TCS Daily


Tech Central Station Interviews Leading Scientist on Global Warming

By James K. Glassman - March 5, 2001 12:00 AM

Kyoto "Absurd" Says MIT Scientist

Climate models exaggerate warming by failing to take into account how clouds behave, says Massachusetts Institute of Technology Dr. Richard S. Lindzen. The Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, one of the world's foremost atmospheric scientists, tells TechCentralStation host James Glassman that a new study out this month that he performed with NASA scientists shows clouds over the tropics "act as an effective thermostat." "Our personal feeling is that you're not going to see due to man's activities ...much more than a degree (of warming) and probably a lot less by 2100," said Lindzen, a consultant to the Global Modeling and Simulation Group at NASA`s Goddard Space Flight Center and a Distinguished Visiting Scientist at California Institute of Technology`s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also says the Kyoto Treaty on climate change "is absurd" and declares the released summaries of the upcoming United Nation's climate change report mischaracterize the work of scientists involved in writing it.

James K. Glassman: Dr. Lindzen, you're a lead author in one of the chapters of the upcoming U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report? A recently released summary of one of the chapters indicated that global warming could cause dreadful things. What do you think of that?

Dr. Richard S. Lindzen: It was not our chapter. That's Working Group Two. And saying someone is a lead author is wrong. The way the thing is written is you have probably a dozen or more lead authors for each chapter. You then have a coordinating lead author. Each chapter covers a wide range of things. Every author is responsible for only a page or two and usually he shares that responsibility with one or two others. And so it is not as though a whole bunch of people get together to write a collective statement about something they all know about. But rather it is a collection of hundreds of pieces of specialized information written by very small groups, and that's all they're asked to do. Now, one summary that came out in January was for the Scientific Working Tools, and it was bad enough. It gave ranges for global warming - it could be bad; it could be not so bad, etc. etc. The Working Group Two is a very peculiar group; it's called "Impacts" and their job was what I think lawyers would call to answer a "lead-in" question, namely, think of all the bad things that could be said that global warming might cause.

Glassman: The summary for Working Group Two, though, has gotten a lot of publicity.

Lindzen: I guess. Although I'm surprised personally how little. It had a day's worth of play. But I mean it sounded so peculiar -- plague and malaria; it was very much a children's exercise of what might possibly happen. But it was an exercise.

Glassman: Did you think that the public understood it to be a children's exercise?

Lindzen: Oh, I don't think so, but I think the public is far more skeptical than -- what do you call them -- the chattering classes?

Glassman: Far more skeptical of these claims of what global warming will do?

Lindzen: And you know, even in the more sophisticated level, I think more people than one realizes are aware of the fact that malaria existed in all sorts of places including Michigan and England until you eradicated mosquitoes.

Glassman: There are some in the Bush administration who are saying that a scientific consensus now exists about global warming, carbon dioxide and the human contribution to this process. Do you think there is a scientific consensus?

Lindzen: Can you do me a favor?

Glassman: Sure.

Lindzen: Give me your definition of consensus.

Glassman: Well, I would say that a consensus is an agreement or a near-agreement...

Lindzen: ...of almost everyone?

Glassman: ...of almost everyone, let's say three-quarters.

Lindzen: OK, OK. There are several things that I would say there's a consensus on. And I think the public often misunderstands that, too. There is a consensus that the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has gone up 25-30 percent in the last two centuries. There is a consensus that increasing CO2 is more likely to cause the temperature to go up than go down. There is perhaps a consensus, that is not surprising, among scientists working on this that their field is a serious field. You know, it's very rare that a field will say, "We're not serious," or "our problems are not serious." Beyond that, there is very little consensus because, as I was saying, the very structure of the report acknowledges that there are hundreds of different specialties that now call themselves climate, which didn't 10 years ago. And they all want a piece of the action. That itself has a problem. It means that the general approach to this problem has been terrifically defocused. There's been almost no prioritization of what is crucial to the predictions and what is peripheral.

Glassman: You did not say that there was a consensus that worldwide temperatures are going up; that the earth is getting hotter.

Lindzen: Oh, excuse me; I should include that as well. For the last hundred years, I think there is a general agreement that there is something like a half-degree increase in temperature. But one of the clear confusion factors is the temperature is always changing for the earth, so it only has two choices - going up or going down. It has done both, and that doesn't say that it's due to CO2; it doesn't say it's going to continue; it doesn't say anything beyond that. And what we're interested in, and I would think would be, is have we caused this? And that gets confused by statements that are made that some part of it is due to man. But that's consistent with it also being no problem at all. If less than half was due to man's activities, it says that the models have greatly overestimated the sensitivity.

Glassman: What would societies really have to do to have a significant - and I realize that is a vague word - but significant effect on climate? In other words, if the earth were getting hotter, what would people have to do to stop that?

Lindzen: Let's start with the fact that we do not know what the sensitivity of the climate is. We're not in a position to even answer that. You will notice that most of the statements have not really addressed that. They're saying what will we have to do to stabilize the amount of CO2. There's no conclusion as to whether this will have any impact on climate. But even to stabilize CO2 would require something it is estimated in the order of reductions probably between 40 and 60 percent in emissions.

Glassman: What are some of the most common errors that you have seen in press accounts about climate change?

Lindzen: Well, it's hard to even list them all off the top of my head. But when the IPCC (the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) gives a range, the press tends to focus on the top of the range and emphasize that that could be, without asking what are the conditions under which they say that could be. When you begin seeing six or seven conditions, each of them unlikely, you realize you're not talking about prediction really. The other thing is this linguistic thing. When you make a statement, most scientists -- whatever that means -- believe there is a discernible influence of man on temperature change. The media treat that as a statement that is a smoking gun without asking what the numbers mean. Most of the problems in the press coverage, I think, come from exploiting the fact that people don't look at the numbers on a graph. Say you're looking at about a half-degree temperature change. That's a very small amount. It's barely in the range of measurable. But if you take the graph and stretch it out vertically, it looks huge and people don't look at the scale. The confusion between temperature change and man's contribution simply because the English language uses the word "warming" for both is, I think, a serious issue. People think the issue is: "Has the temperature changed?" They're not aware of the fact the temperature changes all the time.

Glassman: Our website concentrates on matters of science and public policy. What advice would you give to the Bush administration about following up on the Kyoto Treaty?

Lindzen: Well, look, I'm not a policy wonk. I think the Kyoto Treaty is absurd. As somebody pointed out, we've already signed on to the framework convention in 1990 saying that we'll always want the Kyoto-type process going on. So one has to think through a variety of decisions and get out of this loop. I mean the U.S. has signed on to something that agrees to the precautionary principle.

Glassman: Could you tell us what the precautionary principle is?

Lindzen: Fundamentally, it says, even if you don't have the data, and even if you don't have the science, if somebody proposes a problem, you're supposed to act on it. And the fact of the matter is that if you're as ignorant as that, you don't have a clue as to whether your action will help or hurt.

Glassman: Is the precautionary principle a scientific principle that you scientists make?

Lindzen: Good God, no. It makes no logical sense at all. The way I summarize it is this: What they want the scientists to agree to is that everything is connected to everything, you know, the whole world is a system. And then they want us to agree that everything is terribly uncertain. Well, scientists can go along with that pretty much, although it's not so reasonable either. But once they go along with that, the conclusions that the environmentalists and politicians come to is anything can cause anything, and we better do something about it! And the second part is for adopting the precautionary principle, because you don't know what you're doing, it means if you have no agenda, follow my agenda.

Glassman: I just want to go back to something that is in a flyer talking about your talk that you gave in Washington Thursday organized by the Cooler Heads Coalition. And it says that one of the things that you're concerned about is an exaggeration of scientific accuracy and certainty. Could you just elaborate on that?

Lindzen: Well, yes. First of all, there's a public misconception. I don't think it's promoted by anyone. But it's that science is a source of authority. In fact, science is a method of inquiry and not a source of authority. And an example for instance is the notion of an error bar. All scientific data has uncertainty. The public never looks at that. And the IPCC, for instance, often shows graphs without it. Now, this time they included it. And they included it in the way that technically is wrong, or not wrong but misleading. You know what a standard deviation is?

Glassman: Sure.

Lindzen: OK. Normally, in physics experiments, you plot your error bar as three standard errors and that gives you 95 percent confidence. The IPCC tends to use one (standard deviation). Now the public thinks, "Well, scientists are very careful and conservative and so, for any normal person, 60 percent confidence is fine." But if you look at the past history of experimental data, you see that three times the standard deviation is usually reported as much smaller than the difference between the measurement and where the right answer eventually turns out to be. There's always a tendency to underestimate the error. And under the circumstances, for instance in that report that the temperatures now are greater than they've been for a thousand years, the error bar, one standard error on that, is huge compared to the numbers they're talking about. And so the data really shows nothing.

Glassman: But people think it's accurate because of the nature of the IPCC.

Lindzen: Yeah. Or the general misapprehension of science.

Glassman: What do you think about the IPCC's approach of using a summary written by, as I understand it, non-scientists to explain what is a pretty extensive, sophisticated report?

Lindzen: Yeah, you take 18 pages to describe what's in a thousand pages and you have plenty of latitude. Moreover, it's not the same people who do it. I mean, you have the report written piece-by-piece by a lot of people in varying degrees of confidence. Any person who's familiar with the scientific world knows that there are thousands of great climate scientists who are picking at what you've got. And then you write the summary, you have the editors participating, but they are usually not contributors to climate science. They're usually administrators. And then you have government representatives. And at the meeting at which you write the summary, you also have environmental representatives, you have industry representatives. And most of these, in fact almost all of these people, have no technical competence. They are just arguing about how these will appear. I'll give you an example. Our chapter was on physical processes, but it was at the heart of how nature works. And we found that there were terrible errors about clouds in all the models, and that that will make it impossible to predict the climate sensitivity because the sensitivity of the models depends primarily on water vapor and clouds. Moreover, if clouds are wrong, there's no way you can get water vapor right. They're both intimately tied to each other. So, what does the IPCC summary say? It knows was all of that. But it says, in summarizing Chapter 7, essentially: "Understanding of climate processes and their incorporation in climate models have improved including water vapor, CI's dynamics and ocean transports." No hint that this report itself indicates big problems.

Glassman: What part of it, the physical processes report, did you write?

Lindzen: I worked on clouds and water vapor.

Glassman: So, this is just one last general question, is there a model that gives you any degree of confidence, any of the models that are out there in climate?

Lindzen: At the moment, no. Despite the fact that you have numerous models, they all have a great deal in common. And, for instance, a paper that's just coming out this month that I've written with two colleagues at NASA was looking at data to see how clouds respond to temperature. And we find, in effect, what we referred to as the "iris effect," namely that in the tropics, when you have a warm region, the clouds coverage contracts to let out more heat. And when the temperature is less, the clouds expand to hold heat in. They act as a very effective thermostat. And we estimate on a global basis that this will take models that are predicting between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees warming due to doubling carbon dioxide and cut it back to about a half to one. Even if the models were right in what they had, and we further show that the models do not portray this effect, they do not simulate the data. They show no sign of it, and we know why. They don't have the physics underlying it. So our personal feeling is that you're not going to see due to man's activities, maybe nature will do it, but due to man's activities, we don't expect much more than a degree and probably a lot less by 2100.

Glassman: An increase in temperature of a degree.

Lindzen: Right.

Glassman: Centigrade or Fahrenheit?

Lindzen: Centigrade, but as I say, I think that's the highest.

Glassman: Right. Well, I really appreciate you spending this time with us.
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