Commentary on climate change: Economics makes for strange science | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary on climate change: Economics makes for strange science

Sep 26, 2014

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

--Upton Sinclair

The quote  was cited in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” to explain opposition from the energy industry to the theory of human-induced global warming. People who profit from fossil fuels are understandably reluctant to embrace arguments for the abolition of their use. Fair enough. A recent Associated Press article, however, indicates that Sinclair’s observation may be a blade that cuts both ways.

The piece, “Climate report struggles with temperature quirks,” ran under the byline of Karl Ritter. Mr. Ritter advises, “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is expected to assert that global warming is continuing.” The problem is that scientists working on it “…are struggling over how to address a wrinkle in the meteorological data” — namely, that “…the heating of the earth’s surface appears to have slowed in the past 15 years, even though greenhouse gas emissions keep rising.”

A draft of the report’s executive summary obtained by the AP acknowledges that warming from 1998 to 2012 was “about half the average rate since 1951.” The authors attribute the slowdown to “natural variability in the climate system, as well as cooling effects from volcanic eruptions and a downward phase in solar activity.”

For those of us who’ve been following reports on the issue, there were a couple of red flags in the explanation. Significant warming wasn’t noted until the early 1980s. Did the report include temperature data from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s simply to compare the last half of the 20th century with the most recent 15 years, or were those relatively cool decades factored in to keep the previous average low enough so the presently diminished rate would constitute close to half of it?

And since when did the IPCC consider solar activity a significant factor in climate change? Hadn’t that explanation been summarily dismissed when the group to study greenhouse gases was established in 1988? Weren’t those of us who noted historical correlation between sun spots and climate labeled “Deniers” and banished to the intellectual gulag of the politically incorrect?

But even the modest acknowledgement of current reality in the draft report was too much for many of the IPCC’s sponsoring governments. Germany wanted any mention of the slowdown deleted; the U.S. wanted to include the hypothesis that the oceans absorbed the extra heat; Belgium suggested throwing out the hottest year on record — 1998 — so the recent trend line would assume a more upward arc, and Hungary fretted that the finding “would provide ammunition for skeptics.” None of the politicians claimed that the slowdown hadn’t occurred.

Ultimately, the IPCC deemed it “extremely likely” that human activity caused more than half of the warming since the 1950s. That assessment represents an upgrade of its 2007 estimate of “very likely.” That “Inconvenient Truth” would be more compelling were it not for a couple of inconvenient facts.

Fact: We are at the maximum of Solar Cycle #24. Although initial predictions for the cycle varied widely, there is now general agreement that it will be the weakest cycle since at least 1906.

According to Dr. Henrik Svensmark, director of the Danish Space Agency, a quiet sun exudes a less robust magnetic field, thereby allowing more cosmic radiation from deep space to reach the earth’s lower atmosphere. This radiation, in turn, creates aerosols that seed cloud formation, thus cooling the planet.

Dr. Frank Hill, associate director of the National Solar Observatory’s Solar Synoptic Network, says, “…this could be the last solar maximum we’ll see for a few decades. That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth’s climate.” The sun last went that silent during the 70-year Maunder Minimum (1645- 1715), which coincided with the coldest period of the Little Ice Age.

Fact: In 2007, reports on the BBC predicted that by the summer of 2013, the Arctic Ocean would be largely ice-free due to the effects of global warming. In the event, the National Sea Ice Data center reports colder than normal temperatures over the central Arctic and Greenland, resulting in 60 percent more ice at the end of this year’s summer melt compared to the last, keeping the Northwest Passage closed for the season.

As summer ended in the polar north, winter drew to a close in Antarctica. Sea ice there is at its greatest extent since satellite observations began in 1979.

None of this is to suggest that greenhouse gases have no effect or that fossil fuels are preferable to greener alternatives. Rather, I would argue that warming theorists have exaggerated their case to advance an agenda that has become as much political as it is scientific.

In a 2006 interview in Grist Magazine, Al Gore admitted, “…I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous (global warming) is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are…”

The people who wrote the latest IPCC report have invested careers in the theory of human-induced global warming. If man’s contribution to climate change were determined to be marginal, they stand to lose billions in government research dollars.

When a layman like me can find the evidence I’ve cited, I suspect research specialists can as well. I also suspect these people know that divergent trend lines between the independent variable (CO2 concentrations) and dependant variable (temperature) are not merely “quirks” and “wrinkles” in the data set. But it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it…