The Heartland Institute's International Conference on Climate Change (motto: "global warming is not a crisis"), which ended yesterday in New York City, might be quickly written off because of the "dizzying range" and inconsistency of ideas expressed, as Andrew Revkin put in The New York Times, or the presumed vested interests bankrolling the meeting. But that is too facile. If nothing else, Heartland--which describes itself as dedicated to "promoting free-market solutions to social and economic problems"--mustered an impressive number of cosponsors: more than 50 organizations with a similar social philosophy, many of them in Europe.
Free marketeers have looked upon climate alarmism with a jaded eye, seeing it as a Trojan horse for statism, central planning, and internationalism. But can they actually muster credible scientists to support their suspicions? The Heartland meeting, which took place March 3-4, suggests that they still can.
To sample the situation, I attended a set of sessions about paleoclimatology, the study of the earth's climatic prehistory, gleaned from study of tree rings, and ice cores, among other indicators. I found a good deal to support my skepticism about the climate skeptics: highly technical talks with eccentric claims by scientists who are not actually climate professionals; selective use of limited time periods and data sets to support sweeping conclusions; scant mention of the pioneering geologists, ecologists, and glaciologists who laid the foundation for what's been, in the last 50 years, a revolution in paleoclimatology.
In a whole morning of talks about paleoglaciology, I heard scant mention of the ice scientists Dansgaard and Oeschger, and no critical discussion of their work. It's as if one were to hear four hours of talks critiquing the revolution in modern physics without mention of Einstein and Bohr.
But it was not all eccentric, empty, or ill-informed, either. Commenting on the 650,000-year ice-core record of greenhouse gases and global temperatures, astrophysicist Willie Soon poked fun with a cartoon comparing the relative roles of the Sun and carbon dioxide: the former Chicago Bears tackle Refrigerator Perry represented the Sun, while CO2 was personified by an average-sized Asian, namely Soon himself. Soon, who works for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, asked pointedly why the record shows changes in temperature leading rather than lagging behind changes in greenhouse gas levels, if it's the carbon dioxide and methane changes that supposedly cause climate change. "It's as if we said that cancer causes cigarette smoking," he said, echoing other speakers.
That's not the only argument we'll be hearing more and more, as the debate heats up in the next year over whether the United States should adopt a carbon trading system and commit to a Kyoto-like schedule of greenhouse gas cuts. To judge from my Heartland sample, we'll also be hearing doubts cast on the generally accepted estimate of pre-industrial greenhouse gas levels, the magnitude and geographic extent of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, and the scope and significance of carbon uptake by the oceans.
The climate skeptics are complaining that they have trouble being heard, and they may have a point. On the eve of the Bali conference, with Australia and perhaps even the United States heading toward belated membership in the Kyoto regime, 100 scientists signed a petition to the U.N. Secretary General rejecting climate alarmism. Sure, a lot of them were the usual suspects, people like Fred Seitz, the distinguished semiconductor physicist who first emerged in the public arena as an enthusiastic adherent of Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program, and in recent years has just as enthusiastically denounced climate alarmism. But there also were some eye-catching new names, notably Freeman Dyson, the maverick math and physics theorist at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Studies who is always interesting and often right.