Mastering the Problem of Environmental Quality: an interview with Dr. S. Fred Singer

Published February 1, 2001

Dr. S. Fred Singer, president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, has achieved great renown for pioneering research in atmospheric and space physics.

Singer was among the very first to study the cosmic radiation outside of the Earth’s atmosphere using rocket-borne instruments. He developed the method used to date the origin of meteorites, and demonstrated how the Moon might have been captured to become a companion of the Earth. He pioneered instrumented satellites before Sputnik and devised instruments for measuring ozone and other atmospheric constituents from space.

More recently, Singer’s research group measured interplanetary dust and detected clouds of orbiting debris particles near the Earth. He predicted the existence of radiation belts before they were found by satellites, and was the first to publish research on the human production of methane, an important greenhouse gas.

Singer’s career has included academic positions and several government posts. He served as Chief Scientist in the Department of Transportation and was the first director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service. He has served as a consultant to the Secretary of Energy, the White House Science Adviser, and other government officers, and was for several years vice chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere.

Since retiring from government and the University of Virginia, Singer founded a think tank, the Science & Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), in Fairfax, Virginia. He recently shared his thoughts on important environment issues of the day with E&CN contributing editor Bonner Cohen and managing editor Jay Lehr.

An environmental pressure group, Ozone Action (being re-named U.S. Greenpeace) has published a slick brochure about you, alleging that although you are knowledgeable and a scientific expert, one should not accept your statements on global warming, ozone depletion, and many other environmental topics. The brochure is called “A Fred of All Trades: A Case Study of Dr. S. Fred Singer.” How do feel about being singled out for such treatment?

Singer: I have rather mixed reactions. On the one hand, I’m flattered to receive all this unexpected attention, and to have so many of my publications and statements over the past 25 years researched and reproduced in an attractive pamphlet.

Being attacked by Ozone Action (one of the sponsors of the Ruckus Society) is rather like receiving a commendation or a medal.

On the other hand, I am somewhat annoyed to have so many distortions printed about my background, including some obvious non-truths.

In spite of these efforts to disarm you, are you making an impact? Singer: Our impact is increasing steadily. Last year I gave some 40 talks, and my colleagues were also quite busy. Some of these were scientific debates, attended by several hundred scientists. These debates and publications in scientific journals are making an impact on our colleagues.

Our email list is now over 1,000 and growing, and we’re getting excellent responses from our subscribers. We are also getting increasing numbers of hits on our Web site. So we are reaching an ever-increasing audience. We are convincing the public that the science behind many environmental decisions is simply not adequate, and that regulators and politicians are systematically ignoring or distorting scientific facts.

Are you still active in scientific research? Singer: Yes indeed. Of course, I’m no longer the leader of a laboratory, but my technical publications still number about four per year and deal with theory or analysis of science. There are plenty of people out there making measurements. We are more concerned about the meaning and significance of these data.

Ozone Action tries to paint you as opposed to environmentalism. Is that true?

Singer: Not at all. My record on the environment is quite clear; I wish Ozone Action had done its homework.

I became involved in water pollution control over 30 years ago, and also made contributions to oil spill protection. I had the lead role in the protection of estuaries while serving in the Department of the Interior.

Since the energy crisis of 1974, I have argued consistently and published (e.g., in the Washington Post) in favor of raising taxes on gasoline in order to pay fully the costs associated with road transportation.

In my book Free Market Energy (1982), I have a chapter where I discuss in detail methods of conserving energy that make economic sense.

I organized the first conference (1968) on global effects of environmental pollution for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the first conference (1969) on optimum levels of population. I have co-authored and edited books on both subjects.

Finally, my publication in Nature in 1971 is the first one to point to and calculate the growth in human production of methane, an important greenhouse gas. I also pointed out that these same human activities (cattle raising and rice growing) would lead to a depletion of stratospheric ozone. I believe it was the first publication that showed how human activities on the surface were depleting ozone in the stratosphere.

Could you give us your current view on global warming? Is it a problem?

Singer: Not at all. Of course, we all believe in the reality of the greenhouse effect. The question is really: Is the impact of human emissions on the greenhouse effect significant? The current data seem to show it is not significant in relation to natural variations in the climate. We do not see a signal that can be associated with or attributed to human activities. The climate models used for predicting future temperatures have not been validated against observations, and therefore should not be relied on.

The consequences of moderate warming are generally beneficial: less severe storms, more rain, better growth of agricultural crops. Economists now believe that global warming is good for the economy and the people.

You were present at the most recent U.N. global warming conference, called the Conference of Parties 6 (COP 6) at the Hague last November. Could you summarize for us what went on there?

Singer: COP 6 at The Hague was a political exercise, with the science no longer considered “policy-relevant.” The governmental delegations therefore ignored the fact that the actual climate observations contradict the models on which all forecasts are based. Someday soon, we hope, it will become evident that “the emperor has no clothes.”

At The Hague, U.S. proposals for emissions trading tried to make the Kyoto Protocol painless, hence even less effective, while European countries are using this as an excuse to beat up on the U.S. In the meantime, the rest of the world is standing by waiting for the handouts promised by Kyoto.

Were you able to be heard at COP 6?

Singer: From a personal point of view, things went extremely well. We got our message across to the media and received glowing write-ups in European newspapers.

We were telling the European public that global warming is a phantom problem. Politicians, all set to impose energy taxes, find this message very upsetting.

Particularly satisfying to me, our panel of three addressed some 60 youngsters that had been brought to The Hague by Greenpeace/Ozone Action. They listened politely, asked good questions, and kept us in the corridors for another hour. Again, the message got across.

What will be the impact of the failure of the participants at The Hague to reach an accord?

Singer: COP-6 is not the end of the Kyoto Protocol. Too many people are now making a nice living out of the warming scare. COP-6 ½ is planned for Bonn in May, and COP-7 for Morocco in November. Our hope is that the Bush administration will take a close look at the situation, examine the scientific basis, and conclude that this is not a real problem.

Ozone Action faults your statement that sea-level rise is unrelated to global warming. Do you still hold this view?

Singer: Even more so, in light of data about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet published in the October 8, 1999 issue of the journal Science. They confirm my hypothesis that the steady sea-level rise since the end of the last Ice Age 18,000 years ago is still ongoing and unconnected to climate fluctuations. And there is nothing we can do to stop it. But, as my analysis of the data suggests, the rise does slow down somewhat when climate warms and speeds up when climate cools.

What is your current view on ozone depletion? Is it a serious problem?

Singer: It is not serious at all. The Antarctic ozone hole is genuine and will continue as a temporary thinning of the layer every October. It has stabilized and may diminish in the future. Ozone depletion at our latitudes has been less than 5 percent and has stopped altogether since 1992. The depletion is small in relation to the natural fluctuations, which can reach some 100 percent from day to day. No steady increase of average solar ultraviolet radiation has been measured on the ground so far.

But even if it did increase, a 10 percent increase would correspond in exposure to moving about 100 miles towards the equator. UV exposures in Florida are some 200 to 300 percent greater than in New York. The most serious form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, is produced by solar radiation that is not even affected by changes in ozone. This is an important new finding, confirmed by laboratory studies.

As for concerns about frogs and other amphibians, it has now been established that the missing legs etc. that were blamed on UV are in fact due to parasites.

Turning to other topics, do you still consider spent nuclear fuel to be a resource, rather than a danger?

Singer: Absolutely. I predict that some decades from now we will be recycling spent fuel and extracting valuable materials. To lock it up forever in expensive underground storage is a complete waste and goes against the principle of resource conservation.

What is your current view on nuclear war and nuclear winter?

Singer: I always considered “nuclear winter” to be a hoax and scientifically incorrect—and have said so in my Nightline debate with Carl Sagan. The data from the Kuwait oil fires support this view.

Actually, nuclear explosions would create a strong greenhouse effect and cause warming rather than cooling. Let’s hope we never have to find out.

Do you believe nuclear energy will make a comeback in this country?

Singer: A remarkable milestone has been reached this year in the nuclear power sector of the U.S. electric utility industry. The operating licenses of about 10 percent of current U.S. nuclear reactors are scheduled to expire by the end of 2010, an eventuality once seen as the beginning of the end for the nuclear option in the United States.

But well-maintained nuclear power plants have demonstrated their capability for safe, reliable operation well beyond their initial 40-year license term–a period based on amortization accounting rather than inherent operation limitations.

This year, more than two decades of preparatory engineering and planning by nuclear utilities have paid off in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval of 20-year license renewals for two nuclear plants, effectively extending nuclear’s franchise for power production well into this century.

About one-third of the country’s 103 nuclear reactors plan to apply for renewal by 2003, and most currently operating plants are expected to renew their licenses. With capital costs for the plants largely paid for, the revitalized nuclear fleet will be among the most competitive power generators available.

The average capacity factor of nuclear plants has increased to 85 percent thanks to reduced outages and refueling shutdowns. The best-run plants produce at a cost of less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour, giving coal-fired plants a run for their money. If plants are fully amortized, just think what this will do to the cost of power.

Dr. Singer, we have touched on many subjects. What about the future? And what do you consider the most important project for the future?

Singer: I believe we have learned how to master the problem of environmental quality. Both air and water pollution have been virtually eliminated in developed nations.

The main problem now is poverty in the rest of the world; once that is solved, environmental problems will be taken care of.

I see no real resource problem for the future as long as we have abundant energy. And there are several possibilities for sustainable energy, nuclear and solar, even after fossil fuels are depleted. Population growth is slowing throughout the world and will likely stop growing altogether in this century.

Our program for the twenty-first century should focus on eliminating world poverty and avoiding wars. We can address natural hazards, such as the inevitable return of the next Ice Age and the less-probable but highly destructive impact of a large comet or asteroid.

This may be the time also to plan a new human adventure: the manned exploration of the planet Mars and its moons. I want to devote my efforts now to devising a project plan that can be accomplished within 10 to 20 years, at reasonable cost, to give us tremendous returns of exciting and important science.

What would be the scientific returns of such a manned mission to Mars?

Singer: By studying its planetary history, we will learn why Mars developed so differently than the Earth. For this, we need to analyze rock samples from its surface and from its interior. Did it have oceans like the Earth, and why did they disappear? Why is the Martian atmosphere so different from ours?

And then we want to study its meteorology and its historic climate changes, and test our theories on another planetary atmosphere. In this way we might learn what drives climate changes on our own planet.

Finally, there is the intriguing question of life on Mars. Did it ever develop, what forms did it take, and might it still exist somewhere? These are problems of the greatest importance not only to biology, but also to philosophy and theology. If life is not unique to the Earth, then it might have developed on many of the billions of planets out there in the universe. That’s an exciting prospect for the next century, when worries about global warming and other environmental “disasters” will be long forgotten.

What is your organization, SEPP?

Singer: The Science & Environmental Policy Project began in 1990 as a research effort by myself and a group of graduate students. We had two goals: to gather material for a book on global environmental issues, and to conduct a survey of scientists affiliated with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to determine the extent of what was, even then, being touted as scientific “consensus” on global warming.

What the graduate students discovered with the survey convinced me to set aside my book and instead circulate among senior members of the American Meteorological Society a “Statement by Atmospheric Scientists” on greenhouse warming, which was quickly endorsed by 46 leading climatologists and atmospheric physicists, and now over 100. The statement, issued on February 27, 1992, drew widespread media attention and was cited more that 150 times in the press. It was the first inkling journalists had that there was no scientific consensus on the reality of a global warming. Indeed, there has been a raging debate.

How can our readers help?

Singer: Download SEPP reports, press releases, and articles and pass them on to newspaper editors, journalists, educators, civic leaders, and others. Help stop fear-mongering and the distortion of science.

For more information

Visit the SEPP Web site at, or contact Dr. S. Fred Singer at [email protected]. The group’s address is 1600 South Eads Street #712-S, Arlington, VA 22202-2907, phone 703/920-2744.