TCS Daily

"I Planned to Attend, But I Now Cannot..."

By TCS Daily - November 18, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This week the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank where TCS host James K. Glassman is a fellow, is holding a symposium on climate change issues called "Return to Rio: Reexamining Climate Change Science, Economics and Policy."


AEI asked scientists and other interested parties from around the country to participate. In the interest of balance, AEI asked several proponents of the hypothesis of an anthropogenic greenhouse effect to participate but were turned down consistently. One of those who enthusiastically accepted, however, was Martin Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University. Professor Hoffert originally agreed to participate, but then last week informed Sam Thernstrom and Ryan Stowers of the American Enterprise Institute, who were coordinating the conference, that he would be unable to attend. What follows below is their email exchange which we believe you will find of interest.


Email from Professor Hoffert to Mr. Thernstrom and Mr. Stowers:


Dear Sam and Ryan:


I planned to attend; but I now cannot, in good conscience, participate in your AEI conference on Nov. 19, "Return to Rio: Reexamining Climate Change Science, Economics, and Policy."


This saddens me. The topic is vitally important, and my colleagues and I have worked hard toward re-examination of Kyoto and new approaches to implementing the Rio Treaty based on government-industry partnerships to develop innovative energy technologies (see attached). And we are certainly in a political gridlock in the US on the climate/energy issue. So it would be good to have a productive direction to move toward when we come up for air from Iraq. Unfortunately, your meeting in my view is fatally weighted against such a productive outcome.


My problems are as follows:


(1) It's misleading and unsupported by peer-reviewed literature to say -- and you still say it in your announcement -- that "the science of climate change itself . . . has grown more uncertain" in recent years. Only a few climate contrarians hold this position. By accepting the notion of increasing uncertainty of human-induced climate change, when the peer-reviewed evidence is in the opposite direction, AEI is endorsing a kind of "voodoo science." This isn't the familiar name-calling of politics. We scientists believe nature exists objectively; independent of politics; and we've evolved imperfect but fairly effective institutions for screening our biases.


To understand whether human-induced climate is "real" requires some technical background. Your climate science session in the morning is way too short for tutorials on factors controlling temperatures in planetary atmospheres; radiative forcing by the sun, the carbon cycle, natural and human generated aerosol particles and greenhouses gases; the role of the oceans is in storing heat; and natural climate variability -- the bare minimum needed to understand human-induced climate change. Equally important is understanding how climate measurements are made both directly and remotely by satellites, how paleo-climatologists infer climate history from "proxies;" and what mathematical methods, specifically, are interposed between these measurements and curves labeled "observations."


No way can this be explicated to nonspecialists in a few hours well enough to judge competing claims. That's why we have reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals -- journals the contrarians don't publish in. (They say they've been blackballed by mainstream editors and reviewers.) To complicate matters, these "skeptics" have created privately published journals, with little or no peer review standards, but legitimate-sounding names, like the Journal of Energy and Environment -- a kind of "vanity press." Perhaps that's where you got that climate change science has become more "uncertain." To believe their findings, you have to accept that the editors and referees of mainstream journals including Science, Nature, the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, Climatic Change, Atmospheric Environment, Environmental Science and Technology, Climate Dynamics, Tellus, the Journal of Geophysical Research, Atmospheres and Oceans, Geophysical Research Letters and many others all conspired for decades to keep contrarian ideas out. This is preposterous on the face of it. But if someone believes it, for whatever reason, nothing I could say is likely to sway them.


Lack of time wouldn't be as much of an issue if AEI presented the consensus view of research-active climate scientists. You aren't. You're setting up a debate about issues most scientists consider settled by exchanges in peer-reviewed journals in a forum of nonexperts (in climate science) who should be concerned with policy issues. If only for this reason, count me out. I won't legitimize that a roughly equal balance of evidence exists for the views of climate contrarians and mainstream climate scientists. Might as well say "creationism" is equally valid to biological evolution.


[2] The "policy" part of your program is also highly problematic: The issue is that development of new non-CO2-emitting energy technologies is a promising bipartisan approach to developing an alternative US policy to Kyoto. As you know, the US Senate has already unanimously rejected (94 to 0) in a 1994 nonbinding, but highly significant, resolution any treaty to limit US emissions that doesn't also require developing nations to limit theirs. Since a 2/3 majority of the Senate is needed to ratify any treaty, Kyoto was dead even before George W. Bush formally withdrew the US. But again, you don't have the right people to discuss alternate energy intelligently (engineers and physicists who have actually worked on these technologies). Enough already with policy wonks and economists who never struggled to make a technology work -- I don't care if they're from the left or the right. If we want to solve this problem, we have to get into real technology issues (again, see attached).


Serious policy analyses of global warming mitigation from the fossil fuel greenhouse also needs to account for acknowledged climate uncertainties (these haven't changed for decades from the 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius steady state warming for a CO2 doubling), the link between allowable carbon emissions and CO2-emitting energy production, and energy demand implied by projected growth of GDP and declining energy intensity (E/GDP). The shortfall between the allowable energy from fossil fuels necessary to keep global warming below some specified level and total energy demand has to be made up by new emission-free-energy technologies. An analysis of this problem by Ken Caldeira, Atul Jain, and me was published last March in Science (attached). We developed this analysis as a tool for policy-makers. But from what I see on the program, no one on your "policy" panel has the expertise to discuss these issues. I would be pleasantly surprised if any of your panelists were even aware of it.


How can your discussants ask policy-relevant questions if they don't understand the technical issues? Absent a quantitative analysis of alternative policies to Kyoto, I expect a lot of hand-waving and polemics at your meeting, few truly effective recommendations. Haven't we had enough of this with Kyoto?


I mentioned early on my involvement in the policy side but you didn't put me in that session. Your suggestion that I participate in an hour-long free-for-all Interdisciplinary Roundtable open to all panelists at the end is no answer at all. Much as I respect your intentions, as meeting organizers you should have done your homework. At least read and assimilate the papers I attached before and now . Agree or disagree, you should ask the right questions. I trust that you sincerely want to get a handle on climate/energy policy, even as I also believe you made fatal mistakes structuring this meeting. Things will hopefully improve over time. There's a new wind blowing on the subject of global warming in the Republican Party -- as is evident from listening to John McCain and reading the recent speech on global climate change presented in Berlin by George Bush's Energy Secretary Spenser Abraham (attached).


It's a shame the American Enterprise Institute wasn't disposed to see this. Ironically, by throwing in with the pseudo-science of Baliunas et al., AEI can be blinded to major opportunities for economic growth via new environmentally benign US industries. The aerospace, computer and defense industries in particular -- presumably AEIs core constituencies -- could play major roles in the needed revolutionary transition to a non-CO2-emitting energy infrastructure worldwide. There is more to "American Enterprise" than multinational oil companies. That was the message I wanted to give. I only agreed to review the state of climate science to set the stage for this policy message. Ken Caldeira and I are writing a review article on the evidence for, and philosophy-of-science issues of, global warming, But this meeting isn't the place to discuss it.


Despite my seeming negativity, nothing would please me more than being wrong about your meeting. I wish you all the best with it. But, at least this time around, without me.




Marty Hoffert


Email from Mr. Thernstrom to Professor Hoffert in response:


Dear Marty:


While your email is lengthy, I must say it falls far short (in my mind) of providing an adequate explanation for withdrawing from our conference on a mere nine days notice. Every basic element of this conference was well known to you at the time that you accepted our invitation; you had ample opportunity to express these concerns, and to discuss them with me, at an earlier date. Although the subject line of your email poses the correct question ("Why I agreed; and why I am now withdrawing"), in fact your email provides no explanation of what has changed in the nature of this conference (nothing, in fact) that would explain your sudden change of mind.


What is really going on here seems quite clear to me: I have heard from friends in the environmental movement that there is strong political pressure for scientists to boycott our conference on the grounds that we are promoting debate about questions that the activists would like to believe have been "asked and answered." Rather than engage in legitimate debate, these activists seek only to intimidate their critics into silence. You have obviously bowed to that pressure, and for that, I am very disappointed. (The fact that your sudden decision comes at such a late date, and without even the courtesy of a phone call to discuss it, strikes me as strong evidence that my explanation for your motives is correct; the fact that my "green" friends knew of your decision before I did is further confirmation.)


Regarding all of your arguments concerning the "misleading and unsupported" claims we've made about the state of climate change science, I have only two simple points to make. First, if you believe these arguments, why not show up and ARTICULATE them to the audience and the other panelists? This is, of cours, exactly the sort of thing that people of good faith debate all the time. You understood perfectly well when we last spoke that you were being invited to offer a point of view that dissented from the organizers of the conference, and you seemed to relish that opportunity. (And on the specific matter of your desire to participate in the policy discussion, we explicitly discussed that on the telephone last month, and I told you at the time that I would offer you a place on the interdisciplinary roundtable at the end of the conference. You said that would be entirely satisfactory. Why the sudden change of heart?) You should have the courage of your convictions now, rather than simply calling us names and withdrawing from the conversation. And indeed, if you are correct in saying that Baliunas et al have been thoroughly discredited in the mainstream scientific community, it should be child's play for you to show up and completely embarrass her and her supporters with a devastating critique. If you're afraid to make that argument, perhaps the case is not as robust as you claim.


Secondly, on the general question of the validity of our approach in holding this conference and asking these questions, let me just remind you of what the National Academy of Sciences said on this question a couple of years ago:


The most valuable contribution U.S. scientists can make is to continually question basic assumptions and conclusions, promote clear and careful appraisal and presentation of the uncertainties about climate change as well as those areas in which science is leading to robust conclusions, and work toward a significant improvement in the ability to project the future. In the process, we will better define the nature of the problems and ensure that the best possible information is available for policy makers. (Committee on the Science of Climate Change, National Research Council, "Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions," 2001, p. 23.)


It does not sound like the National Academes considers climate skeptics the equivalent of creationists, as you would label them. And is it really your position that you are qualified to dismiss as mere "pseudo-scientific" "creationists" the opinions of scientists that Harvard University and the University of Delaware have given appointments to? This strikes me as extraordinary hubris on your part. And your claim that their work is solely published in non-peer reviewed journals is simply false. Would prestigious universities give appointments to scientists who refuse to submit their work to peer review? The argument is preposterous on its face.


AEI's conference, I believe, is well justified in precisely the terms the National Academies describes: continually questioning basic assumptions and conclusions, and promoting clear and careful appraisal of the uncertainties about climate change as well as those areas in which science is leading to robust conclusions. I considered your presence to be an appropriate contribution to that process, and I wonder why you feel qualified to insist that other distinguished scientists who you happen to disagree with should be denied an opportunity to express their viewpoints in a public forum?


AEI, in fact, has a long tradition of inviting panelists and presenters to discuss ideas that we do not agree with, and we are widely considered to be more scholarly and less partisan than many other think tanks. Although all of us at AEI have our own opinions about the subjects that we work on, we do not assume that our opinions are the last word on anything; to the contrary, we believe that all of us can learn from each other, and that a debate is only honest and interesting when there are genuinely dissenting voices at the table. This, to me, is the essence of both scientific inquiry and public policy debate. I am entirely at a loss to understand how your decision to boycott our event at such short notice could possibly be seen to be in keeping with the finest traditions of academic debate and the free exchang of ideas, and I strongly encourage you to reconsider this decision. If you choose to appear, you will receive more than a fair amount of time to express your thoughts, and you would appear on panels that are quite fairly balanced. (Indeed, if at any point you had recommended additional panelists, or made any specific suggestions about ways to improve the conference, I would have taken your ideas quite seriously.) If you do not appear, your side of the debate will be poorly represented, and we will instead be forced to discuss the fact that environmental advocates are unwilling and unable to engage in the sort of constrictive and civil dialogue that is customary in every other field of science and public policy. I think that would be quite unfortunate.




Sam Thernstrom



What follows below is the original email from Professor Hoffert expressing his interest in participating, which he later agreed to do.


Dear Messers Stowers & Thernstrom:


I'm delighted that the American Enterprise Institute is treating global warming science and global warming policy seriously. I'd very much like to participate in your conference, though I have to get someone to cover my NYU class on Wednesday, November 18. As I said in my brief phone conversation with Ryan,  it may be more effective for you to read my comments below and attachments to this E-Mail before we talk about this in more detail.


Regarding climate models & their accuracy: Current models can explain most of the global warming observed over the past 30 years from a combination of solar variations, aerosols that scatter sunlight, and fossil fuel CO2 that accumulating in the atmosphere. We can also account for general features like the observed polar amplification of the warming. And we can project with reasonable certainty that Earth's surface will eventually warm from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius from the doubling of atmospheric CO2 that will almost certainly occur from continued fossil fuel burning this century. This rate of warming is unprecedented since the first proto-humans appeared on the scene, and could have significant adverse impacts on the global economy, human health and the natural biosphere in the near and long-term. Early warning signs include the highest global mean temperatures ever recorded by surface thermometers (now found to be consistent with satellite observations of mid-troposphere temperatures), rates of heat penetrating the oceans, the thinning of sea ice measured by surface ships and submarines, the melting of alpine glaciers, and many other indicators. All of this was predicted from climate models incorporating the "greenhouse effect," and documented in hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles. The theory is scientifically defensible, and doesn't require sophisticated climate models to understand and demonstrate. We're less able to predict details like country-by-country changes in temperature and precipitation from three-dimensional climate models.


We certainly know enough to motivate the development of technological options, primarily alternate energy systems, to continuing fossil fuel burning with CO2 up the stacks and into the atmosphere. The legacy of the Hydrocarbon Age from the CO2 remaining in the atmosphere if we burn most of the remaining fossil fuel reserve is  likewise unprecedented -- with the potential to warm the Earth some 10 degrees Celsius, to conditions typical of the mid-Cretaceous 100 million years ago when the poles were deglaciated and reptiles roamed high latitudes.


Sorry guys, but it is in my opinion unsupported by the peer-reviewed literature to say  that  "the science of climate change itself . . . has grown more uncertain" in recent years. On the contrary, global warming from the fossil fuel greenhouse is increasingly evident, its future impacts increasingly threatening. It is true that the precise magnitude of  human-altered climate and its geographical distribution remain uncertain, and will likely be so until nature supplies the answer. The technical reasons for this are well understood by most climate scientists.


Bear in mind also philosopher of science Karl Popper's observation that it's impossible to prove any scientific hypothesis -- e.g., the fossil fuel greenhouse effect.  Even when a predicted outcome like global warming happens, it's possible that some effect other than the hypothesized one is responsible. Accordingly, one looks to many different kinds of observational tests to rule out competing theories. Often seemingly unrelated phenomena are connected at a deeper level by physical theory.  We can however say a theory is wrong if its predictions don't happen. Scientific discovery is about falsifying hypothesis. Scientists are always seeking to shoot down each others theories. The theories left standing are the ones adopted to describe and predict cause and effect. The more tests  passed -- any of which could kill a theory -- the more confident we become in predictions of that theory. Eventually a "tipping point" is reached when the consensus of knowledgeable researchers accepts a theory -- always keeping the door ajar to new data that could upset it. For me, and for most of my atmospheric science colleagues, the tipping point on global warming from fossil fuel burning was reached  some time ago. I know there are climate skeptics fighting a rear guard action -- some of whom will remain unconvinced to the end of their days. Not me. I'd be happy to give a talk on these issues, and to show how recent observational evidence makes global warming more, not less, certain; provided I can participate in the policy side of the discussion as well.                    


I agree that global warming has become so politicized in recent years that it's been virtually impossible to have an objective discussion in DC about it: If you're a Democrat, you believe in global warming. If you're a Republican, you don't. Forgive me if I seem to be oversimplifying, but that's my experience. We should stop this. You can't fool Mother Nature. The most important tasks in my view is not to endlessly debate the reality of global warming from fossil fuel burning -- an issue most active climate scientists considered settled enough to consider taking actions to cope with it. We should, of course, keep researching issues like cloud feedback, aerosol scattering effects, and numerical simulations. But  for me and my colleagues, the important questions are: How can we most effectively mitigate adverse climate change? And particularly, what is the role of alternate energy R & D by the US?


I've attached recent papers that appeared in Science and Mechanical Engineering on this theme so you can see where I'm coming from. In our view, mitigating global warming will require revolutionary changes in energy technology. It will be a hard, but doable problem, requiring government funding of innovative R & D, and massive industry participation similar to that of the defense establishment and the space program during Apollo. You will see that we too are not fans of Kyoto, arguing that it is both too weak and too strong, and in any event besides the point. And you may be surprised that Spenser Abraham, President Bush's Secretary of Energy, agrees with many of our arguments, citing the conclusions of our Science paper verbatim in a speech he gave recently in Berlin on the Bush Administration's climate program (attached).


I hope we talk again about my possible participation in your conference after you folks have looked over the attachments and the arguments above. I look forward to it.




            Marty Hoffert


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