As evidence mounts that humans are causing dangerous changes in Earth's climate, a handful of skeptics are providing some serious blowback
By Joel Achenbach The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, May 28, 2006
It should be glorious to be Bill Gray, professor emeritus. He is often called the World's Most Famous Hurricane Expert. He's the guy who, every year, predicts the number of hurricanes that will form during the coming tropical storm season. He works on a country road leading into the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, in the atmospheric science department of Colorado State University. He's mentored dozens of scientists. By rights, Bill Gray should be in deep clover, enjoying retirement, pausing only to collect the occasional lifetime achievement award.
He's a towering figure in his profession and in person. He's 6 feet 5 inches tall, handsome, with blue eyes and white hair combed straight back. He's still lanky, like the baseball player he used to be back at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington in the 1940s. When he wears a suit, a dark shirt and tinted sunglasses, you can imagine him as a casino owner or a Hollywood mogul. In a room jammed with scientists, you'd probably notice him first.
He's loud. His laugh is gale force. His personality threatens to spill into the hallway and onto the chaparral. He can be very charming.
But he's also angry. He's outraged.
He recently had a public shouting match with one of his former students. It went on for 45 minutes.
He was supposed to debate another scientist at a weather conference, but the organizer found him to be too obstreperous, and disinvited him.
Much of his government funding has dried up. He has had to put his own money, more than $100,000, into keeping his research going. He feels intellectually abandoned. If none of his colleagues comes to his funeral, he says, that'll be evidence that he had the courage to say what they were afraid to admit.
Which is this: Global warming is a hoax.
"I am of the opinion that this is one of the greatest hoaxes ever perpetrated on the American people," he says when I visit him in his office on a sunny spring afternoon.
He has testified about this to the United States Senate. He has written magazine articles, given speeches, done everything he could to get the message out. His scientific position relies heavily on what is known as the Argument From Authority. He's the authority.
"I've been in meteorology over 50 years. I've worked damn hard, and I've been around. My feeling is some of us older guys who've been around have not been asked about this. It's sort of a baby boomer, yuppie thing."
Gray believes in the obs. The observations. Direct measurements. Numerical models can't be trusted. Equation pushers with fancy computers aren't the equals of scientists who fly into hurricanes.
"Few people know what I know. I've been in the tropics, I've flown in airplanes into storms. I've done studies of convection, cloud clusters and how the moist process works. I don't think anybody in the world understands how the atmosphere functions better than me."
In just three, five, maybe eight years, he says, the world will begin to cool again.
We sit in his office for 2 1/2 hours, until the sun drops behind the mountains, and when we're done he offers to keep talking until midnight. He is almost desperate to be heard. His time is short. He is 76 years old. He is howling in a maelstrom.
Human beings are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet in the process.
Since the dawn of the industrial era, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen steadily from about 280 to about 380 parts per million. In the past century, the average surface temperature of Earth has warmed about 1 degree Fahrenheit. Much of that warming has been in the past three decades. Regional effects can be more dramatic: The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate. Arctic sea ice is 40 percent thinner than it was in the 1970s. Glaciers in Greenland are speeding up as they slide toward the sea. A recent report shows Antarctica losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice a year.
The permafrost is melting across broad swaths of Alaska, Canada and Siberia. Tree-devouring beetles, common in the American Southwest, are suddenly ravaging the evergreen forests of British Columbia. Coral reefs are bleaching, scalded by overheated tropical waters. There appear to have been more strong hurricanes and cyclones in recent decades, Category 3 and higher -- such as Katrina.
The 1990s were the warmest decade on record. The year 1998 set the all-time mark. This decade is on its way to setting a new standard, with a succession of scorchers. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global effort involving hundreds of climate scientists and the governments of 100 nations, projected in 2001 that, depending on the rate of greenhouse gas emissions and general climate sensitivities, the global average temperature would rise 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit between 1990 and 2100. Sea levels could rise just a few inches, or nearly three feet.
All of the above is part of the emerging, solidifying scientific consensus on global warming -- a consensus that raises the urgent political and economic issue of climate change. This isn't a theory anymore. This is happening now. Business as usual, many scientists say, could lead to a wildly destabilized climate for the first time since the dawn of human civilization.
But when you step into the realm of the skeptics, you find yourself on a parallel Earth.
It is a planet where global warming isn't happening -- or, if it is happening, isn't happening because of human beings. Or, if it is happening because of human beings, isn't going to be a big problem. And, even if it is a big problem, we can't realistically do anything about it other than adapt.
Certainly there's no consensus on global warming, they say. There is only abundant uncertainty. The IPCC process is a sham, a mechanism for turning vague scientific statements into headline-grabbing alarmism. Drastic actions such as mandated cuts in carbon emissions would be imprudent. Alternative sources of energy are fine, they say, but let's not be naive. We are an energy-intensive civilization. To obtain the kind of energy we need, we must burn fossil fuels. We must emit carbon. That's the real world.
Since the late 1980s, when oil, gas, coal, auto and chemical companies formed the Global Climate Coalition, industries have poured millions of dollars into a campaign to discredit the emerging global warming consensus. The coalition disbanded a few years ago (some members recast themselves as "green"), but the skeptic community remains rambunctious. Many skeptics work in think tanks, such as the George C. Marshall Institute or the National Center for Policy Analysis. They have the ear of powerful leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill. The skeptics helped scuttle any possibility that the United States would ratify the Kyoto treaty that would have committed the nation to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions (conservatives object to the treaty for, among other things, not requiring reductions by developing nations such as China and India).
In the world of the skeptics you'll come across Richard Lindzen, an MIT climate scientist who has steadfastly maintained for years that clouds and water vapor will counteract the greenhouse emissions of human beings. You'll find S. Fred Singer, author of Hot Talk, Cold Science, who points to the positive side of the melting Arctic: "We spent 500 years looking for a Northwest Passage, and now we've got one." You'll quickly run across Pat Michaels, the University of Virginia climatologist and author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians and the Media . You might dip into TCSDaily.com, the online clearinghouse for anti-global-warming punditry. You'll meet the Cooler Heads Coalition and the Greening Earth Society.
The skeptics point to the global temperature graph for the past century. Notice how, after rising steadily in the early 20th century, in 1940 the temperature suddenly levels off. No -- it goes down! For the next 35 years! If the planet is getting steadily warmer due to Industrial Age greenhouse gases, why did it get cooler when industries began belching out carbon dioxide at full tilt at the start of World War II?
Now look at the ice in Antarctica: Getting thicker in places!
Sea level rise? It's actually dropping around certain islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.
There are all these . . . anomalies.
The skeptics scoff at climate models. They're just computer programs. They have to interpret innumerable feedback loops, all the convective forces, the evaporation, the winds, the ocean currents, the changing albedo (reflectivity) of Earth's surface, on and on and on.
Bill Gray has a favorite diagram, taken from a 1985 climate model, showing little nodules in the center with such labels as "thermal inertia" and "net energy balance" and "latent heat flux" and "subsurface heat storage" and "absorbed heat radiation" and so on, and they are emitting arrows that curve and loop in all directions, bumping into yet more jargon, like "soil moisture" and "surface roughness" and "vertical wind" and "meltwater" and "volcanoes."
"It's a big can of worms!" Gray says. It's his favorite line.
The models can't even predict the weather in two weeks, much less 100 years, he says.
"They sit in this ivory tower, playing around, and they don't tell us if this is going to be a hot summer coming up. Why not? Because the models are no damn good!"
Gray says the recent rash of strong hurricanes is just part of a cycle. This is part of the broader skeptical message: Climate change is normal and natural. There was a Medieval Warm Period, for example, long before ExxonMobil existed.
Sterling Burnett, a skeptic who is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, says that even if he's wrong about global warming, mandating cuts in carbon emissions would mean economic disaster for poor countries, and cost jobs in America: "I don't know any politician anywhere who is going to run on a platform of saying, 'I'm going to put you out of work.'"
The skeptics don't have to win the argument, they just have to stay in the game, keep things stirred up and make sure the politicians don't pass any laws that have dangerous climate change as a premise. They're winning that battle. The Senate had hearings on climate change this spring but has put off action for now. The Bush administration is hoping for some kind of technological solution and won't commit itself to cuts in emissions.
The skeptics have a final trump in the argument: Climate change is actually good. Growing seasons will be longer. Plants like carbon dioxide. Trees devour it. This demonized molecule, CO2, isn't some kind of toxin or contaminant or pollutant -- it's fertilizer.
The Free Market Solution: Zoos
Al gore is about to come on the big screen. Fred Smith is eagerly awaiting the moment. We're at a media preview of "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary on Gore and global warming (it debuts this week in Washington). Smith is not exactly a Gore groupie. He is the head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a factory for global warming skepticism.
CEI has 28 people on staff, "half a platoon," Smith likes to say. They're in the persuasion business, fighting for the free market. They lobby against government regulations of all kinds. Smith writes articles with titles such as "Eco-Socialism: Threat to Liberty Around the World." These promoters of capitalism don't really operate a commercial enterprise; like any think tank, CEI relies on donations from individuals, foundations and corporations. The most generous sponsors of last year's annual dinner at the Capital Hilton were the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Exxon Mobil, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, and Pfizer. Other contributors included General Motors, the American Petroleum Institute, the American Plastics Council, the Chlorine Chemistry Council and Arch Coal.
Smith is short, stocky, bearded. He talks extremely fast and sprinkles his remarks with free market jargon, climate change lingo, historical references and various mysterious words that seem to come from a secret conservatives-only code book.
As we wait for the movie to start, I ask him how he would define his political beliefs. "Classical liberal," he says. He explains that civilization is a means for allowing individuals to liberate their energies and their genius -- an emergence from primitive, tribal, collectivist social arrangements. When humans switch from collectivism to private property, he says, "you have greater freedom of ideas." This prompts the thought that the federal government owns way too much land in the West. Much of it should be privatized, he says.
Including national parks? I ask.
"Probably wouldn't touch it for political reasons," he says.
The movie begins: Images of a river. Lush foliage. Gore's voice, almost sultry, rhapsodizes about nature. Then we see him take a stage in an auditorium. He is in a suit and tie and looks very much like a candidate for political office.
"Maybe he is running," Smith says.
When Gore shows a big graph of rising CO2, Smith says, "That's a phony scale."
The film shows footage from Hurricane Katrina.
"It was a Category 3 hurricane," Smith says. Not the Cat 5, at landfall, you keep hearing about.
Gore reveals that insurance losses because of hurricanes have steadily climbed.
"That's just dishonest," Smith says. There are more beach houses and so on -- it's just an infrastructure issue.
Subsequent visits to the Competitive Enterprise Institute show Smith in his element. The think tank is a warren of offices lined with framed magazine advertisements from the 1950s and earlier. These are images of the Golden Age of American Commerce, when cars were like luxury liners and chemical companies bragged about their mosquito-annihilating concoctions.
"New Guinea is an island gripped in the vise of high, jagged mountain ranges . . . Choking entangling jungle is everywhere . . . In this appalling setting, aviation made an epic conquest." That's ad copy for the Socony-Vacuum oil company, later known as Mobil.
Smith loves this stuff. Those were the days! The message: Free enterprise brings people together and improves their lives. It was the Better Living Through Chemistry era. Smith points out an ad for Weyerhaeuser Timber showing clear-cut forests on a mountainside and two raccoons tussling with one another on the stump of a Douglas fir. Another photo, lower, shows a frame house. You can clearly see that cutting forests benefits people. Nowadays, environmentalists want the benefits without any of the pain. "It's all gain, no pain," Smith says.
We pass an asbestos ad.
"When I was a kid, this was called the miracle mineral," he says.
Although Smith can be rambling and digressive, he has a team of analysts who know the global warming topic inside and out and can quickly produce the latest nugget of potentially contradictory evidence (Greenland melted faster in the 1920s!). What rankles them most of all is the suggestion that global warming is a problem that must be fixed by the government, top down, through regulations. Let the free market work its genius, they say. Countries with thriving economies will, in the long run, be more adaptive to climate change and will find more technological solutions than countries that hamstring themselves by clamping down on greenhouse emissions.
Smith's office has a grand view of Farragut Square and the Washington Monument in the distance. A man named Chris Horner, general counsel of the Cooler Heads Coalition, joins us, as does, popping in and out, Marlo Lewis, a CEI policy analyst who works on climate change. They lapse several times into the Secret Code.
"Terrible toos," Horner says. I'm confused. He explains that it's shorthand for environmental doom and gloom.
"Terrible toos. Too many people, using too many resources."
Smith has a different equation: "Less people, less affluence, less technology: We call that death, poverty and ignorance."
They believe the rise of carbon dioxide may be a symptom of global warming, not the cause. Look at the chart Gore used:
Didn't it look like the warming comes before the CO2 increase?
Lewis says the snows of Kilimanjaro have been in retreat since the
1880s. The climate there is not getting warmer, it's getting drier. Just won't snow.
They see economic growth as an all-purpose cure for environmental problems. Rich societies are environmentally resilient; poor societies have dirty power plants and sooty huts. Government regulations aren't necessary. I ask Lewis if he thinks the Clean Air Act is a good idea. "It depends," he answers. There follows a complicated riff from Smith about common law property rights and English fishermen suing upstream polluters in the 19th century.
Smith takes an abrupt detour into the issue of endangered species. The solution is to let the private sector handle it. They should be privatized, like pets or livestock. Dogs, cats, chickens, pigs: These creatures won't ever go extinct.
I want to make sure I understand what he is saying, so I begin to ask a question: "For endangered species, people should --"
"-- own them," Smith says.
But isn't there a difference between animals that live in zoos and animals that live in the wild?
"Yes and no," Smith says. " 'Zoo' is a pejorative term that PETA has turned into an animal slavery community. A zoo is nothing more than an elaborate ark."
What's unnatural, Smith says, is wilderness. The so-called wilderness of early America used to be inhabited by Indians, and they changed their environment. "They burned down trees, they burned forests, they ran buffaloes over cliffs. They were not dancing with wolves," he says. "Wilderness is the least natural part of this planet."
Human beings, in his view, are not apart from nature but very much of it, and thus whatever human beings do is natural. Environmentalists view human activity as a blemish, and animal activity as noble and good. If Manhattan had been built by termites, environmentalists would make it a World Heritage Site, Smith says. If the Grand Canyon had been the result of coal mining, he says, "Al Gore would say, 'This is horrible.'"
Horner talks about baselines used in climate trends. Why start in 1860? That was the end of the Little Ice Age. Of course the world has warmed since then. That's cheating with the baseline. At one point Horner refers to the "cooling" since 1998 -- a record-breaking year with a major El Niño event in the Pacific. He admits he is being disingenuous.
"We're playing the baseline game," Horner says.
And then -- I'm not even sure how it comes up -- Smith says we can solve the problem of gorillas being killed in Africa. They're caught in the middle of a civil war among African tribes. The solution: Evacuate them. Airlift them out, like soldiers caught behind enemy lines.
"We've got lots of land." For the gorillas, he means."Build a Jurassic Park in Central America."
Horner says that perhaps we are getting off track.
And Then There's Hitler
Let us be honest about the intellectual culture of America in general: It has become almost impossible to have an intelligent discussion about anything.
Everything is a war now. This is the age of lethal verbal combat, where even scientific issues involving measurements and molecules are somehow supernaturally polarizing. The controversy about global warming resides all too perfectly at the collision point of environmentalism and free market capitalism. It's bound to be not only politicized but twisted, mangled and beaten senseless in the process. The divisive nature of global warming isn't helped by the fact that the most powerful global-warming skeptic (at least by reputation) is President Bush, and the loudest warnings come from Al Gore.
Human beings may be large of brain, but they are social animals, too, like wolves, and are prone to behave in packs. So when something like climate change comes up, the first thing people want to know is, whose side are you on? All those climatic variables and uncertainties and probabilities and "forcings" and "feedback loops," those cans of worms that Bill Gray talks about, get boiled down to their essence. Are you with us or against us?
Somehow Hitler keeps popping into the discussion. Gore draws a parallel between fighting global warming and fighting the Nazis. Novelist Michael Crichton, in State of Fear , ends with an appendix comparing the theory of global warming to the theory of eugenics -- the belief, prominently promoted by Nazis, that the gene pool of the human species was degenerating due to higher reproductive rates of "inferior" people. Both, he contends, are examples of junk science, supported by intellectual elites who will later conveniently forget they signed on to such craziness.
And Gray has no governor on his rhetoric. At one point during our meeting in Colorado he blurts out, "Gore believed in global warming almost as much as Hitler believed there was something wrong with the Jews."
When I opine that he is incendiary, he answers: "Yes, I am incendiary. But the other side is just as incendiary. The etiquette of science has long ago been thrown out the window."
In a media-saturated world, it's hard to get anyone's attention without cranking the volume. Time magazine recently declared that Earth looks like a planet that is sick (cover headline: "Be Worried. Be Very Worried"). Vanity Fair published a "worst-case scenario" photo illustration of Manhattan drowned by an 80-foot sea-level rise, the skyscrapers poking up from what has become part of the Atlantic Ocean. That's not inconceivable over the course of many centuries, but the scientific consensus (IPCC, 2001) is that by 2100 sea level will have risen somewhere between three and 34 inches from its 1990 level.
The news media -- always infatuated with doom (were it not for the obvious ramifications for ratings and circulation, the media would love to cover the End of the World) -- struggle to resist the most calamitous-sounding climate scenarios. Consider the January 2005 survey of thousands of climate change models that showed a very wide range of possibilities. One model at the very extreme had a worst-case-scenario warming of 11 degrees Celsius -- which is nearly 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
"The world is likely to heat up by an average of 11ºC by the end of the century, the biggest-ever study of global warming showed yesterday," the London Evening Standard reported online. This would cause "a surge in sea levels threatening the lives of billions of people."
Wrong, but whatever.
The skeptics feed on alarmism. They love any sign that global warming is a case of mass hysteria. Someone like Myron Ebell, an analyst at CEI, freely admits that, as an advocate in a politicized battle, he tries to make "the best case against alarmism." Everyone, on both sides, is arguing like a lawyer these days, he says. "What is going on right now is a desperate last-ditch Battle of the Bulge type effort by the forces of darkness, which is relying heavily on the lockstep/groupthink scientific community."
The president's science adviser, John Marburger, thinks the politicized debate has made it almost impossible to talk sensibly about the issue. "There seems to be the general feeling that somehow the administration doesn't feel that climate change is happening," he says. "That's completely wrong." The administration just doesn't think the problem can be solved with the "magic wand" of regulation.
Marburger recently declined to go on "60 Minutes" to address allegations that federal scientists were being muzzled and government reports rewritten by the White House to minimize concerns about global warming. "In general the public discourse on this has gotten completely off the track, and we're never going to straighten it out on '60 Minutes,'" Marburger says.
This issue forces Americans to sort through a great deal of science, technology and economics, all of it saturated in divisive politics. Many Americans haven't really tuned in. A Gallup poll in March showed that global warming is far down the list of concerns among Americans -- even when asked to rank their environmental worries. More Americans were worried about damage to the ozone layer. No doubt some people have the two issues confused. Both involve air, and emissions of some kind, and some worrisome global effect. But the ozone issue, while hardly solved, has at least been seriously addressed with a global ban on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Climate change takes place on time scales of decades and centuries.
In a 24-hour information society, it is hard to keep the year 2100 in mind. But these changes are happening at a geologically rapid pace. For roughly the past 10,000 years, since the end of the last Ice Age, human beings have enjoyed a relatively stable, comfortable "interglacial" period, during which they've invented everything from agriculture to moon rockets. Nomadic bands of hunters and gatherers have given way to more than 6 billion people, largely urbanized and energy-hungry. Pressure on ecosystems is immense. Biologists warn of a "sixth extinction" -- the sixth mass extinction of species since the rise of multicellular organisms about 600 million years ago. The most recent mass extinction, 65 million years ago, was apparently caused by a mountain-size object striking Earth. Human civilization, in this view, is like an asteroid hitting the planet.
The expansion of human civilization is an experiment on a global scale: What happens when a species obtains not only intelligence but technology? Do intelligent, technological species tend to survive for a long time -- or bring their environment crashing down around them?
The Hurricane Conference
Bill Gray has the honor of delivering the closing remarks at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando. It's mid-April, and we're at a fancy hotel on International Drive, a main street for the tourist industry that has sprouted from the orange groves and cow pastures of central Florida. Gray seems to be everywhere, constantly talking, popping out to the terrace by the pool to give TV interviews, holding forth without any hint of fatigue. He has three media assistants following him around. They are working under contract for TCSDaily, a Web site that is a nexus of anti-global-warming arguments.
They set up two news conferences. At both events, Gray gives his standard arguments about global warming, bracketing a dispassionate discussion of the upcoming tropical storm season by his young protege, Phil Klotzbach. The two are a sight to behold: Gray, the white-haired titan, thunderous, outraged, and Klotzbach, red-haired, freckled, very calm, very mild, looking so much younger than his 25 years.
"I think there's a lot of foolishness going on," Gray says as he stands before a bank of 10 TV cameras and a couple of dozen journalists.
Hurricanes aren't getting worse -- we're just in an uptick of a regular cycle. But the alarmists won't let anyone believe that.
"The world is boiling! It's getting worse and worse!" Gray shouts. "Hell is approaching."
He was a paperboy in Washington in the 1940s, he says. There were stories back then about global warming. But then it got cooler, for decades, and by the mid-1970s the story had changed, and scientists were warning of -- yes -- an Ice Age! Gray shows a slide of magazine covers in the mid-1970s (Science Digest, 1973; Newsweek, 1975) fretting about the Cooling World.
The core of Gray's argument is that the warming of the past decades is a natural cycle, driven by a global ocean circulation that manifests itself in the North Atlantic as the Gulf Stream. Warm water and cool water essentially rise and fall in a rhythm lasting decades. "I don't think this warming period of the last 30 years can keep on going," he says. "It may warm another three, five, eight years, and then it will start to cool."
Gray's crusade against global warming "hysteria" began in the early 1990s, when he saw enormous sums of federal research money going toward computer modeling rather than his kind of science, the old-fashioned stuff based on direct observation. Gray often cites the ascendancy of Gore to the vice presidency as the start of his own problems with federal funding. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stopped giving him research grants. So did NASA. All the money was going to computer models. The field was going off on this wild tangent.
Numerical models can't predict the future, he says. They don't even pretend to predict the weather in the coming season -- "but they make predictions of 50 or 100 years from now and ask you to believe the Earth will get warmer."
The modelers are equation pushers. "They haven't been down in the trenches, making forecasts and understanding stuff!"
The news media are self-interested. "Media people are all out for Pulitzer Prizes!"
The IPCC is elitist. "They don't talk to us! I've never been approached by the IPCC."