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MIT climate skeptic speaks at Sandia

Image of Lindzen is Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.
Lindzen is Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Richard Lindzen, a global warming skeptic, told about 70 Sandia researchers in the 2nd floor lecture room of 858EL in early June that too much was being made out of climate change by researchers seeking government funding. He said their data and their methods were insufficient to support their claims.

“Despite [these researchers’] concerns over the last decades with the greenhouse process, they oversimplify the effect,” he said of scientists who act as though global warming is already in process and the result of carbon dioxide emissions. “Simply cranking up CO2 [as the explanation] is not the answer.” 

Lindzen, the ninth speaker in Sandia’s Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series, is Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences. He has published more than 200 scientific papers and is the lead author of Chapter 7 (”Physical Climate Processes and Feedbacks”) of the International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Third Assessment Report. Among other  honors, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorology Society.

Speaking slowly and methodically with flashes of humor – “I always feel that when the conversation turns to weather, people are bored”- he said that a basic problem with current computer climate models that show disastrous increases in temperature is that “relatively small variations in positive feedback [from atmospheric gases] lead to large changes in [model temperature] response. For negative or small positive feedbacks, change is small. It’s the positive feedbacks in the models that lead to large [predicted] results.”

How believable are the large positive feedbacks showing dramatic climate change? Lindzen said, “Predictions based on high [climate] sensitivity ran well ahead of observations.”

Modeling greenhouse gasses

All IPCC models display large positive changes, which imply feedback from gasses is increasing, but real-world observations do not support this, he said. “We’ve already seen a doubling of CO2 that has produced very little warming.”

He disparaged proving the worth of models by successfully applying their criteria to the prediction of past climatic events. He said, “The models [in those uses] are no more valuable than answering a test when you have the questions in advance.” Modelers, he said, merely have used aerosols as a kind of fudge factor to make their models come out right.

For 30 years, he said, climate scientists have been “locked into a simple-minded identification of climate with greenhouse gas level…. That climate should be the function of a single parameter [like CO2] has always seemed implausible. Yet an obsessive focus on such an obvious oversimplification has likely set back progress by decades.”

More likely the greater effect on climate than CO2, he said, is the amount of polar ice that survives any given summer.

He felt that there is little evidence that changes in climate are producing extreme weather events. “Even the IPCC says there is little if any evidence of this. In fact, there are important physical reasons for doubting such anticipations.”

He posited that in a warmer climate, there would be reduced temperature difference between the poles. Since it’s believed to be differences in temperature that cause extratropical storms and other extreme weather events, there would seem to be less reason for extreme events, not more. “Thus, on physical grounds, most of us should expect reduced intensity of storms and variability. However, this apparently is not ‘alarming,’ so the opposite is asserted.”

Then there is the question of what, practically speaking, can be done about temperature increases if indeed they are occurring, he said. “China, India, Korea are not going to go along with IPCC recommendations, so [nothing effective can be done] and the only countries punished will be those who go along with the recommendations.”

National security implications

In terms of national security, he said that “historically there is little evidence of natural disasters leading to war, but economic conditions have proven much more serious. [Yet] almost all proposed mitigation policies lead to reduced energy availability and higher energy costs. All studies of human benefit and national security perspectives show that increased energy is important.”

He showed a PowerPoint graph from a study that showed that more energy consumption leads to higher literacy rate, lower infant mortality, and a lower number of children per woman.

Given, he said, that proposed policies are unlikely to significantly influence climate and that lower energy availability could be considered a significant threat to national security, to continue with a mitigation policy that lowers available energy “would, at the least, appear to be irresponsible.”

In answer to audience questions about rising temperatures, he said, “0.8 [of a degree C] change in temperature in 150 years – nothing changes the basic fact that you’re looking at small change.”

Questioned by his audience about five, seven, and 17-year averages that seem to show that Earth’s surface temperature is rising, he said, “I can understand if a baseball fan obsesses with averages that vary by one decimal point, .356 or .354, but with temperature, tenths of a degree, it’s always fluctuating that much.”

Future uncertainty

As for the future, “Uncertainty plays a huge role in this issue.  It’s not that we expect disaster, it’s that the uncertainty is said to offer the possibility of disaster: Implausible, but high consequence. Somewhere it has to be like the possible asteroid impact: Live with it.”

To a sympathetic questioner who said, “You are like a voice crying in the wilderness. It must be hard to get published,” Lindzen said that billions of dollars go into funding climate studies and that “The reward for solving problems is that your funding gets cut. It’s not a good incentive structure.”

That Lindzen may feel scientifically isolated is understandable because almost all major professional societies have come out counter to his position. But he doesn’t feel they are necessarily right. “Why did the American Physical Society take a position?” he asked his audience rhetorically. ["The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring," said the APS statement on Nov. 18, 2007 in part.] Why did they find it compelling? They never answered.”

Europe’s attachment to espousing climate change is more cynical, he believes. “They’ll drop it on a dime once it has no advantage. Science latched on to this as a shooting star, but it is a losing, losing operation. This is a tiny field with a meager record of accomplishment but in the US alone it has gotten $80 billion in funding. If you’re studying butterflies, it must say butterflies and global warming [to increase your chance of funding]. Biology survived the war on cancer by figuring out how to do biology and cancer [but] it’s harder to adjust high-energy physics to climate change.”

Responding to global warming

It may be that science has “entered a silly season” with global warming, he said, which it would regret later.

To later questions as to whether the prudent approach to possible climate change would be to prepare a gradated series of responses, much as insurance companies do when they insure cars or houses against wrecks or fires, Lindzen did not shift from his position that nothing needs doing until more data is gathered.

To another Sandian who pointed out the large number of models by researchers around the world that suggest increases in world temperature, Lindzen responded he was doubtful that the models were independently derived but instead might produce common results because of their common origins.

Asked by Center 1400 director and speaker series host Rob Leland, “What is the most constructive thing we could do at this point?” Lindzen responded that maybe the best thing would be to take science funding back to the time between post-WWII and the mid-60s, with longer grant times and fewer and shorter applications. “We’d see a gush of productivity, not about CO2 but how does climate work?

“Because we knew so little, we were vulnerable.”

The Climate Security lecture series is funded by Sandia’s Energy, Climate and Infrastructure Security division. Rob Leland is director of Sandia’s Climate Security Program.