Their Arguments Don't Hold Up

Why do many laymen oppose drastic climate action despite what scientists say?  Among the reasons is that not all scientists favor such actions.  But for some of us a major reason is what’s written by so many scientists who do. 

A case in point is Lawrence M. Krauss’s recent attack on Steven E. Koonin, apparently triggered by Dr. Koonin’s upcoming book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.  Dr. Krauss fumbles right from the start by implying that Dr. Koonin is as dismissive of other disciplines as Dr. Krauss says prominent physicists Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman were. 

The truth is quite different: Dr. Koonin actually accepts the peer-reviewed literature on which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) assessment reports are based.  He merely argues that the apocalyptic impression we get from the press and politicians is a gross distortion of that literature.   Paraphrasing a line from The Princess Bride he tells votaries of the apocalyptic view that “‘the science’ doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

As he said in a recent interview:

“The problem is there’s a long game of telephone that goes on which starts with the peer-reviewed literature: the reports of the basic research written by scientists for scientists. . . .  Then there’s the process of putting the assessment reports together, which can go on for a couple years typically [and] involve hundreds if not thousands of people contributing.  They are a narrative, if you like, that is meant to convey things to non-experts.  Then there are the summaries for policy makers of the assessment reports, which further distill the understanding down.  And then finally you get to the media, which translate it for the general public.

“And . . . very few people actually read the assessment reports.  [So] there’s ample opportunity for mischief along that chain of refining and filtering to spin things one way or the other.”

The apocalyptic view is that we have a climate “crisis” or “emergency,” that global warming is an “existential threat,” or that we should fear a climate “disaster.”  What Dr. Koonin instead finds in the IPCC literature is that, for example,  the end-of-the-century cost of even a 5°C (9°F) temperature increase would be only a 6% lower gross world product: a growth delay of just three years. 

Dr. Krauss’s piece might have been more convincing if it had specifically rebutted Dr. Koonin’s description of this or any other IPCC-literature finding, such as that despite the substantial carbon-dioxide-concentration increase U.S. heat waves are no more common now than they were at the beginning of the Twentieth Century and that the warmest temperatures in the U.S. have not gone up in the past fifty years.  Instead, Dr. Krauss merely states conclusorily that Dr. Koonin “is doing a disservice to both climate science and the public” and observes that “Dr. Koonin has devoted significant time to examining the results of climate modelers, but he has not been directly involved in the modeling.” 

Why Dr. Krauss might believe that the latter observation undermines Dr. Koonin’s view is puzzling; Dr. Koonin taught physics at Caltech for thirty years and wrote Computational Physics, so he’s more than qualified to recognize without doing the calculation that the models’ resolutions are woefully unequal to the task and that their results don’t match reality.

Instead of directly addressing what Dr. Koonin has actually said, Dr. Krauss satisfies himself with gauzy generalities and isolated factoids that don’t contradict Dr. Koonin but may sound to the unwary as though they do.  The most charitable thing that can be said about Dr. Krauss’s generalities and factoids is that they’re misleading.

It’s profoundly deceptive of Dr. Krauss to say, for example, that “The basic physics underlying global climate change is clear and has been clear for over 100 years.”  True, carbon-dioxide spectroscopy is fairly clear.  But there’s no serious disagreement about that—or about the fact that the projected carbon-dioxide increase’s temperature effect would be modest by itself and probably beneficial. 

What are controversial are the high temperature-change predictions that modelers base on guesses about the effects of water vapor, aerosols, and their cloud-forming interactions, and no serious scientist professes to believe that such effects are well understood.  Even if they were, current computer power isn’t capable of spatial resolutions fine enough to handle resulting emergent phenomena such as thunderstorms.

Then there are Dr. Krauss’s manipulative tactics such as the statement that the “oceans have taken up . . . additional heat . . .  equivalent to an energy deposit of about 3.4 billion Hiroshima scale atomic bombs over the past 25 years.”  This quantity actually is less than three-tenths of a percent of the solar radiation the oceans absorbed in that time.  Given that ocean heat content has always been changing, we’re left to wonder why we should consider so small an imbalance alarming.  Dr. Krauss doesn’t tell us.

And what are we to make of Dr. Krauss’s characterizing the climate community as “thousands of climate scientists . . . who openly present their data and models, warts and all, for critical peer review”?  Has he never heard of “hockey stick” author Michael Mann, who has sued others for criticizing his work and lost after reportedly refusing to provide the data behind it?  Or former John Cook University physics-department chairman Peter Ridd, who was fired for publicly criticizing alarmist ocean-acidification papers? 

The title of Dr. Krauss’s piece proclaims that “climate science is like the rest of science,” but in an important way that statement is inconsistent with the experience of former Princeton physics professor William Happer.  As director the Department of Energy’s Office of Science in the early ’90s, he discovered that environmental science differs greatly from high-energy physics, nuclear physics, materials science, the human genome, and the many other fields over which the Office had responsibility.  In most fields funded by the Office its grants’ principal investigators were delighted to give the seminars requested of them, and they enjoyed being questioned during their talks.  “But, with honorable exceptions, principal investigators working on environmental issues were reluctant to come to our Washington offices, and evasive about answering the questions that were so welcome to briefers from other fields.”

Although there are indeed thousands of people who call themselves climate scientists, what rings truer to some of us who have followed the debate for over a decade is veteran climate modeler Mototaka Nakamura’s observation in Confessions of a Climate Scientist that the climate-science community resembles an inverted pyramid.  A small handful of modelers produce the assumptions on which the large majority of climate scientists base their work, often treating modelers’ computer-laundered speculations as data. 

It seems likely that most scientists base their support for the “consensus” not so much on their own work as on what other scientists say.  Former chairman of the Georgia Tech School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Judith Curry admitted, for example, that before Climategate she had aligned with the view that carbon dioxide is the climate dial “because I thought supporting the IPCC consensus was the responsible thing to do.”  And before a 2014 workshop that Dr. Koonin had convened as chairman of an American Physical Society committee caused him to reassess, he had worked for years both in the private (BP p.l.c.) and the public (Obama administration) sectors to forestall the effects of carbon-dioxide emissions.

So we’re entitled to doubt the apparent certainty projected by Dr. Krauss in contending that “sea levels will rise by at least 0.4–1m by 2100 independent of planned global reduction of fossil fuel burning” and that predictions like that “are solid.”  How can he know?  That increase would imply that the eighty-year trend will be 5–12 mm/year, which is two to five times as high as that trend has ever reached in a two-century-long record.  Even though carbon-dioxide levels have been increasing substantially since the middle of the last century, moreover, that trend has fallen since the mid-’80s. 

It may help to remember that before their higher education climate scientists were school kids probably inculcated with the view that fossil-fuel use is unnatural and therefore bad.  Opposing it therefore probably makes many of them feel virtuous.  This is unfortunate.  To paraphrase Hoosier poet Max Ehrmann, we’re children of the universe; no less than the trees and the stars, we have a right to be here. 

Humans are no less a part of nature than the calcareous organisms that over the eons removed so much carbon from the cycle of life that during the last glaciation plant life came perilously close to carbon-dioxide starvation.  So instead of seeing humans’ fossil-fuel use as unnatural perhaps we should look upon it as nature’s way of restoring the state that supported evolution of most complex life, including our primate ancestors.

For many of us laymen the climate question boils down to whether the (speculative) benefit to future generations justifies the (more-certain) cost of avoiding emissions today.  Again, even a 5°C increase by the end of the century is estimated to delay gross-world-product growth by only three years.

Moreover, there are reasons to suspect that this “social cost of carbon” estimate is too high.  As was explained, for example, by Walton Francis, a former director of regulatory analysis at the Department of Health and Human Services, “[The IPCC] has published epidemiologically absurd claims that vector borne diseases such as malaria and yellow fever might return to North America, where such diseases were endemic two hundred years ago—when temperatures were far lower than today—and are now nonexistent.” 

And Oren Cass found that the EPA arrived at its social-cost-of-carbon estimate by projecting year-2100 heat-death rates in northern cities like Pittsburgh to be 42-80 times the current rates in southern cities like Phoenix—which were already hotter in the year 2000 than northern cities are predicted to be in 2100.  It seems likely that other costs, too, are based on the assumption that people won’t adapt—as though, e.g., Indiana farmers wouldn’t be smart enough to adjust their seed selections, crop mixes, and planting schedules to take advantage of whatever climate changes occur.

Even if those cost estimates aren’t overblown, though, we should consider wealth growth.  Remember, women in some parts of the world still spend large amounts of time daily just toting water, which may or may not be clean.  Should their escape by electrification from such drudgery be delayed just to make their great-grandchildren, who may otherwise be, say, 480% (a 2% annual increase for eighty years) as rich as their great-grandparents, 6% richer still?

The abstinence-as-insurance argument is the usual response to this question, but such a response is based on the assumption, which Dr. Krauss encourages, that something apocalyptic has a significant probability.  In what he ludicrously characterizes as a “scientific vein” he uses Pascal’s Wager implicitly to liken possible carbon-dioxide-emission consequences to eternal damnation. 

He seems to justify this by model projections that temperatures may increase by as much as 8°C.  But Dr. Nakamura admitted that climate models are totally useless for any medium- or long-term prediction.  Anyway, we know that at most one of the many models could be right, and an incorrect model’s prediction tells us nothing about how likely such a large increase would be.

Also, apocalyptic consequences of such higher temperatures seem fanciful in light of the actual IPCC literature.  Again, most complex life evolved while the carbon-dioxide concentration was much higher than climate scientists project it will reach.  And the Netherlands adapted to sea-level rise when that nation was much poorer than it is now.  So why should we suppose that future generations nearly five times as wealthy as we currently are wouldn’t be able to cope just fine, thank you, with any such increases? 

By and large, skeptics don’t reject the science.  As Dr. Koonin put it, it’s just that they don’t think “the science” means what so many people think it means.  If it did, alarmists like Dr. Krauss could make better arguments than they seem capable of.