Posted by: bmeverett | November 4, 2009

Unter den Lindzen


If Galileo could see our climate change debate today, he would undoubtedly roll his eyes and ask why nothing has changed over the centuries. Galileo was an early practitioner of science – a very simple way of gaining knowledge about the natural world. We start with a falsifiable hypothesis and test it against empirical evidence.
For those of us who are not scientists, here’s a simple definition of scientific knowledge. Drop a golf ball from a height of 1 meter at a specified location and under specified conditions of air pressure, temperature, wind, humidity and rotation. How long will it take to hit the floor? The answer is about 0.45 seconds. How do we “know” this? Is it because we have polled the scientific community and found that most scientists agree? Is it because a preponderance of peer-reviewed articles in the scientific press support this answer? Neither of the above. We “know” how long the golf ball will take to hit the floor because we have clear empirical evidence derived from dropping the golf ball and timing its fall. You don’t need to rely on anyone else’s opinion. You can try it for yourself.
Another way of looking at this problem is that science is the ability to predict. If your hypothesis cannot make predictions, it has no meaning. For example, the hypothesis “When dropped, the golf ball will move as God directs it” may be true but has no predictive value, cannot be tested empirically and is therefore not a scientific question. Galileo tried to apply the scientific method to some of the most interesting questions of his time. For example, does the Sun revolve around the Earth or vice-versa? The Church, which found the scientific approach threatening, insisted that biblical authority was all that mattered. Since all ecclesiastic scholars agreed that the Sun revolves around the Earth, the question was settled. QED.
Climate change is an exceedingly complex issue. Everyone is aware that the Earth’s climate changes over time. Nobody that I know questions that fact. The issue is whether we understand why and how climate changes. Pictures of polar bears and retreating glaciers are meaningless, as is the constant barrage of stories about droughts, severe weather, animal migrations, Arctic ice melt and all the other “warning signs” of impending catastrophe.
The Earth is habitable only because the atmosphere traps heat through the “greenhouse effect.” Physics does tell us that atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbs certain wavelengths of radiation, thereby enhancing the greenhouse effect. Water vapor, however, mainly in the form of clouds, accounts for 95% of the greenhouse effect, and carbon dioxide, by itself, cannot warm the atmosphere very much. The real question, in fact the only question, is how do increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 affect the entire climate system.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has all the hallmarks of the medieval approach of biblical authority. Since most of the hundreds of scientists involved in the IPCC work agree that human-induced climate change is a serious threat, the science is therefore settled. Not true. The climate computer models used by the IPCC contain a small amount of science buried under massive assumptions. The critical assumption is that the climate system has powerful positive feedback loops. In other words, when the system is disturbed, for example by man-made carbon dioxide emissions, other elements of the system amplify the effect, causing the greenhouse effect to accelerate and reach a “tipping point.”
This assumption might be true, but then again it might not. After all, many natural systems contain negative feedback loops which counteract disturbances. Bacterial infections in the human body, for example, disturb our biological equilibrium, but provoke the production of anti-bodies which counteract the bacteria, thus restoring equilibrium. If we did not have these negative feedback loops, we would all quickly die.
We have before us a straightforward hypothesis from the IPCC: the feedback loops in the climate system are positive. We can argue about this all day long, but science tells us exactly what to do: examine the empirical evidence. If the hypothesis is correct, then radiation emitted from the top of the Earth’s atmosphere should decrease as CO2 emissions increase. That would mean that the Earth is retaining more energy which will heat the atmosphere.
Professor Richard Lindzen, along with his colleague Prof. Yong-Sang Choi, both respected MIT climatologists, decided to review the actual data from NASA’s Earth Radiation Budget Experiment (ERBE) to see what the evidence shows. The ERBE program involved the launch of a special satellite plus the installation of instruments on two other satellites launched by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1984 and 1986. This program now offers us real data series on what radiation the Earth received and what radiation it sent into space.
Lindzen and Choi’s analysis, published in August of 2009 by the journal “Geophysical Research Letters” indicates that, as sea surface temperatures increase, the amount of radiation the Earth emits into space goes up, not down. In other words, the climate feedback processes are negative, not positive as assumed by every single one of the models used by the IPCC. If true, then the Earth may be adjusting to increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Lindzen and Choi’s article is not definitive, but it casts doubt on the most powerful assumption of the IPCC work.
A good scientific debate should follow, with scientists cross-checking Lindzen and Choi’s data and looking for other empirical ways to test the feedback hypothesis. Some of that is indeed happening, but we also get what we’ve come to expect in the climate change debate – personal attacks on Lindzen. The website Climate Progress.org, for example, calls Lindzen “MIT’s Uber-hypocritical anti-scientific scientist” and refers to his writings as “disinformation.” Greenpeace calls Lindzen a “climate criminal” and accuses him of taking work direction from ExxonMobil.
The “climate community” has rejected science in favor of the approach favored by the medieval Catholic Church. Since the IPCC’s members agree on climate change, the issue is settled. No room for dissent and certainly no need for empirical testing. After all, argue many of the IPCC members, what’s important is generating public support for carbon reduction policies, not getting the science right.
This view is dangerous and troubling. The basis of democracy is respect for the views of the electorate. When scientists, even with the best of intentions, abandon science to advocate for climate change policies, the public debate is distorted. The effort to drive dissenting views out of the discussion is even worse. After a while, the drive to score debating points overwhelms our ability to see what is true. Americans are quite capable of making sensible political decisions through our electoral process if given the right information, even if that information is ambiguous.
The “climate community” needs to decide whether they want to discover the truth or just win the argument.

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