have no alternative but to take direct physical action to stop emissions.

It is a shame that when Hansen strays into the policy sphere, he is less sure-footed but no less emphatic. He writes that “when [politicians] tell you that they are going to solve the problem via a ‘goal,’ ‘binding target,’ or a ‘cap,’ you know that they are lying.” Such language is inflammatory and unhelpful. Whether or not politicians are lying is a moot point: There are good arguments for binding targets and cap-and-trade. Tight-binding caps, which are no more likely to be illegally evaded than are taxes, would provide an enduring and credible price for emissions—something Hansen acknowledges to be essential. Cap-and-trade would also provide greater certainty about emissions and offer incentives for individuals, companies and governments the world over to profit from emissions cuts by generating verified carbon credits. Achieving the same results through the approach Hansen favors—a global carbon tax that raises money and returns it directly to the public—would be fiendishly complex, requiring tax credits for cross-border financing of emissions reductions.

Schneider understands these economic realities perfectly. When a representative of an environmental group argues that offering credits to poor countries to access carbon markets would let big emitters like the United States avoid cutting their own emissions, Schneider points out that a ton of carbon is a ton of carbon. Indeed, cutting a ton of carbon can often be done more cheaply in poor or developing countries, offering better value for the money spent. The answer to this environmentalist’s concerns, then, is not to abandon the cap but to tighten it further and continue to offer credits to poor countries.

We know that the technologies and economic incentives necessary for effective action are available or can be created. With a mix of emissions pricing, standards, regulations and public support for clean-technology research, we have it within our power to keep the likely increase in the global average temperature, relative to preindustrial times, to less than two degrees Celsius, thus eliminating the bulk of the risks. The barriers to resolving the problem are not technological or economic; they are cultural, institutional and political.

The biggest barrier of all, according to James Hoggan, is that the public conversation about climate change has been “pushed . . . badly off the rails” by forces bent on sowing confusion. Hoggan is cofounder of (where his collaborator on Climate Cover-Up, Richard Littlemore, is a contributor) and has a long and distinguished background in public relations. He stresses that he is not a scientist and has no interest in debating the science.

Hoggan notes that, although it is of course unreasonable to expect complete agreement among scientists, they nevertheless do agree broadly on the range of potential outcomes of continued high levels of greenhouse-gas emissions. A 2005 analysis by Naomi Oreskes of refereed journal articles published between 1993 and 2003 identified 928 articles about climate change, not one of which took exception to the consensus that human release of greenhouse gases is causing climate change.

But the public perception is that there is no such consensus. So-called climate skeptics play on disagreement to imply that the climate science remains unsettled. Yet the very term skeptic is open to abuse. Scientists embrace skepticism, as Hoggan notes:

It is through doubting the certainties of the world (the flatness of the Earth, the usefulness of bloodletting) that scientists advance human knowledge. But no serious scientist will stand up and denounce a widely accepted scientific theory without making a verifiable argument to the contrary.

Schneider makes the same point in Science as a Contact Sport: “Skeptics should question everything but not deny where the preponderance of evidence leads.” Most global-warming skeptics are not latter-day truth-seeking Galileos, fighting an all-powerful establishment in an act of nonconformist courage; many are backed by one of the most well-funded industrial lobbies in human history and are more aptly referred to as deniers. Moreover, the logic of using uncertainty as a reason for inaction is suspect. With the science establishing that the risk may be immense, the onus is surely on the skeptics to answer the following question: “Can we be very confident that the risks are low?”

Hoggan starts by making an example of individuals such as Freeman Dyson, Bjørn Lomborg and Steve Milloy, all of whom have publicly downplayed the risks of global warming or sought to cast doubt on the integrity of some of climate science. (In the interests of full disclosure, I note that I myself have tangled with a few of those he names, including Dyson, who a few years back published an article in the New York Review of Books wrongly criticizing the findings of the 2006 Stern Review, The Economics of Climate Change, which I helped write.) Hoggan observes that Dyson “has no background in climate science, having done no research whatever—ever—on atmospheric physics or climate modelling.” He has no background in economics either. And yet Dyson, and many like him, continue to get column inches to make their destructive claims.

Hoggan says that when DeSmogBlog was founded, Littlemore began to collect information about “people who seemed to be making a living by denying climate change.” He was looking for answers to these questions:

Were these climate “skeptics” qualified? Were they doing any research in the climate change field? Were they accepting money, directly or indirectly, from the fossil fuel industry?

He found that “the most vocal skeptics were not qualified, were not working in the field, and all too frequently were on one or another oily payroll.”

Last week, a colleague forwarded me an e-mail message that contained an open letter to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon about global warming. The core of the message was the statement that “truly, the science is NOT settled.” The signatories sounded impressive. But who exactly were they? The list included sedimentologists, lignite geologists, biologists and even a few retired climate scientists, but no one who is currently practicing climatology or atmospheric physics or conducting research published in legitimate peer-reviewed journals. I even recognized in the list some names that Hoggan has identified as being in the pay of the fossil-fuel industry.

Hoggan shows that such statements are sometimes “signed” with names that are completely made up or belong to deceased scientists; other names belong to climate scientists who have published on the subject, but who never signed or approved the statement and later bring lawsuits. Yet, by the time all this malpractice is exposed, the missive has done its dirty damage. After all, the target audience for this endless flow of petitions is not the community of climate scientists. Rather, it is the increasingly confused general public, members of the media and policy makers. In contrast to scientists, who publish articles in peer-reviewed journals, most climate-change deniers make their pronouncements in the opinion pages of newspapers and on talk shows.

Another difficulty is that journalists often present each “side” as equally plausible rather than impartially checking that each side adheres to rigorously investigated facts. Why do reporters do this? For the bastions of the right-wing press such as Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, the answer may be obvious. However, all journalists are trained to sell stories and are therefore apt to welcome people who provoke debate. Upholding “balance” is fine where value judgments or opinions are concerned. But the validity of science depends on its relationship with the facts, and neither the presence of complexities nor the need to express projections in terms of probabilistic likelihoods changes that. In science, a statement that doesn’t fit the facts is not opinion; it is error.

If it is not the science that drives contrarians, then what is it? Some are right-wing libertarians, fearful of any project that involves widespread social intervention. Others like to bask in the attention they draw by creating controversy (interestingly, the ranks of contrarians are disproportionately filled with men over 65 years of age). Still more are attracted by the money available from such entities as the American Petroleum Institute and the Western Fuels Association. Many supposedly grassroots contrarian organizations have roots that “track directly to the fossil fuel industry,” says Hoggan. And he unearths an entire industry of lobby groups and public relations firms whose business it is to make socially damaging industries look attractive. Hoggan explains that the public relations firm APCO, which was hired by tobacco giant Phillip Morris in the early 1990s to attack the validity of the claim that secondhand smoking is linked to cancer, in 1993 helped found the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which today helps orchestrate the media campaign against climate action. In 2008, Hoggan reveals, the oil-and-gas lobby spent a whopping $128.6 million on lobbying Capitol Hill, employing on average four lobbyists for every member of Congress.

So society remains as confused as ever. A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that the proportion of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the world has been warming over the past few decades fell from 77 percent in January 2007 to 57 percent in October 2009. Another survey, conducted in December 2009 by Rasmussen Reports, suggests that only 25 percent of Americans believe that there is a consensus among scientists that global warming exists, whereas 52 percent believe that there is significant disagreement among scientists on that question. A poll by the same organization in February 2010 found that 47 percent of U.S. voters believe that global warming is the result of long-term planetary trends, whereas only 35 percent believe that it is the result of human activity.

The consequences of this confusion may be tragic. We have lost critical decades in which we could have taken ambitious action but did not, because of a lack of public consensus. The stock of greenhouse gases is rising at an increasing rate. For every year in which action is not taken, more work will be required to reduce greenhouse-gas concentrations to a level consistent with a safe climate. At the same time, society continues to lock into high-carbon infrastructure that has a long lifespan.

These three books will convince most readers that there is a “Climategate” scandal. However, it is not the one that has been reported recently in the media. The science is not becoming less clear. Nature is conforming to theory more closely than anyone could have expected. Yet powerful vested interests, the greedy, and those focused on the short-term continue to confuse the public by falsely framing the debate as yet to be settled.

So what can be done? Schneider has a simple prescription:

Elect courageous members of government who will engage in the climate battles. Educate the public about the possibilities for mitigation and adaptation to prevent the worst-case outcomes of climate change. Take action while we still have time to be effective.

As Hansen has long argued, “without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened.”

Dimitri Zenghelis is a Senior Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute, London School of Economics.

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