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Senator Whitehouse Whitewashes Climate Change Reality


Senator Whitehouse Whitewashes Climate Change Reality

October 11, 2015

In recent months, climate advocates have stepped up efforts to silence and intimidate organizations that question the climate orthodoxy that human activities involving the use of fossil fuels are leading to a climate catastrophe.  Their tactic is to urge that organizations expressing any skepticism be investigated under RICO—Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. They have been championed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse who claims that “fossil fuel companies and their allies are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.” 

The case that Senator Whitehouse and his allies are attempting to make reflects how prosecutors build their case.  Comb through the facts, assumptions, and allegations to find those that support a predetermined conclusion.  The charge that companies and others have knowingly misled the public about climate change is serious.  But, it is based on an assumption of certitude and settled science.  The facts demonstrate that this assumption is contrived reality, not reality itself. 

Advocates assert that the hypothesis that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide—CO2—from fossil fuel use will lead to unacceptable increases in global temperatures is no longer open to debate.  A review of the evolution of our understanding of the climate system and human influence on it makes clear that neither climate science nor human influence are settled.

Early work in estimating the temperature effect of doubling CO2 produced a wide range of estimates, all of which were troubling.  In the 1970s,two scientists from Princeton—Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald—built  the first general circulation model to better understand the effect of doubling CO2.  While their results were consistent with earlier work, they urged caution because their model simplified a number of complex climate processes.  They wrote, “Because of the various simplification of the model…it is not advisable to take too seriously the quantitative aspect of the results… .” 

Ironically, around the same time, many scientists were warning of an impending return of the ice age.  In June 1974, Time magazine had an article titled “Another Ice Age.” Some scientists even told Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger that he had to do something to reverse the threat of another ice age.  Nonetheless, the concern about human caused global warming continued.  The National Academy of Sciences undertook a number of initiatives from the 1970s on.  An early study concluded that a doubling of CO2 could lead to a temperature increase of 3 degrees C with an error band of 1.5 degrees, which reflects considerable uncertainty.  A few years later, another NAS report—Changing Climate—was conducted in response to the Energy Security Act of 1980.  While it confirmed the earlier estimate of the effect of doubling CO2, it concluded that on the basis of large uncertainties, the likely increase would be in the lower part of the range—1.5 degrees C.

In the late 1980s, climate change moved from research to politics when then-Senator Al Gore declared with the help of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s James Hansen that global warming was going to have a catastrophic effect on our climate system and way of life.  Predictions of run- away warming and extreme weather events replaced serious and objective research.  In the mid-1990s, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began an assessment process resulting in reports at five-year intervals.  Although the IPCC reports have supported the predictions of catastrophe, they also have continued to list a large number of major uncertainties and gradually lowered the estimate of climate sensitivity and the estimated temperature increases that we are likely to experience in the future. 

The IPCC and those who predict catastrophe rely to a great extent on models that continue to significantly overpredict actual temperature increases.  Dr. Manabe has said this about models, “The best we can do is to see how global climate and the environment are changing, keep comparing that with predictions, adjust the models and gradually increase our confidence.  Only that will distinguish our predictions from those of fortunetellers.”  Those who have compared the predictions of numerous models with actual temperatures have found that the models responded to increased CO2 levels by factors of two to five times more than what actually occurred.  

If the models that are the foundation of climate certitude fail the test of reasonably predicting temperature increases, it must be the case that the science is not settled and the state of our understanding is incomplete.  It is generally acknowledged that there are major uncertainties concerning cloud formation, atmospheric water vapor, ocean effects, solar influences and natural variability. In view of extensive uncertainty, on what basis could companies and skeptics be misleading the public?  Indeed, there is a case to be made that it is advocates who are doing the misleading. 

When faced with great uncertainty, prudent decision makers act on what they actually know, invest in gaining new knowledge, and then adjust actions.  This is the heart of decision-making under conditions of uncertainty, which is often referred to as the Lewis and Clark decision model. Comparing companies which adopt this climate change approach to racketeers is harmful both to the state of knowledge and to the U.S. economy.


William O'Keefe is CEO of the George C. Marshall Institute. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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