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Health, Science, Environment

Wash U speaker finds middle ground on climate change, wants less politicization of science

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2011 -  Richard Muller says the global warming debate in the media seems to break down into two clear sides.

And Muller doesn't want to be on either of them.

"So much of what is reported in the newspapers is the debate between the deniers and the alarmists," he said. "The truth is in between."

Muller will be one of two professors speaking on climate change at unrelated events at Washington University on Wednesday. Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California-Berkeley, will deliver the Arthur Holly Compton Lecture on some of the findings of his Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project. He founded BEST to clarify issues of scientific data collection in the increasingly polarized debate.

That evening, Charles Kennel, a professor of atmospheric sciences and founding director of the University of San Diego's Environment and Sustainability Initiative, will talk about managing climate risk and dealing with the effects of climate change as part of the Robert M. Walker Distinguished Lecture Series.

Muller: Just the Science

Muller is a longtime defender of healthy skepticism on the issue of human-induced global warming and a critic of such global warming activists as Al Gore. Muller caused a significant stir in climate circles earlier this year for his congressional testimony. His group reviewed temperature data that many climate skeptics had deemed suspect due to poorly sited measuring points situated in urban areas or on asphalt. As many as 70 percent of stations were thought to be compromised leading Muller to form BEST and investigate the issue.

"Although skeptics are often lumped in with deniers, they really had raised some legitimate issues," he said.

Some believers of human-induced global warming launched pre-emptive criticism of Muller, expecting him to excoriate the readings. But using new statistical methods to deal with data from good stations, Muller testified there was little real difference in the results. He found science supported the questioned numbers.

His work earned him a profile in Scientific American, a mention in a Paul Krugman column and a citation in The Atlantic's "Brave Thinkers 2011" issue, which honors those who put their reputations, fortunes or lives at risk for important ideas. His picture appeared with such notables as President Barack Obama, Apple icon Steve Jobs, Arab Spring leader Wael Ghonim and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The Atlantic profile noted that Muller had walked into the room "drawing fire from one side of the climate-change debate. Afterward, he was drawing fire from the other."

But for Muller, it's not about drawing fire or garnering praise. It's about the science. He said that a heavily politicized world divided between alarmists and deniers has had deeply troubling consequences for reliable research on the issue.

"Either you are immoral for not considering this the worst thing that has happened to humans on one side," he said, "or ... you are an idiot for thinking that this political movement is actually based on science."

Muller said that politicization is increasing as scientists are pushed into being advocates or activists. It's a trend he feels endangers their objectivity.

That objectivity has come under increasing attack in recent years. An example is the controversy that arose at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) in 2009. Dubbed "climategate" by the media, the incident revolved around hacked emails that some alleged showed scientists acting to shield data. Opponents of the theory of human-induced climate change seized upon the controversy as proof that global warming was a hoax, while supporters played down the happenings as unimportant.

Investigations found that the emails revealed no misconduct with regard to the integrity of the research. The British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee exonerated those involved. However, it did note "a blunt refusal to share data."

Muller said that had all the CRU's findings been shared, it would still have shown that warming was real. But it might have seemed less frightening, certain and immediate. He said the incident may have revealed a reluctance to release data contrary to one's own conclusion out of fear it could be used to mislead the public or other scientists.

"That's not illegal but it's not the way top-quality science is done," Muller said. "In top-quality science, you show everything, then make the argument why these data here are less important than those over there."

Other controversies have revolved around the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which Muller said is often derided by deniers as propaganda and lumped into the same group as works like Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

He said the former vice president's movie differs substantially from the IPCC findings, which Muller noted found substantial uncertainty in the degree to which human-induced warming was occurring.

"There are so many people who think [the film] is a depiction of what the consensus is when it isn't," he said. "Al Gore's movie consists of a statement that there is a consensus and then the rest of it goes on to describe his own personal belief as to what's going on."

Anecdotal evidence involving freakish weather is another problem area. Despite the intense speculation over events like Hurricane Katrina or this year's spate of deadly tornadoes across the Midwest and South, Muller said that the number of tornadoes and hurricanes has actually gone down in recent years.

"When making your case publicly, you will use the examples that support your case and ignore those that disagree," he said. "That's not the way science can or should be done."

"The deniers can show you correctly that the alarmists are wrong. But the alarmists can show you correctly that the deniers are wrong," he added. "This leaves people very confused."

Muller said global warming is a true danger but it should not be exaggerated or underplayed for political reasons. It is also one for which solutions remain elusive given that greenhouse gas emissions are coming increasingly from China, India and the developing world, not the United States and Europe.

He hasn't seen a solution yet.

"In the United States, we can set an example but it has to be an example that China can afford to follow," he said. "If we choose an expensive way to cut our carbon, such as carbon sequestration or something that somehow slows our economy, then the danger is that China will not choose to do something that slows (its) economy."

Kennel: Unavoidable Changes

Charles Kennel sounds a more certain note about the coming of global climate change. He describes a world defined by a continuing failure to reach meaningful agreement on climate change while dirty fuel sources, such as coal, remain cheap and plentiful."The point is we are not going to be able to avoid climate change," he said. "It's a fantasy to think you can. That's not the issue. The issue is how do we reduce its costs and risks to the people who are living on the Earth at this time."

Kennel, a former director and dean of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a senior strategist for the University of California-San Diego Environment and Sustainability Initiative, will talk Wednesday evening about a response to climate change. He will discuss ways to ease its effects, like geo-engineering and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.

Kennel said that some effects of climate change are already being mitigated by "global dimming," an increase in pollutants that some scientists say has kept temperatures stable despite the effects of greenhouse gases.

"We know that if big cities like LA, London, Mexico City and others can solve their air pollution in 25 years, that's going to open up and unmask the greenhouse warming that's already there," said Kennel, a former associate administrator for NASA and one-time director of Mission to Planet Earth, the world's largest Earth sciences research program.

But how much change is too much change? Kennel said that the 2009 Copenhagen agreement specified a 2 degree Celsius human-induced change as the limit under which nations should aspire to remain.

"That's the political definition of what constitutes danger," he said. "The question is can we actually hold the temperature increase to that little?"

The answer, said Kennel, is probably no.

As chair of the California Council on Science and Technology, he helped develop standards for the nation's most populous state to meet new targets on carbon dioxide by 2050. They include drastic reductions in per-person carbon emissions, massive redesigns of public transportation, large-scale retrofits of older buildings, the construction of dozens of nuclear power plants and new fuel economy standards for the average vehicle of 58 miles to the gallon.

"California is one of the richest states in the country," he said. "It's technologically advanced and can get most of the way there with extreme effort. But what would it take for the rest of the world to achieve it?"

Kennel notes that even if we do implement a planetary change in emissions overnight, the effects won't be felt that quickly.

"All of the low-carbon alternative fuels, such as wind and solar, still require subsidies and are not economically viable at the present time. So one can't see any changes in the world system soon," he said. "Even (if) we do bring down the carbon dioxide emissions, it will take decades after that for the climate to respond."

There are some methods to reduce greenhouse gases that may be brought about more rapidly, Kennel said. While carbon dioxide can remain for decades, levels of less plentiful gases, such as methane, can be reduced more quickly. The additive results of reducing levels of less plentiful gases may keep temperatures down as effectively as reducing carbon dioxide levels.

Kennel believes we are already on the road to a rise that exceeds 2 degrees. He says that by the end of the century we could see an increase of 4.75 degrees.

"The historic difference between an ice age and the interglacial period is about 5 degrees. We would be adding about 5 more degrees on top of an already warm period," he said.

There is always some uncertainty in scientific research but he feels there is clear consensus on certain points.

"All of the climate models that go into the IPCC estimate predict a temperature increase," he said. "The real question is how much and how fast. It's the same with the predictions of sea level rise."

Muller will speak at 4 p.m., Wednesday at Graham Chapel. Kennel will deliver his remarks at 7 p.m. that evening in Room 100 of Whitaker Hall. Contact the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at 314-935-5332 for more information on Kennel's talk or phone 314-935-4620 for more information on Muller's remarks.

Both talks are free and open to the public.

David Baugher is a free-lance writer.

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