TCS Daily

Climate-Change Scientists Confront an Ancient Elephant

By Kenneth Green - February 12, 2001 12:00 AM

Sometimes, reality enacts a great folktale with stunning clarity. That's what happened at a Rice University-James Baker Institute conference on climate change a few months ago, when six reputable scientists brought the story of the blind men and the elephant to life in a spectacular fashion.

For those unfamiliar with the story of the six blind men asked to identify an elephant, here's how it goes. A certain Raja called for six blind men and had them led to different parts of an elephant, asking them to explain what an elephant is like. One man feels the elephant's trunk, and says, "It's a giant snake." Another touches the elephant's flank, and says, "It's a wall." A third blind man touches a leg, and says, "It's a tree." The other blind men pronounce that the elephant is like a spear, a rope, or a fan, touching the elephant's tusk, or tail, or ear. In their dispute, the blind men take to railing at one another, to the Raja's great amusement.

The climate change conference enactment of this folktale began when Dr. Theodor Landscheidt from the Schroeter Institute for Research in Cycles of Solar Activity in Nova Scotia took the podium. Dr. Landscheidt put up many impressive charts, and argued that his research strongly suggests that the cause of the warming observed in the 20th Century was not greenhouse gases, but clearly results from an increase in the output of radiation from the sun.

But immediately after Dr. Landscheidt finished, Dr. Judith Lean, a research physicist with the Naval Research Laboratory, presented her most recent findings, arguing that whatever the cause of 20th Century warming was, it was not an increase in solar radiation. Dr. Lean's charts suggested that net solar output simply hadn't changed as much as the temperature had, and so changes in solar output could not be the sole cause of observed 20th Century warming.

Next on the podium was Dr. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist with Harvard University. Dr. Soon showed many charts suggesting that changes in the Earth's average temperature correlate with the frequency of sunspots. Dr. Soon's conclusion was that the likely cause of 20th Century warming was not increased solar radiation, but rather, was due to increased cosmic ray activity and its impacts on cloud formation.

Shortly after Dr. Soon finished, however, Dr. James Kennett with the University of California at Santa Barbara presented his findings. Dr. Kennett's research led him to argue that the cause of 20th Century warming was not solar radiation, nor cosmic rays, nor the traditional greenhouse gas such as carbon dioxide, but was due largely to the release of methane from deep-ocean pockets of methane hydrate.

Finally, Dr. Thomas Crowley of Texas A&M University took the podium with equally impressive charts and argued that his research strongly suggested that the warming of the 20th Century could indeed be blamed on the traditional greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and the like.

But Dr. Crowley's claims were clearly at odds with those made on the previous day by Dr. James Hansen, sometimes called the Father of Climate Change. Dr. Hansen, whose congressional testimony in the 1980s galvanized political interest in climate change, argued that the main cause of 20th Century warming was not the traditional greenhouse gases, as he'd argued for nearly 20 years. Rather, Dr. Hansen suggested that his latest research indicates that the cause of observed 20th Century warming is actually soot and other urban air pollutants, including methane.

It goes without saying that these six credible, reputable scientists, who all subject their work to scientific peer-review and publication, can't be equally right. It's also obvious that the policy prescriptions that would flow from believing any one of them to be right would do little to produce a positive outcome should any of the others turn out to be correct instead.

Advocates of rapid action on climate change like to portray the science as a done deal, and suggest that scientific understanding of climate change is sufficient to guide policy action. But a Western version of the elephant folktale better characterizes the situation. As poet Geoffrey Saxe explains: "So, oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween, tread on in utter ignorance, of what each other mean, and prate about the elephant, not one of them has seen!"

TCS Daily Archives