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Among the Global Warming Skeptics

Dispatch from the International Conference on Climate Change in New York

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March 8, New York—"Global warming alarmism has always been a political movement," declared Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist Richard Lindzen during his keynote address at the second International Conference on Climate Change. Organized by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based free market think tank, the conference has 700 registered participants who are attending the three day meeting in New York. Lindzen and Czech Republic and European Union President Vaclav Klaus were the featured speakers at the conference's opening dinner.

Klaus, a longtime skeptic of the claims for imminent global warming disaster, spoke of his meetings with other European leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year. He said that during a private session of European leaders, not one expressed any public doubts about the seriousness of man-made global warming. Instead the discussions centered on trying to hammer out a joint European proposal in advance of the United Nations' Climate Change conference in Copenhagen this coming December. According to Klaus, the leaders were deciding between proposing cuts in greenhouse gas emissions of 20, 30, 50, or 80 percent to be agreed upon at the Copenhagen meeting. Klaus pointed out that many politicians were discussing these more stringent targets "even though their own countries had not fulfilled their relatively modest Kyoto Protocol goals." Under the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union member states are supposed to cut their emissions by 8 percent below what they emitted in 1990.

Klaus also warned that powerful rent-seeking groups were riding the global warming alarmism bandwagon all the way to the bank. Rent-seeking occurs when individuals, firms, or organizations attempt to make money by manipulating the regulatory environment rather than by trade and production. Klaus cited firms and non-governmental groups that plan to profit from carbon rationing in the form of emissions permits trading and by deploying highly subsidized solar and wind energy projects.

Klaus confessed that he was puzzled by the environmentalist ideologues' approach to technological progress. They oppose the technological progress that free unregulated markets make possible. On the other hand, environmentalists want to mandate what they call clean technologies. "They want to operate technologies that have only one defect," said Klaus. "They have not been invented." Klaus added, "There is no known and economically feasible a way for an economy to survive on expensive unreliable clean green energy."

Klaus called into question the common notion of inter-generational equity—that the current generation should sacrifice now to benefit future generations. Should we have a preference for future generations over poor people today? Klaus ended by observing that environmentalist ideologues say that they want to "save the planet. The question is from what and for whom?"

Lindzen offered a few simple truths that "our side" often forgets. For example, skepticism about man-made global warming does not, by itself, make a good scientist. Nor does accepting global warming make one a poor scientist. Lindzen acknowledged that most of the atmospheric scientists he respects do endorse man-made global warming. He added, however, that most of their science is not actually about global warming.

Lindzen decried what he sees as the intellectual corruption that global warming alarmism has brought to climatology. He noted that many climatologists are happy to issue ambiguous statements that are then spun by activists into alarms. The result is increased funding for climate research, so no one publicly complains about the spinning. Most of the funding for climate research would not be there were it not for the global warming issue. Lindzen added, "Most science funded under the rubric of climate does not actually deal with climate, but rather with the alleged impact of arbitrarily assumed climate change."

With regard to official statements about global warming issued by various scientific societies, Lindzen argued that they are mainly the products of activists who obtain positions of influence on the boards of such organizations. Such statements are never based on polls of the membership of scientific organizations. As a remedy, Lindzen suggested, "a major campaign is needed to get thousands of scientists to resign from professional societies that have taken unrepresentative stands on the warming issue, while making the reason for the resignation unambiguous and public." This would impact their bottom lines and get their leaderships' attention.

So what to do in the face of the global warming alarm juggernaut? Lindzen advised, "The most obvious point is to persevere, to better understand the science, and to emphasize logic, which ultimately has to trump alleged authority." It will eventually become clear that while there is some warming, and that some of it is caused by man, it is not leading to catastrophe. As evidence, Lindzen cited some of his own research that shows that heat radiating into space from the atmosphere is much greater than the computer climate models were predicting. The idea behind greenhouse warming is that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels tend to trap heat from the sun. As the atmosphere warms up it holds more water vapor and produces more high thin clouds which in turn inhibit the emission of heat radiation increasing the temperature even more. It is this positive feedback loop that produces ever higher global temperatures in the computer climate models. Lindzen said that satellite data show that increases in temperature lead to increased emissions of heat radiation out of the top of the atmosphere. If confirmed, this would mean that the earth's climate is "dominated by stabilizing negative feedbacks rather than destabilizing positive feedbacks."

Lindzen also stated that the global mean temperature has not increased since 1995, even if one includes the anomalous big El Nino year of 1998. He added that this lack of warming is not a dispositive argument against anthropogenic global warming. Nevertheless, the lack of a recent discernible warming trend will have an impact on the public as debates about policies to cut emissions and increase energy prices to mitigate warming go forward.

At the end of the session, Joe Bast, the president and founder of the Heartland Institute, made the prediction that if Congress does not act on cap-and-trade legislation in the next two months, the issue will be dead for the rest of the Obama administration.

Tomorrow: Sessions will deal with issues such as the validity of climate computer models, global warming and hurricanes, the prospects of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, the accuracy of the historical climate network's temperatures, and what climate change policies the European Union is likely to adopt.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.