Thursday, June 22, 2006

Warming to Climate Change

Paul Saunders and Vaughan Turekian, who both served as special assistants to the Undersecretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs (Vaughan is now chief international officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Paul is executive editor of The Nixon Center), spoke today at the magazine about their article in the Summer 2006 issue of The National Interest, Warming to Climate Change.

Paul argued that while the Kyoto Agreement is flawed, the way the Bush Administration handled the U.S. withdrawal alienated key allies in Europe and Japan and had prevented ways in which those flaws could be corrected. However, there is an opportunity now presented by the high price of energy which has increased interest in promoting energy efficiency and the development and use of alternatives.

Have we reached a domestic "tipping point" on climate change and energy security? Not only has the president said that we are addicted to oil, key constituencies within the Republican party are coming together to recognize the need for change--farmers, business, sportsmen and the religious communities. On the Hill, Republican leaders like Senator Dick Lugar are promoting new approaches to energy security that rely on clean and renewable sources. [Senator Lugar authored a piece on energy realism for the Summer issue as well.] The business community, especially the insurance industry, is cocerned about changes in climate that would affect property and other sectors of the economy (this is a point Hank Greenberg raised in his essay, On Leadership, in the Winter 2005/06 issue)
But the White House needs to decide whether it is going to provide leadership and to rally support for a comprehensive policy both within the United States as well as internationally.

Vaughan echoed this point about leadership, noting that there is a good deal of investment in specific technologies (hydrogen, methane capture, carbon sequestering)--but there is no overarching framework to tie these separate and discrete programs with an end goal in mind. In the article, they had proposed moving toward a zero-emissions economy within a century.

Internationally, the UN framework convention on climate change is not the way to move forward, since right now it functions as a bazaar for special interests seeking trade-offs. He recommended starting with a small group of key countries that could work out the details and technologies required.

He noted that it is difficult to build a popular consensus on the issue. When there is a drought or hurricane, is it weather or is it due to climate change? Demographic change can also cloud the issue--if a hurricane equivalent to the one that struck Miami in 1920 were to hit again, the damage would be catastrophic--but this is due to the major shift of population, not to global warming.

He recommends having a summit on energy that would bring the key players in the scientific, environmental, energy producer and energy consumption areas--all the key stakeholders--who are also the key stakeholders in the climate change debate--to sit down, under presidential leadership--to chart out a course of action.

He is a proponent of the 90:10 formula. In dealing with something like climate changes, where there are a great number of variables, including pinning down precisely how much a rise in temperature can be attributed to human activity, the policy should be able to address whether humans are responsible for 90 or 10 percent of the warming rise. The Kyoto protocol failed this test; it could not successfully deal with the problem if humans were responsible for the bulk of the warming, and if humans were responsible only for a fraction, it would be too burdensome and onerous. The move forward should be based on policies that are pragmatic and practical, and through this to build an effective international coalition for action.

Dr. Gvosdev,

Very interesting points here. I'm glad to see Paul take a stance that is not just realistic about both Kyoto and the climate change problem, but also endorses problem-solving steps forward! Realism undeservedly is sometimes viewed as limited to critique.

I'm not an environmental scientist, but I struggle to accept that it is truly beyond our abilities to determine how much of recent climate change trends are related to man-made activity. To horrifically oversimplify, here's a sample blueprint:

a: figure how much extra of relevant CO2 and other chemical compounds we are adding to the atmosphere. Subtract to obtain atmospheric makeup sans our involvement

b: create controlled environments A and B with artificial atmospheres, A with chemical mix identical to atomsphere without human contribution and B identical to atmosphere with human contribution.

C: subject each environment to heat source (we can't recreate the Sun, but we ought to understand its emissions well enough to imitate it) and observe differentials

d: extrapolate

This is of course not informed or detailed enough to be the experiment itself, but it sure seems that determining human contribution to current warming is doable. At the very least, we should be able to determine 10% or 90%.

Then we wouldn't have to create a policy that is appropriate for either scenario. Because I don't think that's doable. Business and the right will insist on a 10% solution, the left will demand 90%, and we'll end up with a muddled compromise with the same weaknesses as Kyoto.

Jordan Willcox
Nixon Center Intern '02
I think that the approach is innovative--focus on energy security and you can end up moving on climate change--but the caveat here is that the pressure to use coal results in use of clean coal technology otherwise energy security and climate agendas will go in radically different directions.
The Wall Street Journal
There Is No 'Consensus' On Global Warming
June 26, 2006; Page A14
According to Al Gore's new film "An Inconvenient Truth," we're in for "a planetary emergency": melting ice sheets, huge increases in sea levels, more and stronger hurricanes and invasions of tropical disease, among other cataclysms -- unless we change the way we live now.
Bill Clinton has become the latest evangelist for Mr. Gore's gospel, proclaiming that current weather events show that he and Mr. Gore were right about global warming, and we are all suffering the consequences of President Bush's obtuseness on the matter. And why not? Mr. Gore assures us that "the debate in the scientific community is over."
That statement, which Mr. Gore made in an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC, ought to have been followed by an asterisk. What exactly is this debate that Mr. Gore is referring to? Is there really a scientific community that is debating all these issues and then somehow agreeing in unison? Far from such a thing being over, it has never been clear to me what this "debate" actually is in the first place.
The media rarely help, of course. When Newsweek featured global warming in a 1988 issue, it was claimed that all scientists agreed. Periodically thereafter it was revealed that although there had been lingering doubts beforehand, now all scientists did indeed agree. Even Mr. Gore qualified his statement on ABC only a few minutes after he made it, clarifying things in an important way. When Mr. Stephanopoulos confronted Mr. Gore with the fact that the best estimates of rising sea levels are far less dire than he suggests in his movie, Mr. Gore defended his claims by noting that scientists "don't have any models that give them a high level of confidence" one way or the other and went on to claim -- in his defense -- that scientists "don't know… They just don't know."
So, presumably, those scientists do not belong to the "consensus." Yet their research is forced, whether the evidence supports it or not, into Mr. Gore's preferred global-warming template -- namely, shrill alarmism. To believe it requires that one ignore the truly inconvenient facts. To take the issue of rising sea levels, these include: that the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940; that icebergs have been known since time immemorial; that the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually growing on average. A likely result of all this is increased pressure pushing ice off the coastal perimeter of that country, which is depicted so ominously in Mr. Gore's movie. In the absence of factual context, these images are perhaps dire or alarming.
They are less so otherwise. Alpine glaciers have been retreating since the early 19th century, and were advancing for several centuries before that. Since about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are now advancing again. And, frankly, we don't know why.
* * *
The other elements of the global-warming scare scenario are predicated on similar oversights. Malaria, claimed as a byproduct of warming, was once common in Michigan and Siberia and remains common in Siberia -- mosquitoes don't require tropical warmth. Hurricanes, too, vary on multidecadal time scales; sea-surface temperature is likely to be an important factor. This temperature, itself, varies on multidecadal time scales. However, questions concerning the origin of the relevant sea-surface temperatures and the nature of trends in hurricane intensity are being hotly argued within the profession.
Even among those arguing, there is general agreement that we can't attribute any particular hurricane to global warming. To be sure, there is one exception, Greg Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who argues that it must be global warming because he can't think of anything else. While arguments like these, based on lassitude, are becoming rather common in climate assessments, such claims, given the primitive state of weather and climate science, are hardly compelling.
A general characteristic of Mr. Gore's approach is to assiduously ignore the fact that the earth and its climate are dynamic; they are always changing even without any external forcing. To treat all change as something to fear is bad enough; to do so in order to exploit that fear is much worse. Regardless, these items are clearly not issues over which debate is ended -- at least not in terms of the actual science.
A clearer claim as to what debate has ended is provided by the environmental journalist Gregg Easterbrook. He concludes that the scientific community now agrees that significant warming is occurring, and that there is clear evidence of human influences on the climate system. This is still a most peculiar claim. At some level, it has never been widely contested. Most of the climate community has agreed since 1988 that global mean temperatures have increased on the order of one degree Fahrenheit over the past century, having risen significantly from about 1919 to 1940, decreased between 1940 and the early '70s, increased again until the '90s, and remaining essentially flat since 1998.
There is also little disagreement that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen from about 280 ppmv (parts per million by volume) in the 19th century to about 387 ppmv today. Finally, there has been no question whatsoever that carbon dioxide is an infrared absorber (i.e., a greenhouse gas -- albeit a minor one), and its increase should theoretically contribute to warming. Indeed, if all else were kept equal, the increase in carbon dioxide should have led to somewhat more warming than has been observed, assuming that the small observed increase was in fact due to increasing carbon dioxide rather than a natural fluctuation in the climate system. Although no cause for alarm rests on this issue, there has been an intense effort to claim that the theoretically expected contribution from additional carbon dioxide has actually been detected.
Given that we do not understand the natural internal variability of climate change, this task is currently impossible. Nevertheless there has been a persistent effort to suggest otherwise, and with surprising impact. Thus, although the conflicted state of the affair was accurately presented in the 1996 text of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the infamous "summary for policy makers" reported ambiguously that "The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate." This sufficed as the smoking gun for Kyoto.
The next IPCC report again described the problems surrounding what has become known as the attribution issue: that is, to explain what mechanisms are responsible for observed changes in climate. Some deployed the lassitude argument -- e.g., we can't think of an alternative -- to support human attribution. But the "summary for policy makers" claimed in a manner largely unrelated to the actual text of the report that "In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations."
In a similar vein, the National Academy of Sciences issued a brief (15-page) report responding to questions from the White House. It again enumerated the difficulties with attribution, but again the report was preceded by a front end that ambiguously claimed that "The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes is also a reflection of natural variability." This was sufficient for CNN's Michelle Mitchell to presciently declare that the report represented a "unanimous decision that global warming is real, is getting worse and is due to man. There is no wiggle room." Well, no.
More recently, a study in the journal Science by the social scientist Nancy Oreskes claimed that a search of the ISI Web of Knowledge Database for the years 1993 to 2003 under the key words "global climate change" produced 928 articles, all of whose abstracts supported what she referred to as the consensus view. A British social scientist, Benny Peiser, checked her procedure and found that only 913 of the 928 articles had abstracts at all, and that only 13 of the remaining 913 explicitly endorsed the so-called consensus view. Several actually opposed it.
Even more recently, the Climate Change Science Program, the Bush administration's coordinating agency for global-warming research, declared it had found "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system." This, for Mr. Easterbrook, meant: "Case closed." What exactly was this evidence? The models imply that greenhouse warming should impact atmospheric temperatures more than surface temperatures, and yet satellite data showed no warming in the atmosphere since 1979. The report showed that selective corrections to the atmospheric data could lead to some warming, thus reducing the conflict between observations and models descriptions of what greenhouse warming should look like. That, to me, means the case is still very much open.
* * *
So what, then, is one to make of this alleged debate? I would suggest at least three points.
First, nonscientists generally do not want to bother with understanding the science. Claims of consensus relieve policy types, environmental advocates and politicians of any need to do so. Such claims also serve to intimidate the public and even scientists -- especially those outside the area of climate dynamics. Secondly, given that the question of human attribution largely cannot be resolved, its use in promoting visions of disaster constitutes nothing so much as a bait-and-switch scam. That is an inauspicious beginning to what Mr. Gore claims is not a political issue but a "moral" crusade.
Lastly, there is a clear attempt to establish truth not by scientific methods but by perpetual repetition. An earlier attempt at this was accompanied by tragedy. Perhaps Marx was right. This time around we may have farce -- if we're lucky.

Mr. Lindzen is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT.
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