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Climate of Fear

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 4:15 PM GMT on April 18, 2006

An opinion piece titled, "Climate of Fear: Global-Warming Alarmists Intimidate Scientists Into Silence" appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, criticizing the "iron triangle" of of climate scientists, advocates and policymakers responsible for raising the alarm over the threat posed by global warming. The article's two main points:

1) Climate scientists who are raising alarms over global warming are exaggerating the danger in order to get funding.

2) "Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse. Consequently, lies about climate change gain credence even when they fly in the face of the science that supposedly is their basis."

I'm not familiar with the scientists Dr. Lindzen discusses who have lost their funding because they are greenhouse skeptics, and he does not provide any quotes or references to support this point. So, to keep this discussion shorter, I will only focus on his first argument--that climate scientists are exaggerating the threat of global warming in order to get funding.

Who is Richard Lindzen?
First, a little background on the author. Dr. Richard Lindzen is Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, a member of the National Academy of Sciences panel of experts that advises the President on climate change science, and was a lead author of the most recent UN-sponsored Climate Assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that is used as the "official" benchmark of the expected amount of climate change this century. He has written many excellent and highly regarded peer-reviewed scientific papers during a career spanning over 40 years.

Much of his recent work has focused on climate change. Dr. Lindzen hypothesizes that global warming will not increase Earth's temperature significantly because increases in upper-level cloud cover will result from increased thunderstorm activity, and this increased cloud cover will act to reflect away more incoming sunlight, cooling the planet. This "Iris Effect" is named after the ability of the human eye to control the amount of light entering the eye by changing the diameter of its iris. His theory is difficult to prove or disprove, as the water vapor-cloud feedback is one of the hardest things to get right in climate models, and is a key source of uncertainty in them. To my knowledge, his Iris theory has not been disproven, but is thought to be incorrect by most climate scientists.

Dr. Lindzen continues to champion his Iris Effect theory, and has been one of about ten famous outspoken "greenhouse skeptics" who are skeptical of the dangers posed by climate change. He opposes the Kyoto Protocol and efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He has testified in front of Congress multiple times, authored many opinion pieces on the matter, and been a paid consultant for major oil and coal companies. In Ross Gelbspan's 1998 book, The Heat is On, the author discusses a 2-hour interview he did with Lindzen. In the interview, Lindzen estimated that he made $10,000 per year doing consulting work, and typically charged $2500 per day to fossil fuel interests. For example, a trip to Washington D.C. in 1991 to testify in front of a Senate committee was paid for by Western Fuels, a $400 million coal consortium. Gelbspan describes Dr. Lindzen as "exceedingly gracious and hospitable" in person, but relates several instances of unwarranted attacks he has made on scientific opponents.

Some good points
Dr. Lindzen's essay is a typical example of greenhouse skeptic writing, which unfortunately for me, I've read a lot of. Intermingled are scientific truths, scientific distortions, difficult to verify accusations, and some legitimate nuggets of complaint, all wrapped in a fiercely emotional tirade intended to sway the emotions of the reader. Several of Dr. Lindzen's concerns in his article are valid ones. For instance, he complains of "repeated claims that this past year's hurricane activity was another sign of human-induced climate change", which is a concern of mine, as well. A single extreme weather event, or an even a series of extreme hurricanes in one ocean basin during a single year, are not valid indicators of climate change. Lindzen also criticizes the world's most prestigious scientific journals, Science and Nature, for bias against papers by global warming skeptics. This bias is difficult to prove or disprove, but I believe there is probably some substance to this claim. I've seen a number of complaints that ring true about this from the greenhouse skeptic scientists.

Some bad points
While Dr. Lindzen is an excellent scientist, the piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal is written in emotional, not scientific language. The article contains oversimplifications, distortions, and errors, and would fail the scientific peer review process needed to be published in a scientific journal. Let's look at three of these problems:

1) Dr. Lindzen refers to the "barely discernible, one-degree increase in the recorded global mean temperature since the late 19th century." I would hardly characterize our recent warming as "barely discernible." By measures such as the significant warming of the Arctic in recent decades, the several-week increase in the growing season and early arrival of Spring over most of the globe in recent years, the widespread retreat of glaciers worldwide, and the significant die-off of coral reefs worldwide due in part to record warm sea surface temperatures, a one-degree increase in global temperature is very discernible.

2) Dr. Lindzen says that global warming will lead to a decrease in extratropical cyclones. However, this is not a consensus view among climate scientists. Some model results have shown a decrease, but other models show that global warming will increase the intensity and frequency of El Nino events, which would lead to an increase in extratropical storms over the North Pacific and western U.S. Global warming may also increase the positive phase of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) pattern, creating increased extratropical storms in the North Atlantic and Western Europe.

3) Lindzen criticizes arguments by other researchers that global warming will increase hurricane intensities thusly:

"The problem with this is that the ability of evaporation to drive tropical storms relies not only on temperature but humidity as well, and calls for drier, less humid air. Claims for starkly higher temperatures are based upon there being more humidity, not less--hardly a case for more
storminess with global warming."

I asked Dr. Andrew Dessler, a professor at Texas A&M University whose research focuses on climate change and water vapor, to comment on this. He responded:

The rate of evaporation from the surface, which is one determinant of the strength of a hurricane, is determined by (q*-q), the difference between saturation specific humidity and the specific humidity. You can convince yourself that this makes sense by thinking of the two limits: if the air is saturated, then q*=q and evaporation is zero, which makes sense since saturated air cannot hold any more molecules. If the air is extremely dry, then q is about 0 and evaporation
is at a maximum, again as you'd expect.

The climate, on the other hand, is sensitive to q in the mid-troposphere. There's not really a simple explanation for this. I can give you a few good references if you want to check this out further (e.g., Held, I. M., and B. J. Soden, 2000: Water vapor feedback and global warming. Ann. Rev. Energy Environ., 25, 441-475).

Lindzen's argument ignores the differences and suggests that if q*-q decreases at the surface, then q must decrease in the mid-troposphere. That argument is so far outside the realm of scientific reasonability or common sense, that it's my opinion that Lindzen is acting as a policy advocate rather than a scientist. Like most advocates, he takes advantage of the lenient rules of policy debates (e.g., no peer review or other vetting mechanism to test for scientific accuracy of arguments), to make patently false scientific arguments as a way to advance his preferred policy position (he opposes any policy to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions).

Dr. Lindzen claims that "Ambiguous scientific statements about climate are hyped by those with a vested interest in alarm, thus raising the political stakes for policy makers who provide funds for more science research to feed more alarm to increase the political stakes." The words "alarm" or "alarmist" or "anti-alarmist" appear 16 times in the editorial, and Dr. Lindzen is clearly trying to provoke an emotional reaction against those Chicken Littles guilty of raising the alarm.

Speaking as an atmospheric scientist, I can tell you from long experience that we are not the wild-eyed, alarmist lot that Dr. Lindzen makes us out to be. This makes for some very dull parties (if you're not excited about discussing quasi-geostrophic theory), when we get together for a big bash. Very little alarming behavior takes place. (In fact, after I dragged my wife to three straight devastatingly dull departmental Christmas parties while I was in graduate school, she forbade me from ever requiring her to go to another.) Atmospheric scientists are not an alarmist lot--put us in quiet room with a window and give us a computer and pile of data to analyze, and we'll be as happy as a clam at high tide. Atmospheric scientists are generally not motivated by money--they selected science as a career out of a genuine curiosity about how the world works, plus a desire to help understand the significant dangers posed by pollution and climate change. If more money to do research really was a primary concern, wouldn't these scientists stop calling for action against global warming, and instead emphasize the uncertainties and claim that more research is needed?

Dr. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, posted this response to Dr. Lindzen's accusations that scientists feed alarmism to get funding: "Lindzen has frequently claimed that within the scientific community "alarm is felt to be essential to the maintenance of funding". I have yet to see any empirical evidence of this, and a brief perusal of active NSF grants related to climate change reveals a lot of interesting projects but none that jump out as being 'alarmist'. Having sat on panels that decide on funding allocations and as a reviewer of proposals for both US and international agencies, my experience has been that these panels actually do a very good job at deciding which proposals are interesting, tractable and achievable. I have not seen even one example of where the degree of 'alarmism' was ever a criteria in whether funding was given. (NB. I don't regard my own grants (viewable here) as remotely 'alarmist' and I don't have too much trouble getting funding (fingers crossed!))"

Environmental scientists have in the past issued false alarms over environmental problems that did not materialize as expected. However, we should expect and tolerate some degree of false alarms, given the uncertainty in forecasting these events. If our scientists never issue a false alarm, then the tolerance for issuing alarms is not correct. Would you expect the National Weather Service to stop issuing tornado warnings when a possible tornado signature is spotted on Doppler radar, since less than half of these signatures result in in an actual tornado touchdown? No, some degree of false alarms must be tolerated. The NWS forecasters are dedicated public servants, doing their job of warning the public when their best scientific judgment indicates that there might be a significant threat. It is no different with our climate scientists who issue warnings on the dangers of climate change.

Skeptics commonly like to claim that atmospheric scientist "Chicken Littles" in the 1970s warned that the next ice age was coming. While there were some articles in the popular press about this, the scientific literature never made such a claim. This is one of the myths perpetuated by the greenhouse skeptics that crumbles under analysis.

A Public Relations Campaign?
Dr. Lindzen's article appeared at about the same time as similar op-ed pieces by syndicated columnists Robert Novak (April 3) and George Will (April 2). A large number of additional anti-global global warming editorials have appeared in the opinion pages of many newspapers in the past week, including the Washington Times, Detroit News, and Arizona Star. Given Dr. Lindzen's history of accepting consulting money from the fossil fuel industry, it would be no surprise if his article was paid for by the fossil fuel industry as part of an orchestrated public relations campaign that included the appearance of all these op-ed articles. I am sure the industry is very concerned about the recent media attention on global warming that has hurt their position. Scientific studies published this year showed unexpectedly large amounts of melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. A cover story last month in Time magazine headlined, "Be Worried. Be Very Worried", warned that we may be at the "tipping point" for uncorrectable climate change. A episode of 60 Minutes reported that scientific reports on climate change written for Congress were being modified by a White House chief of staff, who changed key phrases of the reports to make climate change appear less threatening (the staffer in question has since resigned to go work for Exxon Mobil). James Hansen of NASA and many scientists working for NOAA and NASA have complained of being gagged by the Bush Administration on climate change issues in recent months. It would be an obvious move for the fossil fuel industry to mount a PR campaign this month to try to push back.

The fossil fuel industry has spent tens of millions of dollars on many such campaigns in the past. The most notorious of these campaigns was launched in 1991, when the Information Council on the Environment (ICE), a creation of a group of utility and coal companies, launched a PR campaign whose goal was to "reposition global warming as theory rather than fact". The campaign targeted "older, less-educated men" and "young, low-income women" in electoral districts who had a congressperson on the House Energy Committee. The PR campaign hired four "greenhouse skeptic" scientists--Patrick Michaels, Fred Singer, Robert Balling, and Sherwood Idso--to generate op-ed pieces, broadcast appearances, and newspaper interviews. Gelbspan writes: "The plan was clever if not accurate. One newspaper advertisement prepared by the ICE, for example, was headlined: 'If the earth is getting warmer, why is Minneapolis getting colder?' (Data indicate that Minneapolis has actually warmed between 1 and 1.5 degrees Celsius in the last century.)" Another print ad featured a cowering chicken under the headline "Who Told You the Earth Was Warming...Chicken Little?"

Environmental groups do their share of public relations campaigns, as well. One recent estimate I saw put the spending of the five major environmental groups on climate issues at about $2.1 million per year (Environmental Defense Fund, NRDC, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the World Wildlife Federation). Exxon Mobil alone spends over $1 milion per year to fund think tanks like the Competive Enterprise Institute and the George C. Marshal Foundation that generate frequent anti-global warming reports (Gelbspan, 2004).

Flashback to 1974
On June 28, 1974, Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, chemists at the University of California, Irvine, published the first scientific paper warning that human-generated chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could cause serious harm to Earth's protective ozone layer. They calculated that if CFC production continued to increase at the going rate of 10%/year until 1990, then remain steady, CFCs would cause a global 5 to 7 percent ozone loss by 1995 and 30-50% loss by 2050.

They warned that the loss of ozone would significantly increase the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet UV-B light reaching the surface, greatly increasing skin cancer and cataracts. The loss of stratospheric ozone could also significantly cool the stratosphere, potentially causing destructive climate change. Although no stratospheric ozone loss had been observed yet, CFCs should be banned, they said. At the time, the CFC industry was worth about $8 billion in the U.S., employed over 600,000 people directly, and 1.4 million people indirectly (Roan, 1989).

Critics and skeptics--primarily industry spokespeople and scientists paid by conservative think tanks--immediately attacked the theory. Despite the fact that Molina and Rowland's theory had wide support in the scientific community, these handful of skeptics, their voices greatly amplified by the public relations machines of powerful corporations and politicians sympathetic to them, succeeded in delaying imposition of controls on CFCs for over a decade. Scientists who advocated CFC controls were accused of being alarmists out to get research funding. One CFC industry magazine stated in 1975, "The whole area of research grants and the competition among scientists to get them must be considered a factor in the politics of ozone" (Roan, 1989).

DuPont, which made 1/4 of the world's CFCs, spent millions of dollars running full-page newspaper advertisements defending CFCs in 1975, claiming there was no proof that CFCs were harming the ozone layer. The chairman of DuPont commented that the ozone depletion theory was "a science fiction tale...a load of rubbish...utter nonsense." (Chemical Week, 16 July 1975). The aerosol industry also launched a PR blitz, issuing a press release stating that the ozone destruction by CFCs was a theory, and not fact. This press release, and many other 'news stories' favorable to industry, were generated by the aerosol industry and printed by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fortune magazine, Business Week, and the London Observer (Blysky and Blysky, 1985). The symbol of Chicken Little claiming that "The sky is falling!" was used with great effect by the PR campaign, and appeared in various newspaper headlines.

The CFC industry companies hired the world's largest public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, who organized a month-long U.S. speaking tour in 1975 for noted British scientist Richard Scorer, a former editor of the International Journal of Air Pollution and author of several books on pollution. Scorer blasted Molina and Rowland, calling them "doomsayers", and remarking, "The only thing that has been accumulated so far is a number of theories."

Sound familiar?

In a 1984 interview in The New Yorker, Rowland concluded, "Nothing will be done about this problem until there is further evidence that a significant loss of ozone has occurred. Unfortunately, this means that if there is a disaster in the making in the stratosphere we are probably not going to avoid it." The very next year, all the "Chicken Little" scientists were proved right, when the Antarctic ozone hole was discovered. Human-generated CFCs were indeed destroying Earth's protective ozone layer. In fact, the ozone depletion was far worse than Molina and Roland had predicted. No one had imagined that ozone depletions like the 50% losses being observed by 1987 over Antarctica were possible so soon. Despite the continued opposition of many of the skeptics, the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals, was hurriedly approved in 1987 to address the threat. By 2003, it appeared that the ozone hole had stopped growing, thanks to the quick action. Molina and Rowland were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. The citation from the Nobel committee credited them with helping to deliver the Earth from a potential environmental disaster.

According to Wikipedia's biography of Richard Lindzen:

The November 10, 2004 online version of Reason magazine reported that Lindzen is "willing to take bets that global average temperatures in 20 years will in fact be lower than they are now." Climatologist James Annan, who has offered multiple bets that global temperatures will increase, contacted Lindzen to arrange a bet. Annan offered to pay 2:1 odds in Lindzen's favor if temperatures declined, but said that Lindzen would only accept a bet if the payout was 50:1 or better in his favor. No bet occurred.

I would agree with Dr. Lindzen, there is about a 50:1 chance that global average temperatures in 20 years will in fact be lower than they are now. This would most likely occur as a result of a major volcanic eruption that would put up enough stratospheric aerosol dust to cool the climate for a few years. The effect would be temporary, and the Earth would go on warming as before once the dust dissipates.

Climate scientists are not alarmists out to get research funding. They are raising the alarm because they see a genuine major threat to the planet. Dr. Lindzen's voice needs to be considered, because he is a good scientist looking at the same data as the "alarmist" scientists, and is coming up with a different conclusion. But consider that his voice, and voices of the 10 or so famous "greenhouse skeptics", are in the extreme minority. Their voices are greatly amplified by the public relations machinery of the fossil fuel industry, and the politicians sympathetic to them. Thus, it seems like there is more of a scientific controversy than there really is. As a society, we need to decide--do we do the same thing we did for the ozone depletion crisis? Do we take the 50:1 odds, betting on the dark horse because some very loud voices are urging us to do so? Or is it smarter to bet on the favorite?

We got very lucky with the ozone hole. The lifetime of CFCs in the atmosphere is a few tens of years, and the quick action to eliminate emissions has kept ozone destruction from reaching severe levels. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere hundreds of years, and 25% of what we add stays there essentially forever. By the time it is obvious we are severely damaging the planet, it will be too late to avoid much of the damage.

Jeff Masters

My next blog will be Thursday or Friday, to give people time to comment on this one.

For further reading
The climate scientists who run realclimate.org have an interesting discussion on the op-ed piece by Dr. Lindzen, as well the one by George Will and Robert Novak. I also wrote an opinion piece titled, The Skeptics vs. the Ozone Hole, which presents a more complete comparison of how the skeptics attacked the science of ozone depletion and succeeded in delaying CFC emission controls for many years.


Blyskal, J., and M. Blyskal, "PR: How the public relations industry writes the news", William Morrow and Co., New York, 1985.

Gelbspan, Ross, The Heat is On, Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 1998.

Gelbspan, Ross, Boiling Point, Perseus Books, Cambridge, MA, 2004.

Roan, Sharon L., Ozone Crisis: The 15-year Evolution of a Sudden Global Emergency, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1989.

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