Dangerous Warming Unlikely, MIT Climatologist Says

Published November 1, 2004

Editor’s note: Global warming is unlikely to be a dangerous future problem, with or without the implementation of such programs as the Kyoto Protocol, according to Dr. Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lindzen, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and one of the world’s leading climatologists, told a September 9 audience at the Houston Forum that alarmist media claims to the contrary are fueled more by politics than by science.

The following excerpts from his presentation are presented with Dr. Lindzen’s permission.

My personal experience over the last 16 years leads me to the conclusion that when it comes to politicized science, real communication is almost impossible. First, it leads to a meaningless polarization associated with meaningless questions, such as “Do you believe in global warming? Are you a believer or a skeptic?”

Given the many facets of the issue, if you are a believer, what exactly is it that you believe? Depending on whether you are a believer or not, you are likely to hear only what you expect to hear.

Recent Temp Changes Small

The global mean temperature is never constant, and it has no choice but to increase or decrease–both of which it does on all known time scales. That this quantity has increased about 0.6ºC (or about 1ºF) over the past century is likely. A relevant question is whether this is anything to be concerned about.

It doesn’t even matter whether recent global mean temperatures are “record breakers” or even whether current temperatures are “unprecedented.” All that matters is that the change over the past century has been small.

The fact that such claims are misleading or even false simply provides a temptation to discuss them and implicitly to attach importance to them. Remember, we are talking about tenths of a degree, and all of you know intuitively that that isn’t very much.

It does pay to speak about the levels of atmospheric CO2. They are increasing. To be sure, over long periods, climate can cause CO2 changes, but the increases observed over the past century are likely due to man’s activities. When and if the levels double, they will increase the radiative forcing of the planet by about 4 Wm-2, or about 2 percent. This will prove relevant.

Unscientific Consensus

The scientific question of relevance is what do we expect such an increase to do? The answer, most assuredly, is not to be arrived at by a poll of scientists–especially of scientists who do not work on this question. The issue of consensus is, in this respect, extremely malign, especially when the consensus is merely claimed though not established. However, the whole idea of consensus is problematic.

With respect to science, the assumption behind consensus is that science is a source of authority and that authority increases with the number of scientists. Of course, science is not primarily a source of authority. Rather, it is a particularly effective approach to inquiry and analysis. Skepticism is essential to science; consensus is foreign. When in 1988 Newsweek announced that all scientists agreed about global warming, this should have been a red flag of warning. Among other things, global warming is such a multifaceted issue that agreement on all or many aspects would be unreasonable.

With respect to science, consensus is often simply a sop to scientific illiteracy. After all, if what you are told is alleged to be supported by all scientists, then why do you have to bother to understand it? You can simply go back to treating it as a matter of religious belief, and you never have to defend this belief except to claim that you are supported by all scientists except for a handful of corrupted heretics.

Doubling of CO2 Little Cause for Concern

Let us begin by considering the fundamental question of whether the observed increases in CO2 are likely to be a source of alarm. We will see how the matter of consensus has been employed to mislead and misinform the public. It matters little that the claimed consensus is not based on any known polling of scientists.

Our concerns over global warming are based on models rather than data, and if these models are correct, then man has accounted for over 4 times the observed warming over the past century (even allowing for ocean delay) with some unknown process or processes having cancelled the difference. We assume, moreover, that these unknown processes will cease, in making predictions about future warming.

This statement illustrates that the observations do not support the likelihood of dangerous warming, but our ignorance may be sufficient to allow the possibility. In point of fact, our ignorance is probably not that great.

Computer Models Altered

How do we reconcile this with the claim that present models do a good job of simulating the past century? It’s simple: The “accurate” model reconstructions require “forcings” of data and speculative guesses about such factors as the influence of anthropogenic aerosol emissions. In an inverse manner, trial-and-error assumptions and data are forced into the computer until the inaccurate model projections are reconciled with the observed climate. However, such inverse forcings are highly unscientific and unlikely to reach similar results regarding anything other than the particular range of data and temperature history the computer is attempting to reconstruct.

This would have been an embarrassment even to the Ptolemaic epicyclists, yet an almost identical analysis has just been presented to our government through such unscientific reconstructionist model forcings.

Science Contradicts Media “Consensus”

Consensus (as represented by all contemporary textbooks on atmospheric dynamics) exists, but does not support alarm. Consensus is therefore claimed for exactly the opposite of what science agrees on. Here is the correct statement: In a warmer world, extratropical storminess will be reduced, as will variance in temperature.

Given the speciousness of the bases for alarm regarding claims of increased storminess, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is real consensus on the following item, though the consensus is barely mentioned: Kyoto, itself, will have no discernable impact on global warming regardless of what one believes about climate change.

Claims to the contrary generally assume that Kyoto is only the beginning of an ever-more restrictive regime. However, this is hardly ever explained to the public.

So, where does all this leave us?

(1) The data currently represented as “consensus,” even if correct, do not imply alarm. However, where the consensus view is too benign, the opposite of the real consensus is claimed to be the consensus. In much current research, “alarm” is the aim rather than the result.

(2) The scientific community is committed to the maintenance of the notion that alarm may be warranted. Alarm is felt to be essential to the maintenance of funding. The argument is no longer over whether the models are correct (they are not), but rather whether their results are at all possible. One can rarely prove something to be impossible.

(3) No regulatory solution to the “problem” of preventing increases in CO2 is available, but the ubiquity of CO2 emissions–which are associated with industry and life itself–remains a tempting target for those with a regulatory instinct who have always been attracted to the energy sector.

(4) Resistance to such temptations will require more courage and understanding than are currently found in major industrial or governmental players who largely accept what is presented as the consensus view. The main victims of any proactive policies are likely to be consumers, and they have little concentrated influence. As usual, they have long been co-opted by organizations like Consumers Union that now actively support Kyoto.