Following on from last week’s post A very convenient network , here are some excerpts from another document that turned up when I was sifting through old files. Some of these are relevant to the influences represented in the diagram I used in that article.

In 1992, Richard Lindzen wrote a paper for Regulation, a journal published by the Cato Institute. Its title was ‘Global Warming: the Origin and Nature of the Alleged Scientific Consensus’. Nearly two decades have passed since then, quite a long time in the development of any field of research, but in terms of the short history of climate science, almost an aeon. When Lindzen was writing, most people, including politicians and policy makers, would barely have heard of global warming.

Perhaps one of the most ruthless tests of opinion on a controversial subject is that of time. All too often views that seemed pertinent when they were expressed become tarnished as they are overtaken by events. So before looking at some of the things that Lindzen had to say so long ago it’s worth considering the context in which he was speaking back in 1992.

Only four years previously, James Hansen had made his infamous claim to a senate committee (chaired by an ambitious young senator called Al Gore) that he was 99% certain that temperatures were rising and that human input was at least partly responsible. It can reasonably be argued that it was this particular event that put AGW on the scientific and political agendas. The IPCC was also set up by UNEP and the WMO in 1988.

Only a decade previously, concerns about human influence on the climate were focused on soot generated by industrial processes causing a new ice age. It seemed that, at the time that Lindzen wrote his article, climatologists had already made up their mind that humans were changing the climate even if they weren’t too sure in which direction that change might take.

The IPCC had produced its first assessment report only two years before, in 1990. So at the time that Lindzen’s article was published, the relatively new discipline of climate science had reached two contradictory conclusions in no more than twenty years. Even so climate science was beginning to find its feet and attract political attention.

The Cato Institute paper begins by setting out the basic principles of the green house gas hypothesis, then swiftly dispatches the idea that we can rely on predictive climate models by pointing out that without a far better understanding of the climate system particularly the physics of clouds and the development of far more powerful computers, it is most unlikely that these can tell us much about climate conditions in the coming decades or centuries. It is worth bearing in mind that Lindzen, as Sloan professor of Meteorology at MIT, was at that time highly regarded as a world authority on the physics of clouds.

Controversy over the climate’s sensitivity to Co2, the forcing effects of water vapour, and pleas from modellers for more powerful hardware continue to this day. Although confidence in model predictions continued to grow following the publication of Lindzen’s article, peaking when the IPCC published its Fourth Assessment Report, some in the climate community have begun to openly express doubts about the models since Climategate. Most notable, perhaps, is Sir Brian Hoskins, of the Grantham Institute when interviewed by the Economist:

The Economist: How bad were the climate models when you stated out?

Hoskins: Oh! Pretty lousy and they’re still pretty lousy really.

In view of the criticisms that Lindzen was expressing nearly twenty years ago, it is truly remarkable that the climate community is only now openly admitting recognition of the limited value of models as predictive tools.  Interestingly, Lindzen recalls that in the aftermath of Hansen’s testimony to the senate committee, some climate modellers expressed concern that he had been ‘promoting highly uncertain model results as relevant to public policy’. Such reservations were very short-lived.

Turning his attention to the pressures that he had experienced as a result of questioning scientific views that that had some very ruthless and determined supporters, Lindzen recalls that in 1989 he submitted a paper that was critical of the AGW hypothesis to Science, where it was rejected without review as not being of interest to the journal’s readership. When he then sent it to The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, his submission was reviewed and accepted, but then re-reviewed and re-accepted, during which time the paper was attacked in Science although it had not even been published. This incident will have particular resonance for anyone who has read the Climategate emails, in which Phil Jones and his colleagues apparently attempt to rig that peer review process, and the Russell report, which makes no criticism of their behaviour.

But it is in the section headed Consensus and the Current “Popular Version” that Lindzen’s clear-sighted view of the problems that lie ahead is most telling. Even at this early stage he recognises that if fundamental research is neglected in favour of efforts to prove that Co2 is the main driver of climate, then climate science will not progress and important questions will remain unanswered.

A parochial issue is the danger to the science of climatology. As far as I can tell, there has actually been reduced funding for existing climate research. That may seem paradoxical, but, at least in the United States, the vastly increased number of scientists and others involving themselves in climate as well as the gigantic programs attaching themselves to climate have substantially outstripped the increases in funding. Perhaps more important are the pressures being brought to bear on scientists to get the “right” results. Such pressures are inevitable, given how far out on a limb much of the scientific community has gone. The situation is compounded by the fact that some of the strongest proponents of “global warming” in Congress are also among the major supporters of science (Sen. Gore is notable among those). Finally, given the momentum that has been building up among so many interest groups to fight “global warming,” it becomes downright embarrassing to support basic climate research. After all, one would hate to admit that one had mobilized so many resources without the basic science’s being in place. Nevertheless, given the large increase in the number of people associating themselves with climatology and the dependence of much of that community on the perceived threat of warming, it seems unlikely that the scientific community will offer much resistance. I should add that as ever greater numbers of individuals attach themselves to the warming problem, the pressures against solving the problem grow proportionally; an inordinate number of individuals and groups depend on the problem’s remaining.

When one considers that $147m of funding for climate models was written into one of the drafts of the US Energy and Security Bill last year, rather than being directed to fundamental areas of climate research that might fill in some of the gaps in understanding of the climate system, then Lindzen’s words seem almost prophetic. But then the predictions of climate models, if taken seriously by politicians and policymakers, are likely to justify the measures proposed in this bill, and other similar initiatives including highly controversial cap and trade schemes.

His observations on the impetus that, in 1992, was beginning to push climate change up the political agenda are equally shrewd.

Major agencies in the United States, hitherto closely involved with traditional approaches to national security, have appropriated the issue of climate change to support existing efforts. Notable among those agencies are NASA, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Energy. The cold war helped spawn a large body of policy experts and diplomats specializing in issues such as disarmament and alliance negotiations. In addition, since the Yom Kippur War, energy has become a major component of national security with the concomitant creation of a large cadre of energy experts. Many of those individuals see in the global change issue an area in which to continue applying their skills. Many scientists also feel that national security concerns formed the foundation for the U.S. government’s generous support of science. As the urgency of national security, traditionally defined, diminishes, there is a common feeling that a substitute foundation must be established. “Saving the planet” has the right sort of sound to it. Fundraising has become central to environmental advocates’ activities, and the message underlying some of their fundraising seems to be “pay us or you’ll fry.”

Clearly, “global warming” is a tempting issue for many very important groups to exploit.

He also speaks of the unquestioning allegiance to the crusade against climate change that seems to have become mandatory for all those in public office.

Why, one might wonder, is there such insistence on scientific unanimity on the warming issue? After all, unanimity in science is virtually nonexistent on far less complex matters. Unanimity on an issue as uncertain as “global warming” would be surprising and suspicious. Moreover, why are the opinions of scientists sought regardless of their field of expertise? Biologists and physicians are rarely asked to endorse some theory in high energy physics. Apparently, when one comes to “global warming,” any scientist’s agreement will do.

In recent years, economists seem to be increasingly popular climate science pundits. Lindzen continues:

The answer almost certainly lies in politics. For example, at the Earth Summit in Rio, attempts were made to negotiate international carbon emission agreements. The potential costs and implications of such agreements are likely to be profound for both industrial and developing countries. Under the circumstances, it would be very risky for politicians to undertake such agreements unless scientists “insisted.” Nevertheless, the situation is probably a good deal more complicated than that example suggests.

As Aaron Wildavsky, professor of political science at Berkeley, has quipped, “global warming” is the mother of all environmental scares. Wildavsky’s view is worth quoting. “Warming (and warming alone), through its primary antidote of withdrawing carbon from production and consumption, is capable of realizing the environmentalist’s dream of an egalitarian society based on rejection of economic growth in favor of a smaller population’s eating lower on the food chain, consuming a lot less, and sharing a much lower level of resources much more equally.” In many ways Wildavsky’s observation does not go far enough. The point is that carbon dioxide is vitally central to industry, transportation, modern life, and life in general. It has been joked that carbon dioxide controls would permit us to inhale as much as we wish; only exhaling would be controlled. The remarkable centrality of carbon dioxide means that dealing with the threat of warming fits in with a great variety of preexisting agendas–some legitimate, some less so: energy efficiency, reduced dependence on Middle Eastern oil, dissatisfaction with industrial society (neopastoralism), international competition, governmental desires for enhanced revenues (carbon taxes), and bureaucratic desires for enhanced power.

So long as the notion of anthropogenic climate change continues to suit “a great variety of pre-existing agendas” we cannot expect a cessation in global warming alarmism. As Lindzen makes clear, research is merely the tool of choice for leveraging political momentum, but this is at the risk of devaluing trust in science and in scientists.

Why did so few people listen to what Lindzen was saying back in 1992? And why, nearly two decades later, in the wake of Climategate and the IPCC scandals this winter, are we only now beginning to confront the issues that he identified so long ago?

5 Responses to “Lindzen circa 1992 on consensus, climate models, funding, and motivation”

  1. With all these gems tumbling out of your attic, Harmless Sky is becoming the Antiques Roadshow of the sceptic blogosphere.
    It can’t be said too often that global warming is not an immutable scientific theory. It’s a historical process, a drama, a soap opera with a “story so far”, a cast of characters, a plot, and sponsors with an anxious eye on audience reaction. The Americans are excellent at analysing the data as it comes out and getting the story out to the wider blogosphere, but the British – Harmless Sky, Bishop Hill, Climate Resistance and Omniclimate (if Maurizio doesn’t mind being called British) – have shown a real talent for putting the story in context.

    A slightly offtopic suggestion. One of the few positive developments this year has been the general (begrudging) acknowledgment – by the BBC, the Guardian, the official enquiries, and a few brave scientists like Judith Curry – that the blogosphere counts. It can’t be ignored, but nobody can be forced to take notice of it either, as your recent post on the current BBC impartiality inquiry makes clear.
    You mentioned once that there was more behind the scenes contact between blogmasters than we might believe. Montford has broken into print with some success. What about a book from the British sceptic bloggers, a sort of sceptics’ compilation album of the best of British blogs? (with maybe some colonials like the excellent Joanne Nova and Donna Laframboise).

  2. Geoff:

    The value of reporting breaking news is obvious, but I sometimes wonder about the kind of commentary that you say the Brits do well. I certainly find it an interesting line to take, but it doesn’t have the same size of audience that the drama of ‘What’s the latest?’ attracts.

    The idea for an anthology is a very very good one, if a suitable editor could be found.

  3. TonyN
    Surely Montford’s editor would be interested in something from the same “stable”?
    It looks as though Lord Lawson’s Policy Foundation site aims to cover the “breaking news” angle in Britain, though the format is infinitely less attractive than Wattsupwiththat. Of course you don’t have the same size audience as Anthony Watts. (I hope the quality makes up for the lack of quantity ; ) Yours and the other blogs I mentioned are not for the convinced sceptic who knows it’s a fraud and doesn’t need to think any harder about it (because he can simply vote Republican and cheer on Anthony from the sidelines).

    Most of us here want to delve deeper (into the science, the politics, the media coverage, the history, or whatever) because we’re genuinely puzzled by the role played by the global warming drama in our society (or not in our society – since many of us are expatriates). We need these long articles, the unanswered questions and the tentative conclusions to prod our own minds into useful activity. Your readership may not be huge, but the day the mainstream media understand the true import of the global warming story, you and the other sceptical blogs will be a precious source. Bob Ward’s lamentable attempted hatchet job on Montford in the Guardian on Thursday was the first sign that you can no longer be ignored.

  4. TonyN

    In dusting off an old Lindzen article you conclude:

    As Lindzen makes clear, research is merely the tool of choice for leveraging political momentum, but this is at the risk of devaluing trust in science and in scientists.

    How true!

    But it not only goes for “science”.

    When religious dogma (in this case, Christianity) became the “tool of choice” for justifying war, repression or corruption, it eventually devalued trust in the Church.

    When Islam is used today as the tool of choice for justifying a war of terror against “infidels” it results in the same devaluation.

    Over the millennia one has become accustomed to organized religion being used as the tool for leveraging political power.

    It was no different with “science”, as it existed at the time, largely in support of the established power structure, with a few renegades either burned at the stake or otherwise ostracized.

    And it is the same today with “climate science”.

    Today one no longer talks of the “risk of devaluing trust in science and scientists”, as was the case when Lindzen wrote this piece. Since those heady days of Oscars and Nobel Peace Prizes, this “risk” has turned into a “reality”.

    As a result of its abuses, ”climate science” has suffered an immense loss of trust, as will the many once venerable scientific organizations and mainstream media, which were all too quick to jump on the AGW bandwagon for political reasons.

    And once trust is broken, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to ever reestablish it.

    As Judith Curry has acknowledged, the blogosphere (and blogs like this one by inference) have been instrumental in accelerating this process with the access to and exchange of instant uncensored information.

    It is almost pathetic to witness the feeble attempt by Bob Ward to turn this tide by ignoring what is going on around him and loudly reiterating the tired, old “mainstream message” in his attack on Montford.

    The disadvantage of the blogosphere vis-à-vis the MSM is that nonsense is not censored out, so that there are some less thoughtful, or even outright silly, blogs out there on any topic one can imagine.

    But the great advantage of the blogosphere (with possible exception of those sites, which are in the specific business of selling a pre-conceived “politically correct” message and not allowing any dissention) is that the truth is also not censored out for political or self-serving reasons, as is too often the case with the MSM.

    And this is the key differentiator that makes the blogosphere relevant.


  5. Lindzen seems to have spotted that Hansen and Co. were selling the sizzle and not the steak a long time ago.

    I have even more respect for him now.

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