Al Gore says global-warming skeptics are a group diminishing almost as rapidly as the mountain glaciers.
Myron Ebell begs to differ.
Hurricanes, heat waves, flooding, and droughtssure, they've stirred some fears. And some corporate allies that used to mock global warmingsuch as
Like holdouts in the
Many of the skeptics are curmudgeons: old, bald, and bitter. But not Myron Ebell. Tall, slim, and youthful at 53, his blond hair swept back from a handsome face set off by serious glasses, Ebell is one of that rare breed, an elegant nerd. On television, facing interrogation by moderators who clearly feel he should be tarred and feathered for his views, he stays cool and fires back with withering zingers. In the recent surprise hit movie Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley's novel, actor Aaron Eckhardt played a tobacco lobbyist who jokes about being a merchant of death and gleefully outdebates all comers. Ebell could easily star in the sequel, Thank You for Warming.
Ebell is a public-policy wonknot, he hastens to clarify, a lobbyist for the energy industry, as many of his fellow skeptics are, or a scientist whose research is underwritten by the energy industry, or a politician who takes contributions from the energy industry. He lives in a suburb of
Every day, journalists around the world call C.E.I. for its take on the latest global-warming studies, and Ebell, or one of his colleagues who also deal with the pressMarlo Lewis, Iain Murray, and Christopher Hornerhappily obliges. The journalists like to air all views"on the one hand, on the other"so they plug in Ebell's latest retorts, giving them equal weight with new scientific findings. Gore is right in one sense: almost no scientist doubts that global warming is here, that man-made greenhouse gases are to blame, or that if we don't cut back on those gases fairly soon we'll be in a heap of trouble. But as the "other hand" in all those news stories, Ebell and his quotable cohorts sustain the impression that a scientific debate is still raging. The more studies that confirm global warming, the more ink Ebell gets. Journalist Ross Gelbspan, a longtime skeptic-tracker, says that's how the skeptics operate. With those doubts neatly planted in the press, the public shrugs, politicians push the problem off to another day, and ExxonMobil parries new fossil-fuel regulations, earning more windfall profits in exchange for a pittance to the skeptics and their work.
Like its ideological soulmates, C.E.I. has taken moneya considerable amountfrom ExxonMobil. Ebell says that's irrelevant. "We're not beholden to our donors, because we don't say, 'If you give us this money, we'll do this project,'" he explains, tilting back nonchalantly in a C.E.I. conference-room chair. "I can't even quite tell you who supports us on global warming." In fact, Ebell could go to the ExxonMobil Web site and see that in 2005 the oil giant gave C.E.I. $270,000, a not inconsiderable portion of the institute's $3.7 million budget, and that between 1998 and 2005 ExxonMobil gave it more than $2 million. He could also ask one of his colleagues and learn that C.E.I. gets money from the American Petroleum Institute, various pharmaceutical companies (Dow Chemical, Eli Lilly), and William A. Dunn of Dunn Capital Management. But he says he's never done that. Since its founding, 23 years ago, by free marketer Fred Smith as an all-purpose bullhorn against government regulations, C.E.I. has simply tinkered with issues it choosesfrom higher mileage standards in cars (bad) to the Endangered Species Act (worse)trying to affect public policy and hoping donors come along for the ride.
That may be how C.E.I. sees it. To ExxonMobil, though, C.E.I. has been one of the brightest stars in its constellation of climate skeptics. Other oil companies fund global-warming-skeptic think tanks through the American Petroleum Institute, and various coal interests weigh in, too. But, for the skeptics, ExxonMobil is Big Daddy.
From 1998 to 2005, ExxonMobil spent a reported $16 million funding climate studies at some three dozen institutes. The recipients range from the well-known right-wing clearinghouse American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research ($240,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005) to the obscure Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow ($90,000 in 2005), bookends to a Who's Who of skeptics. None of these groups has any standing in mainstream climate science. Their fellows and scholars crank out policy papers that purport to disprove the latest findings about global warming and only rarely publish studies in peer-reviewed technical scientific journals. Instead, the institutes publish the papers themselves or get sympathetic newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times to run them as op-ed pieces. From there, the papers are taken up by a handful of lawmakerssuch as Oklahoma Republican senator James Inhofe and Texas Republican congressman Joe Barton, who deride global warming as an alarmist hoaxand get disseminated on the Internet like viral advertising. It's an all too effective approach.
The stars, as in any constellation, are an eclectic bunch. They include fringe scientists such as David Legates and Patrick Michaels, of the George C. Marshall Institute ($115,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005), a Washington-based public-policy think tank; economists like Kyoto Protocolbasher Margo Thorning, of the American Council for Capital Formation ($360,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005); and historical-climate theorists such as the Battling Idsosfather Sherwood, sons Craig and Keithof the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change ($25,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005), who say high levels of CO2 in the prehistoric era led to lush plant life and better times for all. The skeptics appear on one another's panels, defend one another's work, and give the public the sense that mainstream scientists are nothing more than so many Chicken Littles. The case for global warming has grown all but irrefutable, yet the skeptics have enjoyed enormous influence, for the audience that matters most to them occupies the White House. Eagerly, their papers have been snatched up by the Bush administration as rationales for all manner of public policy, from striking down the Kyoto Protocol to blocking any cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
C.E.I. has become the best known of these global-warming skeptics not just because Ebell is as quotable as he is. Like the hero of Thank You for Smoking, he courts notoriety. He first made the news a few years ago when a Bush White House senior official named Phil Cooney was caught watering down language on global warming in a U.S. government report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ebell, as an e-mail later showed, advised the once and future oil-industry flack on how to spin the embarrassment. Not long after, Ebell stirred the wrath of the British Parliament by declaring in a BBC radio interview that the U.K.'s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, had made a "ridiculous claim" on global warming despite knowing "nothing about climate science." The House of Commons proposed a motion to censure Ebell. (The motion never passed, Ebell says wistfully.) Last year, C.E.I. ran a public-service commercial on television about carbon dioxide so cheeky it verged on parody. "They call it pollution," ran the tagline about CO2. "We call it life." Ebell was delighted at the howls it provoked.
There is, however, one key difference between Ebell and his doppelgänger in Chris Buckley's novel. The tobacco lobbyist of the novel and upcoming TV series is a cynic: he knows he's blowing smoke. Ebell actually seems to believe what he's saying. Which is remarkable, really, because every one of his arguments, put to scrutiny by a murderer's row of the country's top climate scientists, seems to fall apart.
Like any effective debater, Ebell tends to start by ceding a point or two. It disarms the opposition. "Everyone knows CO2 is a greenhouse gas," he says blithely. "All things being equal, if you add CO2 to the atmosphere, you'll get a little warming."
Actually, that's a revision of what Ebell's fellow contrarians believed in the early 1990s. They used to say that all the CO2 and other greenhouse gases put into the air by man since the start of the industrial age had caused no warming at all. They said this because that was what satellite readings suggested if you read them a certain way and if you decided the satellites were right and all temperature readings taken on the surface of the earth were wrong. Unfortunately for the skeptics, it was the satellite readings that turned out to be wrong. So the skeptics retreated to a view that Ebell still holds. "There has been a little bit of warming," as he puts it, "but it's been very modest and well within the range for natural variability, and whether it's caused by human beings or not, it's nothing to worry about."
This view, too, needs revision, though Ebell isn't surrendering that ground quite yet. Precisely to test the "range for natural variability," climatologist Michael Mann and colleagues charted temperatures going back 1,000 years. They did this by studying the natural records of climate in tree rings, ice cores from glaciers, and coral reefs. The temperature, they found, made modest zigs and zags until the late 19th centurya range of natural variability just as the skeptics claimed. But once the industrial age got under way there was a dramatic rise in global temperatures not seen in the past 1,000 years, concurrent with CO2 concentrations rising from their pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to their current level of 380 parts per million. Now the climbing lines of the graph shot up like a hockey stick laid on its side. Hence the hockey-stick debate.
Ebell and his fellow skeptics have poured no end of bile on Mann and his hockey stickbecause if Mann's findings are true, the skeptics have no case. The graph is global warming proved. The skeptics say the evidence is shaky for the earliest centuries of Mann's 1,000-year period. So the hockey stick, they declare, is wrong.
To settle the debate, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed Mann's hockey-stick data and methodology last year, along with similar studies. The N.A.S. concluded that Mann's evidence for the years from 1600 to the present was very solid indeed. It said the evidence for the years from 1000 to 1600 was necessarily less solidfewer tree rings and ice cores to go bybut, overall, Mann's evidence did suggest that the 20th century was warmer than any of those six centuries, too.
"Which is exactly what we said in our original report," observes Mann, now a professor at
"The complaint about the hockey stick has been that the people who did the research didn't know what they were doing," Ebell maintains. "The methodology they used was not adequate to properly evaluate the data that they had." (The N.A.S. specifically rejected that charge in their report.)
In the documentary-film version of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore stands beside an elongated hockey sticka graph that goes back not just 1,000 years but 650,000 years. The story it tells is the same. Ebell says the Gore chart is not just inaccurate but misleading in a profound way because it implies that CO2 levels have never been higher than they are now. "Everybody knows it's been higher than that," Ebell says of CO2 in the past, "just more than 650,000 years ago, which is when Gore started counting."
It's a canny point. If earth survived prehistoric periods of higher CO2, when man and industry had nothing to do with it, why are we worrying about CO2 now?
"Yeah, CO2 was higher in the early Cretaceous period," Mann explains. "It probably exceeded 1,000 parts per million. And, yes, temperatures were almost certainly higher then, too. But nature produced these changes in greenhouse-gas concentrationsfrom volcanic activity and plate tectonics that released gases trapped in the solid earthon timescales of tens of millions of years! Eco-systems and species were thus able to adapt," Mann says. "Now we're talking about dramatic changes in the period of a century or so. There's no evidence that nature knows how to adapt so quickly."
Ebell is unfazed by such seemingly authoritative talk. O.K., he says: if CO2 levels have indeed gone up a third in the last hundred years, as Gore's hockey-stick chart indicates, and global temperature is supposed to follow, why haven't we seen a commensurate rise in temperature?
"That's pure nonsense," Mann says. "As we increase CO2 levels, we are changing the boundary conditions, if you will, too rapidly for the climate to be in equilibrium while we do this. So the climate is always trying to catch up to what we've done." The correlation between CO2 and temperature, he says, has been studied very well in physics and chemistry. "Our best estimates indicate that the increase in CO2 from pre-industrial levels to the present has already produced roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in global temperatures."
Ebell is ready for that. What if the earth has actually embarked on a natural cooling phasea new Little Ice Ageand the CO2 we're putting out there is offsetting it? After all, says Ebell, "we just came out of a Little Ice Age in the middle of the 19th century. And the Little Ice Age was a time of great trial for human civilization."
"Another specious argument," Mann says. First, he says, the so-called Little Ice Age wasn't a major event in terms of impact on global temperature: "While
As indeed they are. Every year now, with no discernible slowing from "natural variations" such as solar intensity and volcanic activity, global mean temperatures rise. Twenty-one of the 22 hottest years on record have occurred in the last 25 years. The only reason temperatures rise, agrees virtually every climate scientist not funded by ExxonMobil, is the increasing prevalence of man-made greenhouse gases.
As these hot years accumulate, a skeptic of less determination might throw in the towelafter mopping his brow with itbut not Ebell. He says that one of the three official records of those surface temperaturesthe one kept by nasais "cooked," because the agency's weather stations are often set too close to "urban heat islands," which read disproportionately high, and that other stations fail to cover large rural areas. The other two records show that 2005 wasn't as warm as 1998. That, Ebell says, is more evidence we're at the start of a cooling period.
Unfortunately for this novel theory, 2006 has just been declared the hottest year on record in the
A lot of very strange weather appears to be occurring as a result of those rising temperatures. Global warming, scientists say, evaporates moisture from wet land, leading to more precipitation. It sucks up what little moisture resides in dry land, producing more droughts. As global warming accelerates, they say, the climates of both kinds of terrain will grow more extreme.
Ebell says no. "This is crazy," he declares. "Who could possibly believe that? You can't predict regional climate change." He claims that the federally funded U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change proved this. "They had two climate models for the precipitation impact of global warming in the
"Those studies are dated and irrelevant," says Kevin Trenberth, one of the country's foremost climate experts. Trenberth heads the Climate Analysis Section of the
Those models, says Trenberth, prove that the global mean temperature has gone up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in that time, most of that since the 1970s. "Warmer air holds more water," Trenberth explains. "So in the
Mainstream scientists say that, along with a warming atmosphere, our oceans are heating up, too. "I think that's made up," Ebell says. "I understand that the oceans are primarily heated by direct solar radiation. I do not understand howbeyond just the surfacethey are heated by the warming up of the atmosphere. It seems to me that the atmosphere would have to warm up significantly above the previous level before that radiation could actually heat up the ocean."
"That's the most preposterous bullshit I've ever heard," exclaims Tom Wigley, another senior scientist at ncar and co-author of a new study on ocean warming. "Perhaps that would be the case if the oceans didn't move. But the ocean is continually moving, horizontally and vertically, and continually mixing heat down to the depths. The top 100 meters has warmed about the same amount as the atmosphereabout one and a half degrees Fahrenheit. The deeper ocean warms much more slowly, but each degree increase in atmospheric temperature does propagate down.& In fact, the amount of warming agrees exceptionally well with what computer models say should have happened." Wigley says the models suggest that the rate of ocean warming in the 21st century will probably be four times greater than in the 20th century.
Ebell has a phrase for such predictions. Computer models for predicting climate, he says, "don't even pass the laugh test."
Wigley is astonished: "Does he think modeling is a hoax? Has he ever tried to talk to people about this?, I wonder. Or is he just having a guess?" Wigley observes that scientists have charted actual weather data from the 20th century, then programmed computer models to see how well the models predict the weather that actually occurred. "There are hundreds of papers," says Wigley, "showing that models do a fantastically good job."
Warming oceans already appear to have stirred tropical hurricanes of greater intensity and duration than in the past, though scientists are wary of suggesting that any particular stormKatrina, for exampleis the direct result of warming. What they do say, Wigley observes, is that, if warming trends continue, ocean storms will definitely grow stronger.
Ebell has a cheerier forecast. "Everybody involved in this debate who knows anything about storms knows that a warmer world will be a more stable planet with less big storms," he says. "There may be more hurricanes & but most of the big storms that kill a lot of people are in the winter, right? Cold kills a lot more people than warmth."
Scientists who do believe the ocean is warmingwhich is to say, nearly all of themcan already measure the cost to sea life. Researchers at the Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, in
Ebell disputes that. "If the oceans are warming, or the acidity is changing, that will benefit some species more than others," he says. "Some will take over, others will die out or move on somewhere else. The oceans are changing all the time."
For oceanographers, one worrisome sign lies right offshore: in tropical oceans all over the world, coral reefs are bleaching and dying as the acidity caused by warming, apparently, kills the plankton that sustain them.
Ebell is unconcerned. "My impression of corals," he says, "is that they have successfully adapted in the past to warmer temperatures and to cooler temperatures, and there is a good deal of evidence that they can adaptthat they actually changed their composition based on the temperature and the chemistry of the waters surrounding them over time."
"He is, of course, right and, of course, wrong," replies Dr. Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. "Corals and their relatives have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years. They've been more and less abundant, if you take the long view. On the other hand, there have been cataclysmic changes that have happened five previous times in the earth's history. The last was 65 million years ago when a celestial body the size of
Actually, warming has already affected countless species on landor so say experts such as James Hansen, the nasa scientist who first sounded the alarm about global warming, two decades ago. Warming temperatures, he says, are forcing animals to migrate north out of their habitats. As they do, they disrupt the chain of life in their eco-systems, putting themselves and other species at risk. They may also run into man-made barriers that kill them, leading ultimately to their extinction.
"I've never seen a good study on that," Ebell counters. "What you see are studies that show that animals are living at higher elevations than they used to, or higher latitudes. Like you find robins now all over
Most immediately threatened, says Hansen, are animals of the polar climates: they have nowhere colder to go. As their world warms, the icebergs on which many of them live are melting, dooming them to drown. "Polar bears, in effect, will be pushed off the planet," Hansen has written.
"James Hansen was not trained as a climate scientist," Ebell says. "He was trained as an astronomer. He's a physicist. His dissertation was on the atmosphere of Venus, and he has applied what he's learned in physics and in astronomy to become a climate scientist, but you know from him talking about species' going north, he knows nothing about biology. Have you seen Legates's study?"
David Legates is another hard-core skeptic, director of the
The polar-bear study that was peer-reviewedpredicting that polar bears are moving toward extinctionwas the work of more than 300 scientists and experts around the world in a consortium called the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Even the U.S. Department of the Interior has now proposed that polar bears be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because polar sea ice is meltingan extraordinary admission for an administration philosophically aligned with the skeptics. But Ebell is unwilling to concede that polar bears are in any trouble at all.
The assessment team also concluded that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the worldwith some parts of
"Corell is not a climate scientist," Ebell says. "He's not an Arctic expert. He's not a glaciologist. He's not any of those things. He is an oceanographer and an engineer."
The whole Arctic assessment, he declares, is cooked data. "If you look at the temperature graph & they show a strong warming trend in the last 34 years.& They cut the data off at 1950. There's a well-known Arctic temperature record that goes back to the early years of the 20th century. The reason they cut it off at 1950 is it was warmer in the
"That's baloney," Corell says. "We did go back further; we have historical records that go back 400,000 years. Parts of the Arctic were probably a little warmer in the 1930s than they are today, but the whole Arctic is warmer today certainly than it's been in the last thousand yearsand probably a lot longer than that."
As for his background, Corell notes that, after studying engineering and oceanography, he made his first trip to the Arctic in 1968 and has been in and out of it ever since, taking sediment cores and writing papers, all while heading up the National Science Foundation's climate-study program. "I have never met Ebell," he adds. "He's never contacted me or sent anyone in the assessment any questions."
Corell's team feels that if warming continues at current rates the Arctic polar ice cap will soon start melting completely every summer. Ebell says so what. "The period in which the ice might disappear is a fairly limited one," he says. Besides, he points out, the Arctic polar cap is ice that's floating on water. "So that doesn't have any effect on sea levels at alljust like the ice cubes in your drink, when they melt, they don't change the level."
The same can't be said for the ice sheets over much of Greenland and all of
Though he likes to bash scientists for working outside their degreed fields, Ebell, it turns out, isn't a scientist at all. He majored in philosophy at the
"I'm not claiming to be a climate authoritythe way Jim Hansen is, or Robert Corell," says Ebell. "Every interview I do, when I'm asked about scientific issues, I say I'm not a climate scientist. I'm just giving you the informed layman's perspective.& If science is going to be discussed in the public arena, then shouldn't people other than scientists be allowed to participate? Isn't that what a representative democracy is?"
With evidence of global warming piling ever higher, even the best of the skeptics has a harder time making his case. So Ebell and his colleagues have hit on a new theme. Maybe warming will occur at more than modest rates in the future, he acknowledges.
Some people think that's not so bad.
"People prefer warmer climates," Ebell declares. "They do better in them. People do better in
All predictions of global warming, Ebell observes, suggest that the tropics will stay about the same. The real effects of warming will be in the upper latitudes. "Northern cities like
Yes, it is, says Dr. Paul R. Epstein, of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at
Epstein has studied the spread of malarial mosquitoes to ever higher mountain altitudes in Asia, Latin America, and
Wrong again, says Ebell. "What Paul Epstein publishes is total rubbish," he exclaims. "Temperature is one of the least important factors in the spread of tropical diseases. Malaria didn't used to be called a tropical disease, because it was endemic throughout the world. It's tropical now because it's the rich countries that were able to eradicate it." Actually, that's not true. Malaria was originally called ague or marsh fever because it emanated from warm-weather swamps. Mosquitoes are warm-weather carriers, and the pioneering wor