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Monday, June 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Global-warming skeptics continue to punch away

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It should be glorious to be Bill Gray, professor emeritus. He's the guy who predicts the number of hurricanes that will form during the coming tropical-storm season. He works in the atmospheric-science department of Colorado State University. He's mentored dozens of scientists.

But he's also outraged.

Much of his government funding has dried up. He has had to put his own money, more than $100,000, into keeping his research going. If none of his colleagues comes to his funeral, he says, that'll be evidence that he had the courage to say what they were afraid to admit.

Which is this: Global warming is a hoax.

He has testified about this to the U.S. Senate. He has written magazine articles, given speeches, done everything he could to get the message out.

"I've been in meteorology over 50 years. I've worked damn hard, and I've been around. My feeling is some of us older guys who've been around have not been asked about this. It's sort of a baby-boomer, yuppie thing."

Gray believes in observations. Direct measurements. Numerical models can't be trusted. Equation pushers with fancy computers aren't the equals of scientists who fly into hurricanes.

"Few people know what I know. I've been in the tropics, I've flown in airplanes into storms. I've done studies of convection, cloud clusters and how the moist process works. I don't think anybody in the world understands how the atmosphere functions better than me."

In just three, five, maybe eight years, he says, the world will begin to cool again.

He is almost desperate to be heard. His time is short. He is 76 years old.

The case for warming

Human beings are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet in the process.

Since the dawn of the industrial era, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen from about 280 to about 380 parts per million. In the past century, the average surface temperature of Earth has warmed about 1 degree Fahrenheit. Much of that warming has been in the past three decades.

Regional effects can be more dramatic: The Arctic is melting at an alarming rate. Arctic sea ice is 40 percent thinner than it was in the 1970s. Glaciers in Greenland are speeding up as they slide toward the sea. A recent report shows Antarctica losing as much as 36 cubic miles of ice a year.

The permafrost is melting across broad swaths of Alaska, Canada and Siberia. Tree-devouring beetles, common in the American Southwest, are suddenly ravaging the evergreens of British Columbia. Coral reefs are bleaching, scalded by overheated tropical waters. There appear to have been more strong hurricanes and cyclones in recent decades.

The 1990s were the warmest decade on record. The year 1998 set the all-time mark. This decade is on its way to setting a new standard. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global effort involving hundreds of climate scientists, projected in 2001 that, depending on the rate of greenhouse-gas emissions and general climate sensitivities, the global average temperature would rise 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit between 1990 and 2100. Sea levels could rise just a few inches, or nearly three feet.

All of the above is part of the emerging, solidifying scientific consensus on global warming.

The skeptics' view

When you step into the realm of the skeptics, you find yourself on a parallel Earth.

It is a planet where global warming isn't happening — or, if it is happening, isn't happening because of human beings. Or, if it is happening because of human beings, isn't going to be a big problem. And, even if it is a big problem, we can't realistically do anything about it other than adapt.

There is no consensus on global warming, they say. There is only abundant uncertainty. The IPCC process is a sham, a mechanism for turning vague scientific statements into headline-grabbing alarmism. Drastic actions such as mandated cuts in carbon emissions would be imprudent.

Alternative sources of energy are fine, they say, but let's not be naive. We are an energy-intensive civilization. To obtain the kind of energy we need, we must burn fossil fuels. We must emit carbon. That's the real world.

Since the late 1980s, when oil, gas, coal, auto and chemical companies formed the Global Climate Coalition, industries have poured millions of dollars into a campaign to discredit the emerging global-warming consensus. The coalition disbanded a few years ago, but the skeptic community remains.

Many skeptics work in think tanks, such as the George C. Marshall Institute or the National Center for Policy Analysis. They have the ear of leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill. The skeptics helped scuttle any possibility that the United States would ratify the Kyoto treaty that would have committed the nation to cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. (Conservatives object to the treaty for, among other things, not requiring reductions by developing nations such as China and India.)

The skeptics point to the global-temperature graph for the past century. Notice how, after rising steadily in the early 20th century, in 1940 the temperature suddenly levels off. No — it goes down! For the next 35 years! If the planet is getting steadily warmer because of Industrial Age greenhouse gases, why did it get cooler when industries began belching out carbon dioxide at full tilt at the start of World War II?

Now look at the ice in Antarctica: Getting thicker in places!

Sea-level rise? It's actually dropping around certain islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

There are all these ... anomalies.

The skeptics scoff at climate models. They're just computer programs. They have to interpret innumerable feedback loops, all the convective forces, the evaporation, the winds, the ocean currents, the changing albedo (reflectivity) of Earth's surface, on and on and on.

Normal, natural?

Bill Gray says the recent rash of strong hurricanes is just part of a cycle. This is part of the broader skeptical message: Climate change is normal and natural. There was a Medieval Warm Period, for example, long before Exxon Mobil existed.

Sterling Burnett, a skeptic who is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, says that even if he's wrong about global warming, mandating cuts in carbon emissions would mean economic disaster.

The skeptics don't have to win the argument. They just have to stay in the game, keep things stirred up and make sure the politicians don't pass any laws that have dangerous climate change as a premise. They're winning that battle. The Senate held hearings this spring but has put off action for now. The Bush administration is hoping for some kind of technological solution and won't commit itself to cuts in emissions.

The skeptics have a final trump in the argument: Climate change is actually good. Growing seasons will be longer. Plants like carbon dioxide. Trees devour it. This demonized molecule isn't some kind of toxin or contaminant or pollutant — it's fertilizer.

Politicized debate

The controversy about global warming resides all too perfectly at the collision point of environmentalism and free-market capitalism. The divisive nature of global warming isn't helped by the fact that the most powerful global-warming skeptic (at least by reputation) is President Bush, and the loudest warnings come from Al Gore.

The president's science adviser, John Marburger, thinks the politicized debate has made it almost impossible to talk sensibly about the issue.

"There seems to be the general feeling that somehow the administration doesn't feel that climate change is happening," he says. "That's completely wrong." The administration just doesn't think the problem can be solved with the "magic wand" of regulation.

Gray has the honor of delivering the closing remarks at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Fla. "I think there's a lot of foolishness going on," Gray says. Hurricanes aren't getting worse — we're just in an uptick of a regular cycle. But the alarmists won't let anyone believe that.

"The world is boiling! It's getting worse and worse!" Gray shouts. "Hell is approaching."

The core of Gray's argument is that the warming of the past decades is a natural cycle, driven by a global ocean circulation that manifests itself in the North Atlantic as the Gulf Stream.

Warm water and cool water essentially rise and fall in a rhythm lasting decades. "I don't think this warming period of the last 30 years can keep on going," he says. "It may warm another three, five, eight years, and then it will start to cool."

Gray's crusade against global warming "hysteria" began in the early 1990s, when he saw enormous sums of federal research money going toward computer modeling rather than his kind of science, the old-fashioned stuff based on direct observation. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stopped giving him research grants. So did NASA. All the money was going to computer models. The modelers are equation pushers.

"They haven't been down in the trenches, making forecasts and understanding stuff!"

The news media are self-interested.

"Media people are all out for Pulitzer Prizes!"

The IPCC is elitist.

"They don't talk to us! I've never been approached by the IPCC."

"People in the fringes"

Of all the skeptics, MIT's Richard Lindzen probably has the most credibility among mainstream scientists, who acknowledge that he's doing serious research. Lindzen contends that water vapor and clouds, which will increase in a warmer world because of higher rates of evaporation, create "negative feedbacks" that counter the warming trend.

Lindzen argues that the climate models can't be right, because we've already raised CO2 and methane dramatically, and the planet simply hasn't warmed that much.

But Isaac Held, a NOAA modeler, says Lindzen is jumping the gun, because the greenhouse gases take time — decades, centuries — to have their full impact. Indeed, we've already made a "commitment" to warming. We couldn't stop global warming at this point if we closed every factory and curbed every car.

Held studied under Lindzen years ago and considers him a friend and a smart scientist — but highly contrarian.

"There're people like [Lindzen] in every field of science. There are always people in the fringes."

There's a certain kind of skeptic who has no patience for the official consensus, especially if it has the imprimatur of a government, or worse, the United Nations. They focus on ambiguities and mysteries and things that just don't add up. They say the Official Story can't possibly be true, because it doesn't explain the (insert inexplicable data point here). They set a high standard for reality — it must never be fuzzy around the edges.

The Web site Real Climate, run by a loose group of climate scientists, recently published a detailed rebuttal of Gray's theory, saying his claims about the ocean circulation lack evidence. The Web site criticized Gray for not adapting to the modern era of meteorology, "which demands hypotheses soundly grounded in quantitative and consistent physical formulations, not seat-of-the-pants flying."

The field has fully embraced numerical modeling, and Gray is increasingly on the fringe. His cranky skepticism has become a tired act among younger scientists.

When Gray is asked who his intellectual soul mates are regarding global warming, he responds, "I have nobody really to talk to about this stuff."

In Orlando, Gray has the honor of closing the hurricane conference with a speech. He talks of global-warming foolishness, untrusty numerical models, underappreciated ocean circulation, overly dramatized CO2 increases, the crazy complexity of the weather.

"It becomes an absolute can of worms!"

In 20 years, he likes to say, the world will have cooled, and everyone will know he was right all along. When that happens, he says, he hopes someone will put flowers on his grave.

Is time running out?

The fog of uncertainty surrounding climate change is routinely cited as a reason to wait before making cuts in greenhouse emissions. But if we wait for that fog to break, we'll wait forever.

Moreover, we don't even know all the things that we don't know. James Hansen, the prominent NASA scientist, points out that the models don't realistically include ice sheets and the biosphere — all the plants and animals on Earth. The global climate surely has more surprises for us.

Hansen thinks we have less than 10 years to make drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions, lest we reach a "tipping point" at which the climate will be out of our control.

Hansen may be a step ahead of the consensus — but that doesn't mean he's wrong. In the brutally hot summer of 1988, Hansen testified before Congress that the signal of global warming could already be detected amid the noise of natural climate variation. Many of his colleagues scoffed. They thought he'd gotten ahead of the hard data.

Judy Curry, a Georgia Tech climate scientist, says: "I thought he was playing politics. But, damn it, he was right."

Curry, who thinks the skeptics have mounted a "brilliant disinformation campaign," says climate change is being held to a different standard from other societal threats: The skeptics want every uncertainty nailed down before any action is taken.

"Why is that standard being applied to greenhouse warming and not to other risks, like terrorism or military risks or avian flu?" she asks.

Mainstream climate scientists readily accept that there is natural variation in the system. For example, greenhouse gases alone can't melt the Arctic at the alarming rate that has been observed recently. Americans sorting through this issue may feel constrained by all the unknowns. Perhaps they need to adapt to uncertainty, to see uncertainty as the norm, and not as a sign of scientific failure.

Or as an excuse to do nothing.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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