Climate Activists and Skeptics Spar in a New Key

The debate goes on, but it's about the rate of climate change and its urgency, not the fundamentals

3 min read
Climate Activists and Skeptics Spar in a New Key


At the end of January 16 scientists and engineers had an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, "No Need to Panic about Climate Change." In it, they took issue with mainstream predictions about how fast global warming is taking place, asserting that "even if one accepts the inflated climate forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), aggressive greenhouse-gas control policies are not justified economically."

The 16 signatories included some of the usual suspects among climate skeptics but also some noteworthy individuals relatively new to the debates over global warming: aerospace engineer and SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan; former senator and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt; and American Physical Society fellow Roger Cohen. The 16 took issue in particular with a statement from APS, the world's foremost physics society, that evidence of global warming is "incontrovertible," which they have interpreted, dubiously, as implying that the case for action also is incontrovertible.

Among the evidence the 16 muster is work by William D. Nordhaus, Sterling Professor of Economics at Yale and probably the world's leading expert on the economics of carbon reduction policy. Nordhaus delivers a six-point rebuttal of the scientists in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, "Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong." Some of Nordhaus's arguments are open to debate, for example his vigorous claim that greenhouse gases are indeed "pollutants." But it seems safe to say that he's on solid ground when he specifies how the 16 misconstrued and misrepresented his own work.

Nordhaus's concise and to-the-points article can be accessed currently but soon will disappear behind a firewall, so the time to consult it is now.

Meanwhile the 16 climate skeptics have responded to some of their critics, albeit not Nordhaus, in a second Wall Street Journal article. In it, they document convincingly that actual global warming since 1990 has been well short of what the 1990, 1995, and 2001 IPCC reports predicted. They take pains to stress that they are not denying warming as such, only how fast it is and how big the human contribution is. They continue to be very worked up about the APS statement on global warming, which prompted the resignation from APS of Nobelist Ivar Giaever, who shared the prize in 2003 for work he had done at General Electric on tunneling phenomena in solids.

As the debates go on about how serious global warming is and how much needs to be done about it, evidence continues to accumulate that the fundamental premises of climate science and models are sound. One of the latest studies of interest came out of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, where researchers have validated experimentally the premise that the reflectivity of snow diminishes with the deposit of "black carbon" or soot--one of the important feedback phenomena believed to be accelerating warming and ice melt in the Arctic.

That may seem like proving the obvious, but there is more. The researchers found, as a press release put it, that "the greater the grain size of snow, the larger the decrease in its reflectance associated with a fixed amount of soot. Larger-grained snow allows sunlight to travel deeper into the snowpack than smaller-grained snow. Grain size is a proxy for the snow’s age because larger-grained snow is older than smaller-grained snow."

Even as the so-called climate skeptics are quietly conceding that warming is in fact taking place, and that the basic science of warming is sound,  people responsible at the operational level for maintenance of infrastructure increasingly take warming for granted. This week The New York Times science section carried an article saying that a road connecting North Carolina's famed Outer Banks (where the Wright brothers tested their first plane) probably will have to be abandoned in this century. Not only is the road itself harder and harder to service, but some of the islands it connects are expected to disappeared with rising ocean levels. "In 2010, the Times reported, a North Carolina coastal resources panel concluded that a sea level rise of about three feet is likely and should be “adopted as the amount of anticipated rise by 2100, for policy development and planning purposes.”








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