Global Warming Dogma and the New Iron Triangle
The typical doomsday cult believes that an apocalyptic disaster is imminent. When the disaster fails to arrive, the cult faces a psychological disaster from which it may or may not recover by announcing a new and later date for doom to arrive. The advocates of apocalyptic global warming have a lot in common with doomsday cults1. Compared to the typical doomsday cult, the global warming cultists are better-educated and use the jargon of science to make their beliefs sound reasonable. The global warmers have the special advantage of generous government financing. Billions of dollars of government money is spent on climate research and low-carbon energy schemes. The money buys impressive political support.
An iron triangle, in political usage, describes a strong lobbying interest with three mutually supporting components. The iron triangle of interests that promotes government support for global warming consists of big science, environmental organizations, and alternative energy industries.
The advocates of global warming are beginning to have the classic doomsday cult problem. The Earth hasn't been warming for 16 years, and that's starting to get very embarrassing. The first adjustment to the dogma was to stop talking about global warming and start talking about climate change. The latest version of the party line is that we are going to have more extreme weather. The reality is that the weather is not any more variable or extreme than in the past. But with suitable fishing in the data, it is easy to make a case that this or that weather phenomenon has become more extreme.
The scientist Richard Lindzen has pointed out that the extreme weather theme is inconsistent with the global warmers' own theories. The global warmers have long claimed that the poles will warm faster than the tropics. One of their key scary claims is that vast amounts of ice at the poles will melt and raise sea level. So, according to warmer theory, the temperature difference between the poles and the equator will lessen. But it is that very temperature difference that drives weather, particularly extreme weather, when cold fronts from the poles collide with warm fronts emerging from the tropics. So the warmers' claims are fundamentally contradictory. How can weather become more extreme when the driver of extreme weather, the pole-to-equator temperature difference, is supposed to weaken?
The scientific case for disastrous human-caused global warming is very weak. But the case is cloaked in hard-to-understand scientific jargon and thus receives credibility that it doesn't deserve. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, is the Vatican of the global warming cult. Other subsidiary authorities, such as the United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), generally take the pronouncements of the IPCC as infallible truths.
The IPCC predictions of global warming are supposedly the carefully considered product of the world's best climate scientists, using strict guidelines to assure quality control. Author Donna Laframboise undertook the major project of examining how the IPCC actually operates. The result was the book The delinquent teenager who was mistaken for the world's top climate expert. The IPCC was revealed as a sloppy organization, breaking its supposed rules constantly2. Yet Laframboise's revelation has had little effect on those who are committed believers in global warming dogma or who benefit financially from global warming.
The scientific theory of global warming is that the accumulation of greenhouse gases, meaning gases that are strong absorbers of infrared radiation, will inhibit cooling of the Earth. The Earth gets rid of heat via infrared radiation. If infrared radiation is slowed by greenhouse gases, the Earth must warm a bit to in order to increase the infrared radiation enough to overcome the inhibition of the greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide, emitted from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, is the main greenhouse gas villain.
The greenhouse theory is potentially plausible, although the details are quite complicated, and other actors, especially clouds, are involved. Usually the question is framed as what will be the effect of a CO2 doubling. There are two questions: how much warming will there be, and how bad will the effect of the warming be?
It is generally agreed that CO2 by itself cannot create a lot of warming. In order to get a lot of warming, there has to be an amplification of the effect of CO2. The advocates of extreme global warming theorize that a slight increase in temperature will be amplified because more water vapor will evaporate into the atmosphere, and water vapor, being a greenhouse gas, will amplify the initial effect from CO2.
Figuring out what will really happen is difficult. For example, the amplification of warming by water vapor depends on water vapor being added to the stratosphere, kilometers above our heads. How water vapor gets there is not simple. The effect of clouds is strong and difficult to pin down. It is possible that the initial warming from CO2 will be resisted because more clouds will form and reflect sunlight.
The scientific approach to solving this problem has been to create computer models of the Earth's atmosphere. These computer models don't work very well. The twenty or so laboratories around the world that do climate models are not eager to be candid about the shortcomings of their models. If you have been receiving large government grants for ten or twenty years to create climate models, you would surely be inclined to paint a pretty picture of your work. If your computer model is still lousy after ten years, the government might terminate your grant. Once in a while, though, one hears candid statements. The important scientist Kevin Trenberth said this about the climate models: "... none of the climate states in the models correspond even remotely to the current observed climate."
The climate models are how the IPCC answers the question about how much warming doubling CO2 would bring. This number is known as climate sensitivity. Unfortunately, the climate models around the world and recognized by the IPCC can't come to an agreement about how big the number is. The range of climate sensitivity in the twenty or so models used by the IPCC to make predictions3 is from 2.1 degrees to 4.4 degrees Celsius for CO2 doubling. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that the real number is constrained within this range. All the climate models use similar methodologies and even share computer code with other models. It is perfectly plausible that they are all wrong and that the real value is much smaller. An important school of thought thinks that the value is around one half of a degree.
If the IPCC were the prudent scientific organization it pretends to be, it would surely say that nobody really knows how much global warming we are likely to get. It would point out that the computer models are seriously deficient and cannot be relied on to answer the important questions. Instead of taking this prudent, but politically unpalatable course, the IPCC pretends that the disagreeing models disagree because of random errors, and therefore, excepting these random errors, the models are getting at the true climate sensitivity. Thus, according to the IPCC, the average climate sensitivity of the collection of models is to be trusted as a good estimate of the true climate sensitivity of the Earth.
It is common in science to have data that is noisy due to the presence of random errors. In such a situation, it makes sense to average together many data points to reduce the random noise. This is a procedure that is taught in freshman physics classes, but the IPCC seems to be following the same procedure when is it not remotely appropriate. The IPCC takes the approximate average climate sensitivity from the models -- about 3 degrees -- as the most likely value. The IPCC further pursues this fiction by estimating probabilities of deviations from 3-degree climate sensitivity based on the spread of the various model results. A simple thought experiment reveals the absurdity of this approach. If we had eighty different models instead of twenty models, then according to basic statistics, the error in the estimate would be halved. So all we have to do is have the world governments establish more climate modeling labs, and we can get a better estimate of the Earth's climate sensitivity. Of course, this is ridiculous, but it is a logical inference from the IPCC methods.
The IPCC has created a highly misleading graph4. The graph makes it appear that climate models are extremely proficient at simulating the Earth's climate.
The black line follows the observed average global temperature. The yellow lines are the simulations by various models, and the red line is the average of the various model simulations. This is called a back fit to the 20th century. The agreement between the model average and the observations is remarkable, except for the period from 1910 to 1940 (more about that later).
Several scientists have pointed out that this graph does not make much sense because the different models should be showing widely divergent behavior in the late 20th century, when CO2 is rapidly increasing. That is because the models have widely divergent sensitivity to CO2. The puzzle is solved when we learn that each modeling group was allowed to use different inputs to its models. For example, aerosols, or finely divided particles floating in the atmosphere that come from various sources, are known to have a strong effect on climate, but there is not a good understanding of the magnitude of this effect during the 20th century. So each modeling group was free to use a different aerosol history to make its model fit the 20th-century temperature record better. Of course, whatever the history of aerosols was during the 20th century, there was only one history, not a different history for each climate model. It gets even worse, because a common method of creating an aerosol history is called the inverse method. The history is manufactured to make the model fit the 20th century.
Aerosols are not the only free variables. Heat uptake by the oceans will slow or accelerate warming depending on the assumptions of how it works, and this can be adjusted by tuning the model. To make a long story short, this graph is simply fake, a mathematical creation, and a demonstration of curve-fitting by computer.
The organizations that promote global warming are highly political. The American Geophysical Union, a scientific organization, aggressively promotes the global warming dogma. Workshops on communication have become a staple in recent years. These workshops attempt to teach scientists how to present the global warming gospel to legislators and media. Usually it is recommended that they simplify the message and avoid any qualifications. Of course, a vast amount of money for scientific research is dependent on continuing global warming alarmism.
Entire industries are dependent on the global warming scare stories. Without global warming alarmism, there would be little or no need for wind turbines, solar power stations, or ethanol factories. Without global warming alarmism, many environmental organizations would lose most of their reason for existing. Armies of academics find work writing about the economics and effects of the supposed great warming.
There is massive scientific opposition5 to the global warming story. But not surprisingly, the opposition is far less noticeable among mainstream climate scientists who are basically funded by global warming alarmism. Mainstream climate scientists who go against the crowd and are open skeptics find themselves having difficulty getting published and become alienated from the profession.
Roy Spencer is a mainstream climate scientist who has developed a convincing method of computing climate sensitivity from satellite data. He comes up with a climate sensitivity of around one half of a degree. Not only has he been forced to water down his papers to get published, but in a case where a paper of his was published in an obscure European journal, the editor of the journal was forced to resign (nominally his resignation was voluntary) and humbly apologize for publishing Spencer's paper. There was nothing wrong with the paper or the procedures and peer review leading to its publication. What was wrong with the paper is that it was critical of global warming dogma. Another example is that the MIT scientist Richard Lindzen was the victim of an orchestrated attack when he published a paper suggesting that climate sensitivity is much lower than indicated by the climate models.
A major contradiction in the global warming story is the early 20th-century warming from 1910 to 1940. This strong warming trend is very similar to the warming trend in the late 20th century from 1970 to 1997. The early-century warming cannot be attributed to greenhouse gases because world use of fossil fuels was small during that period. The fact is that nobody knows what caused the early-century warming. The late-century warming is always attributed exclusively to fossil fuels. The obvious question is, how do we know that the late-century warming was not caused in major part by the same forces that caused the early-century warming, whatever they may be? Some scientists think that the cause of both early- and late-century warming may be well-known, multi-decade temperature cycles of unknown cause in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
It's difficult to find an analogy with the global warming mania. There have been plenty of false or exaggerated environmental scares, but none of them made a claim on the resources of the world economy near what the global warmers are demanding. The warmers want to scrap most of the world's energy infrastructure in favor of a fantasy involving windmills and solar panels. The climate science community is kept submissive by domineering leaders in positions of power. The president's science adviser, John Holdren, is a longtime environmental extremist and promoter of global warming hysteria. Thomas Karl, another strong advocate of the dogma, holds important positions. He is head of the National Climatic Data Center and chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Climate Research Committee. The levers of bureaucratic power are firmly under the control of warmers.
There are, however, incidents of rebellion. For example, a group of 49 former NASA employees, including astronauts, recently wrote a protest letter requesting that the agency stop blatant promotion of unscientific claims revolving around climate change and global warming. The key word, of course, is "former" -- any current employees doing the same risk becoming former employees. NASA, after all, is the home of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies headed by a true fanatic, James Hansen. Hansen considers coal trains to be death trains and wants to put the heads of energy companies on trial for crimes against humanity. He has been arrested for protesting in front of the White House. This from a high civil servant heading an important laboratory for climate research.
The problem that the warmers have is that the mania is rapidly losing steam. The science has been discredited in one way or another by scientists as well as by amateur bloggers. The politician allies of the movement are now mostly afraid to utter the words "global warming" because the term has become unpopular with the public. The failure of subsidized green companies, such as the solar panel company Solyndra, has made the public ever more skeptical. In order to keep the train on the tracks, the warmers will have to resort to more traditional paths to political influence. The iron triangle of scientists, environmental organizations, and subsidized industries will have to buy politicians to keep the subsidies flowing. The global warming movement will have to transform itself from an ideological movement into a special interest seeking government patronage.
There are signs that this is already taking place. The ethanol industry has been discredited as a low-carbon energy source, and it is clearly an uneconomic waste of the Midwestern corn crop. Ethanol is propped up by government mandates, and the Obama administration recently decided to increase the percentage of ethanol that refiners are forced to put in gasoline. Probably this is an attempt to curry favor with corn farmers in electorally important Midwestern states.
Although the global warming mania is losing steam, this is a slow process that could take years. Totalitarian regimes that hold on to power through fear and reward seem impregnable until they aren't. They are subject to sudden collapse when the mass of people stop being afraid. Climate science is such a regime. But the climate science regime can't arrest people, nor can it fire people who have tenure, and the positions of the high mucky mucks won't last for long if they are subjected to withering criticism from rank-and-file scientists. We may be near a tipping point -- and I don't mean a climate tipping point.
Norman Rogers is a senior policy adviser at the Heartland Institute. He has a personal website: www.climateviews.com. The Heartland Institute is sponsoring an international climate conference in Chicago in May 2012.
1See the book Roosters of the Apocalypse: How the Junk Science of Global Warming Nearly Bankrupted the Western World by Rael Jean Isaac for more on doomsday cults and the resemblance to the global warming movement.
2The Indian Rajendra Pachauri is the head of the IPCC. Dr. Pachauri has written a novel: Return to Almora. The novel is about the adventures of an elderly climate expert resembling the author. The fictional character travels the world and has many sexual adventures. Here is a representative quote: "She removed her gown, slipped off her nightie and slid under the quilt on his bed[.] ... Sanjay put his arms around her and kissed her, first with quick caresses and then the kisses becoming longer and more passionate." Of course, I'm not claiming that his novel is autobiographical, nor do I claim that the existence of the novel discredits the IPCC. I mention it only because it may indicate that Dr. Pachauri is spending too much time writing novels rather than minding the store.
3Technically, the IPCC calls them projections rather than predictions. The difference seems to be that you are in less trouble if a projection goes wrong.
4Figure 9.5a IPCC 2007 working group 1 report
5See the report on 1000 skeptic scientists at www.climatedepot.com.