Lukewarmers, Denialists, and Other Climate Change Skeptics

Impressions and reporting from the Sixth International Climate Change Conference


Climate change politics is very nasty. So nasty, in fact, that the mud started flying even before the start of last week's Sixth International Climate Change Conference (ICCC6) in Washington, D.C. Hosted by the free market Heartland Institute, the conference gathers the world's climate change skeptics and their heterodox friends—and controversy reliably ensues.

The Prebuttal

The day before the conference started, the left-wing Center for American Progress (CAP) arranged to have a media teleconference [MP3] as a kind of pre-emptive strike. The CAP teleconferencers included Joseph Romm who runs CAP's climate blog, Pacific Institute hydroclimatologist Peter Gleick, and former House Science Committee chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). Romm characterized the ICCC6 as part of "a dwindling number of increasingly vocal people who spread disinformation on climate science and who attack and harass climate scientists."

Romm then cited a June 28 statement of concern issued by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) which deplored the "harassment, death threats, and legal challenges" being faced by some climate scientists. The AAAS specifically mentioned recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) inquiries about the work done by climatologist Michael Mann, the principle scientist behind the "hockey stick" paleoclimate data suggesting a dramatic recent rise in average global temperatures. The AAAS letter concludes, "We are concerned that establishing a practice of aggressive inquiry into the professional histories of scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions." I agree.

At the ICCC6, I mentioned the AAAS letter to climatologist Patrick Michaels, who is now a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. Michaels puckishly replied that he was happy to hear that Romm and the AAAS were now defending him against legal harassment and death threats. For the record, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has asked the House Science Committee to look into Michaels' funding sources and Greenpeace is rumored to be renewing its FOIA request to the University of Virginia where he once worked for his emails and other documents.

Most of the questioning by reporters during the teleconference focused on whether or not the Republicans in Congress could be persuaded to adopt policies aimed at mitigating the impacts of man-made global warming. Boehlert remained relentlessly optimistic, but Gleick concluded, "I am actually not optimistic that the American public or American policymakers are really going to tackle this issue." Why? Because the policy issues are too difficult. Boehlert, deploring the way that issues were discussed nowadays, lamented, "The way to get attention in the media today is to make the most outrageous statement." Earlier in his opening remarks, Romm asserted, "For decades now climate scientists have been predicting that if we kept pouring billion of tons of heat trapping gases into the atmosphere that the planet would warm up, that ice would melt and we would see more and more extreme weather, heat waves and intense deluges in particular. And now it's coming true. And I think we have moved from the era from predictions to observations of climate change."

Climate Sensitivity

Prebuttally prepared, off I went to the ICCC6. The conference was supposed to open with a keynoter by fierce climate skeptic Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). Apparently feeling "under the weather," Inhofe sent a note highlighting some achievements such as derailing the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade scheme, but noting that "our work is far from over." So instead, the conference opened with a talk by Patrick Michaels that centered on Climate Coup: Global Warming's Invasion of our Government and Our Lives, a volume he edited dealing with policy and scientific topics related to climate change.

Michaels mentioned a study published in the February 17 issue of Nature arguing that man-made global warming is contributing to more intense deluges. Michaels said that he had looked at the heaviest day for the year precipitation trends in the U.S. starting in 1900 and he found that it had indeed gone up, from 2.53 inches to 2.6 inches. He observed that it was likely that Americans can adapt to this much extra rainfall. Michaels also mentioned that the Rasmussen daily presidential approval index fell into and has since stayed in negative territory almost immediately after the House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. Coincidence?

Unlike many participants at the ICCC6, Michaels describes himself as a "lukewarmer." "There is a human influence on the climate, but it's not the end of the world," he said. How much warmer does Michaels expect the world to get? About 1.6°C over the next century based on trends in the global temperature records. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that "the linear trend for the past 50 years of 0.13°C (plus or minus 0.03°C) per decade." The satellite temperature record compiled by researchers at the University of Alabama in Huntsville finds the tropospheric temperature trend to be 0.14°C per decade. Michaels notes that these trends are at the low end of the climate computer projections, suggesting that the models are overestimating climate sensitivity. Climate sensitivity is defined as how much the average global surface temperature will increase if there is a doubling of greenhouse gases (expressed as carbon dioxide equivalents) in the air. The vexed question of climate sensitivity will come up many times during the conference.

The first panel of the conference featured Anthony Watts, proprietor of the popular climate change skeptic blog Watts Up with That?, retired University of Winnipeg geographer Timothy Ball, and Patrick Michaels. Watts is the guy behind the project showing that a surprisingly high number of U.S. weather stations are badly situated. Tim Ball is a self-described long time skeptic of global warming orthodoxy.

Michaels reprised a bit of his earlier talk, but addressed concerns about recent warming in the Arctic. Proponents of catastrophic warming worry that the world could soon see ice free summers in the Arctic Ocean which would lead to rapid melting of Greenland's ice cap producing a disastrously high rate of sea level rise. Michaels cited some recent paleoclimatology by European arctic region researchers that strongly suggests [PDF] that the Arctic Ocean experienced ice free summers, perhaps for hundreds of years, some 12,000 years ago and Greenland's ice cap did not melt then. In addition, Norwegian researchers reported in 2010 that the Arctic Ocean had much less ice cover 6,000 years ago than it currently does. More recent research by German climatologists suggests that the Arctic Ocean will not experience an ice free "tipping point" during this century.

Michaels again noted that the current temperature trends are lower than climate computer models predict. Why? Michaels asserted that this disjunct between models and the current trend occurs because ocean surface temperatures are massively misspecified in the models and because CO2 and methane in the atmosphere are going up slower rates than projected.

Geeks vs. Gougers

The second session of the ICCC6 was devoted to the "economic realities" of climate change. Suffolk University economist David Tuerck has looked at all the various programs adopted by states to mandate the production and consumption of "green energy." For example, 38 states already mandate renewable portfolio standards (RPS) which require utilities to purchase specified percentages of electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar. Tuerck calculates that the RPS mandates in Colorado, Minnesota, and Montana will raise electricity rates in those states by 37 percent, 24 percent, and 18 percent, respectively. Tuerck says that the contest over green energy is between geeks (his side) and gougers (green energy companies). The geeks insist that governments should adopt only those policies that pass a cost benefit analysis. His example of a gouger is the Cape Wind Project's offshore wind farm in Massachusetts. His analysis finds that Cape Wind's costs will exceed its benefits by more than $1 billion. "It is easy to show that state level green energy initiatives are a waste of money," declared Tuerck. He added if one truly wanted to mitigate climate change, a national carbon tax is the only thing that makes sense.

Up next was Yale University economist Robert Mendelsohn who began by quipping, "If you don't like the climate science in the IPCC, you really won't like its economics." He added, "They've never met an economist that they like." Mendelsohn has long been skeptical [PDF] of the more alarming projections of future damage caused by climate change. So how much damage does he think that the climate change will cause? In a recent study for the World Bank on the annual costs of increased extreme weather events, Mendelsohn concludes that by 2100 "climate change may increase the overall damage from extreme events by $84 billion or 0.015 percent of world GDP." His bottom line is that future climate impacts justify efforts to keep the future average global temperature below 3.5°C. "Evidence to support aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets does not yet exist," said Mendelsohn.

The Science Is Settled?

Over lunch, the conferees heard a debate between University of Colorado climatologist Scott Denning and University of Alabama in Huntsville climatologist Roy Spencer. The key disagreement between the two is over climate sensitivity. Denning argues that man-made global warming is a big problem that needs to be addressed. The case for warming is actually quite simple to understand, asserted Denning (see slides similar to those he used at the conference here [PDF]). Climate change is all about heat budgets—if you increase the amount of heat then things will get warmer. In the case of man-made global warming, Denning explained, "Doubling CO2 would add 4 watts to every square meter of the surface of the Earth, 24/7."

This occurs because carbon dioxide blocks heat as tries to leave the atmosphere and re-emits it. To give the conferees some idea of the magnitude of this increase, Denning asserted that the difference between the Ice Ages and now is +7.5 watts per meter squared and that the Medieval Warm period occurred when the surface experienced an additional +1 watt per meter squared. Unless this additional heat is cancelled out by some other process—perhaps the sun dims, it is blocked by interplanetary dust, or there's more fog everywhere—the earth's atmosphere will necessarily warm. By how much? According to the IPCC, "it is likely that temperatures would increase between 3.6 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit (2.0 to 4.5 degrees Celsius) by the end of the century, with a best estimate of about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3.0 degrees Celsius)."

Spencer said while he agreed with most of what Denning said, he disagreed chiefly with the amount of warming that doubling carbon dioxide would cause. Spencer argues that warming proponents have overestimated climate sensitivity. His research suggests that the climate computer models have gotten the feedback effect [PDF] of clouds on climate change backwards. Instead of contributing to warming, clouds actually significantly counter warming. Spencer's claim is being disputed by other researchers. Thus, according to Spencer, the IPCC's calculation of climate sensitivity is way too high. Given the observed rate of recent warming, he thinks that climate sensitivity is actually around 1.3°C for a doubling carbon dioxide. "The public and policymakers are being misled about the severity of and the confidence in the human influence on the climate system," asserted Spencer.

Denning fully acknowledges that poor people around the world need to get access to modern energy supplies, but he worries what will happen if China and India end up burning their coal to achieve this. If this happens, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double by 2050 and eventually quadruple. Instead, Denning would like to see massive investments in research and development on new low-carbon energy technologies. Denning says that he is suspicious of government efforts to address climate change, but does not say from where the investments in the new energy technologies will come.

Spencer argues that while climatologists can figure out temperature changes through history, they don't have any solid idea about what caused those changes. Later in the conference, I asked Denning what increased produced the additional +1 watt per meter squared during the Medieval Warm period. He speculated that perhaps changes in the amount of energy from the sun did it. Perhaps. Researchers believe that changes [PDF] in the Earth's orientation toward the sun cause fluctuations in the amount of sunlight reaching the surface of the Northern Hemisphere produce Ice Ages, but even that mechanism is disputed. Spencer asserts that if climatologists don't really know what caused earlier changes in climate, they can't accurately estimate climate sensitivity.

The first day of the conference ended with a panel discussion devoted to public policy and climate change. The panelists were Alan Carlin, the EPA economist whose comments questioning the agency's finding that greenhouse gas emissions endangered human health were allegedly suppressed by his bosses, Christopher Horner, author of the new book, Power Grab: How Obama's Green Policies Will Steal Your Freedom and Bankrupt America, and Marc Morano, proprietor of the climate skeptic blog, ClimateDepot.

Carlin asserted, "The future of human freedom, economic progress, and science itself depends on the outcome [of the fight over climate change.]" Clearly angry over how he was treated by his bosses at the EPA, Carlin bitterly asked, "Why not just farm out everything to the environmental activist groups? It would save a lot of time and money." Horner concentrated on what he called, "The green jobs charade." He noted that President Obama no longer cites Spain and Germany as renewable energy models for us to emulate. It turns out that subsidizing renewable energy kills far more jobs than it creates. Marc Morano declared that "climate legislation is dead for the foreseeable future," but warned that it is possible to "snatch defeat from the jaws victory, since some Republican presidential candidates e.g., Mitt Romney, were believers in man-made global warming.

If Not Carbon Dioxide, What?

The last panel of the conference focused chiefly on the possible influence of solar activity on climate. The panelists were Nicola Scafetta, an assistant adjunct professor at Duke University who works on measuring solar irradiance, Scott Denning, and Willie Soon, a physicist who described himself as an independent scientist and is also associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Scafetta claims to have identified a 60 year cycle in changes in global temperatures which is synchronized [PDF] with the orbital periods of Jupiter and Saturn. On this basis, he claims that more than half of the warming since 1975 can be attributed to this process and predicts that the Earth's climate will stabilize or cool down until 2030-2040. He thinks that climate sensitivity has been overestimated by a factor of three.

Soon claims that his research into how variations in solar radiation affects climate has turned up some interesting correlations between recent variations in phenomena such as Arctic temperatures [PDF] and rainfall during Indian monsoons. Solar output varies by as much as 1.7 watts per meter squared according to Soon. Most of the recent warming is the result of shifts like those he has identified.

Denning reprised the arguments for man-made global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. He noted that the atmosphere contains around 800 billion tons of carbon dioxide and that humans are emitting 8 billion tons per year. Of that amount, two tons are being absorbed by the oceans and two tons are being absorbed by plants, leaving four tons per year in the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide emitted now will stay in the atmosphere for centuries as the oceans slowly absorb it. It takes about 1,000 years for the water in the oceans to turn over once. He ended by urging the conferees to get involved with making climate policy warning, "If free market advocates shrink from their responsibilities, others will dictate policy." Denning is right about that.

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