Current Issue

Mar. 17, 2010

Vol. 110, No. 10


Temperatures rising

In climate-change discussions, two Princeton professors go against the grain

By Mark F. Bernstein ’83
Published in the March 17, 2010, issue

Professors Robert Austin, left, and William Happer *64
Beverly Schaefer
Professors Robert Austin, left, and William Happer *64
The issue of climate change, or global warming, has become a rallying cry: The Earth’s surface temperatures are ­rising due to increased levels of carbon dioxide and other ­greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, much of it produced by human activity. Unless action is taken, and soon, global warming could cause crops to fail and sea levels to rise, leading to ­widespread social disruptions and endangering many species of life on the planet. President Obama, who has renewed the American commitment to combating this problem, declared at the recent United Nations ­climate-change conference in Copenhagen: “Climate change threatens us all.”

That’s one thing scientists agree on, right? Well, not everyone.

In some quarters, climate change has become almost a civic religion. Like any religion it has its priests — Al   Gore, perhaps — and its holy books — think Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth or his more provocatively titled best-seller, Earth in the Balance. It also has its heretics — doubters — and not all of them are outside the scientific community. Even among scientists, there are a few who dispute the certainty that global warming is a looming catastrophe. Two of the most vocal dissenters are professors in the Princeton physics department: William Happer *64 and Robert Austin.  

One person’s skeptic is another person’s crackpot, of course, and so climate dissenters have come in for much public abuse. Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Bracket Professor of Physics, got into a contretemps with Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, while testifying last year before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Boxer derided Happer’s testimony as “the most extraordinary argument I have ever heard” and warned, “I will fight you.” The exchange, which ended up on YouTube, was seized upon by bloggers on both sides of the debate, many of whom added their own, decidedly ad hominem, comments.

Temperatures indeed have risen, so to speak — at least in the world of physics. Happer says he’s been attacked verbally over the issue both inside and outside academia, including at Princeton. He claims that climate-change orthodoxy has had a chilling effect that has made some junior faculty around the country reluctant to voice support for his position out of fear of hurting their chances for tenure. Austin, however, says that in his experience, the Princeton physics department “has been great” and very tolerant of climate skeptics.

In an interview last year with The Daily Princetonian, Happer characterized hostility toward climate skeptics in harsh terms. “This is George Orwell,” he said. “This is ‘the Germans are the master race. The Jews are the scum of the earth.’ It’s that kind of propaganda.” In an e-mail following an interview for this article, he warns against “the capture of U.S. society” by a “scientific-technological elite.”

Although Happer credits some of his willingness to brave personal and professional criticism as an expression of his Huguenot ancestry, he adds that he has spent much of his career studying the interaction of visible and infrared radiation with gases, one of the driving forces of the greenhouse effect, which posits that CO2 in the atmosphere absorbs and redirects infrared radiation, causing temperatures to rise. Happer joined the Princeton faculty in 1980, leaving in 1991 to become director of energy research at the U.S. Depart­ment of Energy, where one of his responsibilities was to supervise the department’s work on climate change. In 1993, however, shortly after President Clinton took office, Happer testified at a House hearing that he believed that “there has been some exaggeration” concerning the dangers of ozone and climate change, an act of apostasy that he says led to his being replaced.

Since returning to the faculty, Happer has gained distinction for his work in other fields. He helped patent an invention that provides high-resolution images of the human lung. From 1995 to 2005, he led the University Research Board, which advises the University president on all research conducted at Princeton. He currently runs a lab in atomic physics and is chairman of the board of directors of the George C. Marshall Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank founded by Frederick Seitz *34, himself a climate-change dissenter before his death in 2008.

Austin, a biophysicist, says that he had always “bought the party line” on climate change until he began talking to Happer. “I’ve always known Will Happer as a guy who usually has creative and insightful things to say that are not part of the mainstream,” Austin explains. Happer explained his disagreements with the climate-change consensus and brought Austin around to his position. Austin has since visited the Greenland glaciers with physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study — another ­climate-change skeptic — and says that while some glaciers may be shrinking at the edges, evidence suggests that they may be getting thicker in the middle.  

Much of the climate-change debate centers on a 2007 statement adopted by the American Physics Society (APS), a leading professional association of physicists: “The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security, and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, beginning now.”

Austin, Happer, and a handful of other scientists urged the APS to rescind this statement in favor of one stating, “While substantial concern has been expressed that emissions may cause significant climate change, measured or reconstructed temperature records indicate that 20th- and 21st-century climate changes are neither exceptional nor persistent, and the historical and geological records show many periods warmer than today.” It goes on to say that other forces, such as ocean cycles and solar variability, also might account for rising temperatures. “Current climate models,” it concludes, “appear insufficiently reliable to properly account for natural and anthropogenic contributions to past climate change, much less project future climate.” More than 160 past and present members of the APS signed their petition, including two other Princeton faculty members: Salvatore Torquato, a professor of chemistry, and Syzmon Suckewer, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

In response, the APS appointed an advisory committee to consider changes to its climate statement. Last November, that committee recommended that the APS stand behind the conclusions expressed in its statement, although it suggested that the society’s panel on public affairs address certain issues “of clarity and tone” in the way parts of the resolution were phrased. The society’s governing body then unanimously defeated Austin’s and Happer’s proposal, with Austin himself voting against it. He explains that while he continues to believe the APS’s 2007 statement ought to be changed, he became unhappy with phrasing in his own alternative and concluded that it too needed to be revised. He has not, however, introduced another alternative. Meanwhile, the APS’s public-affairs panel is preparing a commentary about the 2007 statement and the science behind it. That panel is led by Princeton professor Robert Socolow, an influential researcher who studies technologies to reduce carbon emissions.

Climate-change skeptics and believers agree on many of the facts; where they differ is in the conclusions to be drawn from them. Both, for example, agree that the earth’s climate is changing, that surface temperatures are rising, and that glaciers, at least in some areas of the world, are shrinking.   They agree that burning fossil fuels adds to CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Where the dissenters diverge most sharply from the consensus is in their disagreement that human activity is responsible for the changing climate and their refusal to extrapolate from current conditions to ecological disaster.  

Happer, for example, says that climate-change advocates ignore the fact that there have been several periods, including the last 10 years, in which there has been no warming, and that temperatures in fact cooled during the period from roughly 1940 to 1970. Sea levels are indeed rising, he also says, but they have been rising since the end of the last Ice Age, and there is no evidence that the rate is increasing.   Suckewer adds that his own research has convinced him that human activity has little to do with rising CO2 levels, much of which is caused by water vapor and ocean currents.   Those forces, he says, are so vast, complex, and imperfectly understood that efforts to “fix” them would be folly.

According to Happer, computer models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), on which many climatologists base their projections about the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, fail to account for recent periods of global cooling. If the models can’t accurately reproduce the past, Happer and others ask, how reliable can they be in predicting the future? The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Gore for their work on climate change.  

Like his ally Dyson, Happer argues provocatively that rising CO2 levels are in fact a net boon, and that humanity would be better off if they were even higher. Plants and early humans, Happer testified, evolved when CO2 levels were about 1,000 parts per million, far higher than they are today (about 380 parts per million) or are likely to become even under dire global-warming scenarios, with no adverse effects on life. Rising CO2 levels have, if anything, benefited mankind by increasing crop yields and making more parts of the globe available for cultivation.    

Austin, a biological physicist, also does not question data that show that global warming has occurred, but he questions projections derived from those data. CO2 levels have been much higher in the past, but this did not induce a tipping point, as some have suggested, in which surface temperatures soared to dangerous levels. Instead, temperatures during earlier periods of CO2 increases seem to have self-regulated, reaching a plateau and then slowly declining. Austin believes it is a question whether they will do so again, in which case dire forecasts of devastating climate change will not come to pass.

In addition to fighting the APS, climate skeptics have aimed their arguments outside the scientific community.   Austin and Happer, along with five other colleagues in academia and the petroleum industry, circulated a letter to Congress last July in response to a letter from scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center calling for immediate action to combat global warming. They suggested that the center was politically biased, calling it “the former den” of John Holden, now President Obama’s science adviser. As for evidence that purports to prove global warming, the letter insisted, in bold caps: THERE IS NO SUCH EVIDENCE; IT DOESN’T EXIST.

Skeptics received a boost last November when e-mails stolen from the climate-research unit of the University of East Anglia in England seemed to suggest that researchers had modified data to support global-warming theories, contemplated deleting data that might contradict those theories, and discussed ways to pressure an academic journal not to publish submissions from skeptics. The press quickly dubbed the matter Climategate. Scientists at the center say that the e-mails were misunderstood or taken out of context, and in February, an academic board of inquiry largely cleared a noted climatologist involved in the controversy of scientific misconduct. But climate-change proponents suffered further embarrassment when it was revealed that a projection in an IPCC report that claimed the Himalayan glaciers could disappear within the next few decades was wildly — some say deliberately — exaggerated, an incident that naturally came to be dubbed Glaciergate.

“Climategate” prompted Austin, Happer, and three others to circulate another letter to APS members in which they characterized the East Anglia e-mails as “an international scientific fraud, the worst any of us have seen in our cumulative 223 years of APS membership” and renewed their call for the society to withdraw its 2007 policy statement and “clarify the real state of the art in the best tradition of a learned society.”    

If the evidence supporting the implications of global warming is as flimsy as skeptics claim, why do so many prominent scientists agree that it is being driven by human greenhouse-gas emissions and should be curbed? Happer suggests that only a few actually have looked at the raw data and that others, too busy to do so themselves, have accepted what their colleagues have told them, falling into a dangerous form of groupthink. Furthermore, that consensus has become self-perpetuating. “A huge constituency has grown up that makes a living off” advocating action to combat global warming, Happer insists. For example, he dismisses U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a former professor of physics and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, as someone who has “convinced himself that he needs to save the world, even if it doesn’t need saving.”

Both Happer and Austin express regret that the climate-change issue has become conflated with simple environmentalism, which they say they support. “In a perfect world,” Austin says, “I would like to see us do everything in our power to develop alternatives to fossil fuel. I am all in favor of sustainability.” Happer said in his Senate testimony, “We should not confuse these laudable goals [such as protecting the environment and ending dependence on foreign oil] with hysterics about carbon footprints.”

Given the possibly dire consequences of global warming, would it not be prudent to curb greenhouse-gas emissions anyway? Happer dismisses that argument, known as a precautionary principle, as harmful to American economic competitiveness and wasteful of our time and energies. “You can make that argument about anything,” he says. More to the point, “It is corrupting to the body politic to live on a lie,” and he compares climate-change correctness to Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984.  

Austin advocates a level of agnosticism as the best professional posture. “In the physics community, we are supposed to be skeptics,” he says, noting that most scientific breakthroughs, dating back to Galileo and Newton, came from scientists who refused to accept settled assumptions. What is necessary, he says, is to insist on getting as much data as possible, evaluating the information objectively, and reaching one’s own conclusions. It should be pointed out, however, that those who accept the consensus on climate change do not disagree with this principle, but they believe that the evidence is now clear enough that action ought to be taken.

Michael Lemonick, a Princeton visiting lecturer and senior writer for Climate Central, a group that aims to “create a bridge between the scientific community and the public,” fears the impact of the scientific skeptics. “The fact that something is false does not keep it from shifting the public debate,” he says. “We could well decide not to do much about global warming based on false assertions.”

Almost everyone seems to agree that the science has become dangerously politicized. Socolow recognizes that a “group of members of the APS” are unhappy with the 2007 statement, and says the society is responding to their criticisms. “I am doing my best to play a constructive role in that response,” he says. Socolow supports a proposal that Austin has advanced, which calls on the APS to create a special panel to conduct further research on climate change, whether or not the society amends its 2007 statement.  

Austin hopes a panel could remove some of the politics from the debate. “I would like to see it be a place,” he says, “where people could leave their ideological guns at the door.”  

Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.

Post Comments
23 Responses to Temperatures rising

Ernest Clarke '62 Says:

2010-03-18 09:18:01

Mark Bernstein's article is perhaps the best treatment of this complicated and politically charged subject I have read. I have been frustrated by the lame treatment in the mainstream media of the gross distortions in Gore's movie and public utterances. I commend Mark and the two professors for their open-minded and reasonable discourse in the face of their own predilictions as to public policy that perhaps support some of the recommendations that emerge from this flawed science. Their philosophy to keep up the research but wait until we know something before taking drastic action is right on, to my way of thinking. Kudos to all!

Bruce Deitrick Price '63 Says:

2010-03-19 09:43:40

Happer makes me proud of Princeton. I remember 20 years ago, they said clouds will lock in heat. But the clouds, I thought, would also block out sunlight. A self-buffering system, in other words. More recently, I read about icecaps on Mars and other planets retreating. Sounds like evidence to me. I write a lot about flawed education; the massive propaganda in favor of sight-words, for example, seems similar to that for global warming. The insistent, it's-all-settled tone makes me distrust the propagandists.

L. Talbot Adamson '44 Says:

2010-03-19 09:45:43

I agree with everything that Earnest Clarke '62 has said. In addition, the proponents of manmade climate change cannot explain the ice age change. Also, the sun's wild gaseous surface gives us our climate change.

Brad Johnson MPA *11 Says:

2010-03-19 15:06:56

It appears that Mr. Bernstein has plagiarized from SuperFreakonomics: "It is understandable, therefore that the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion ... If the modern conservation movement has a patron saint, it is surely Al Gore ... Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception." That Princeton is supporting the conspiracy theory that the world's scientific organizations are engaged in a Nazi-scale lie is beyond shocking.

Arthur Cohn Says:

2010-03-22 09:33:22

I agree with all the Princeton scientists quoted in Bernstein's excellent article. I am not an expert in global warming, but I remember how Carl Sagan, using the same science with the same characterization as "completely settled," predicted during the Gulf War that the oil well fires in Kuwait would cause a long-term temperature drop in the gulf climate. Well, they did not! Also, I am somewhat of an expert in the difficulties and errors in extrapolation. I do not think that James Hansen and his followers are fully enough worried about these problems when they make their extrapolations/predictions.

Dr. Daniel Ulseth Says:

2010-03-22 09:35:53

------ @Bruce D. Price - Please look up Dr. Samuel Blumenfeld (PhD)'s work on intensive phonics vs sight-word reading. "Why Johnny Still Can't Read"; "NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education"; "Alpha-Phonics"; "How to Tutor"; are just a few of his works. I think you'll find his approach logical and highly applicable.

B. Stockwell Says:

2010-03-22 09:37:41

Best, most balanced article on the subject that I have read lately. Just finished the book, "The Real Global Warming Disaster," by Christopher Booker. He tells it all, well annotated. Thanks to Mr. Happer for spreading the word. It is unbelievable that the mainstream media will not touch anything like this. Dr. Richard Feynman (physicist extraordinaire)once said, "If you thought the science was certain -- well, that is just an error on your part."

Rod Everson Says:

2010-03-22 09:51:06

Mr. Bernstein's comment alluding to the religious aspect of this debate: "...climate change has become almost a civic religion. Like any religion it has its priests — Al Gore, perhaps — and its holy books — think Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth or his more provocatively titled best-seller, Earth in the Balance. It also has its heretics..." Brad Johnson's citation from SuperFreakonomics he alleges was plagiarized: "It is understandable, therefore that the movement to stop global warming has taken on the feel of a religion ... If the modern conservation movement has a patron saint, it is surely Al Gore ... Any religion, meanwhile, has its heretics, and global warming is no exception." "climate change"/"global warming" + "religion" + "priests"/"patron saint" + "Al Gore" + "heretics" = PLAGIARISM at Princeton? I would also note the two sets of ellipses in Mr. Johnson's quote and the fact that the quote as he's structured it makes no sense, as the heretics and the supposed religious movement to stop global warming appear to be on the same side. Perhaps selective quoting at work here? Oh, and it's not the skeptics that are tossing the "Nazi" comparisons around, e.g., the "Denier" label so often heard. Perhaps some projection at work?

Dave Klein Says:

2010-03-22 10:04:16

Brad: There IS a conspiracy, in case you need help in recognizing the situation; and their AGW THEORY is completely false and based upon an economic/political agenda that, indeed, ONLY benefits the few by 1) creating less competition for the multi-national corporations (creates barriers to entry), and 2) forces our citizens to buy foreign products. The list is endless, yet when one sees that the supposed "benevolent" ones like Gore are profiting daily, it leaves very little room for their benevolence.

Jeff Cormack Says:

2010-03-22 10:10:13

My regards to Princeton for at least fostering an open forum for discussion on this subject.

William D. Balgord Says:

2010-03-22 10:32:47

A little learning is a dangerous thing. Perhaps Mr. Bernstein should have taken a short course on all that has gone wrong in the GW alarmists' camp before launching this complicated assignment. A good place for him to start (maybe next time) would be the Web site "Climate Depot," where the whole sad story of "Climate-gate" is laid out in detail from its inception in November. The two stars of the Princeton physics department are only a few of the hundreds of scientists making their living in climate and meteorologically related fields who have signed various petitions calling the theory of anthropogenic climate change into serious question. The conventional "consensus" relied on by the mainstream media actually numbers a small percentage of true climatologists within its ranks. Instead, it mostly consists of biologists and others dependent on government grants being awarded on an expectation that the work will perpetuate the assumption that humans bear primary responsibility for climate change, changes that actually fall well within the envelope of natural variation and periodic cycles. In fact it is a mistake to assume that the skeptics represent a tiny aberration of heretics within the scientific community. It is just that the establishment media have, for the most part, tried to ignore them. Missing from this piece are names like Lindzen (MIT), Michaels (UVA), Spencer (NASA and UAH), Christie (NASA), Gray (CSU), Idso (ASU) and many, many more from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Europe and Asia who are comfortable within the skeptics' camp. Your piece is a good start. Better luck pushing back the frontiers of ignorance next time around.

Ray Ollwerther '71 Says:

2010-03-22 10:47:27

PAW editors spoke with senior writer Mark Bernstein '83 about the comment relating to this article and the book "SuperFreakonomics"; he said that he has not read the book.

Tom Moriarty Says:

2010-03-22 12:37:07

I am somewhat embarrassed to comment on a Web page that is intended for people with minds and credentials far superior to my own (i.e. Princeton alumni). But I hope that one of you will consider the following concerning sea-level rise ... Martin Vermeer and Stefan Rahmstorf proposed a PNAS article late last year that the relationship between sea-level rise rate and temperature is as follows: dH/dt = a(T-To)+bdT/dt where H is the sea level at time t T is the temperature at time t To is a constant, the "equilibrium temperature" b and a are constants a, b, and To are determined by finding the best fit of their equation to the measured tide gauge data and measured temperature data. Counterintuitively, they find a negative value for b. They claim that this equation is an explanation for the behavior of sea level as a function of temperature. As such, it can be used to predict sea-level rise for various future temperature-rise scenarios. Similarly, this equation would have still been valid for different past temperature profiles. Here is the problem. if you let T = To + Cexp(-at/b), then the sea-level rise rate will always be zero. Given the values that Vermeer and Rahmstorf find for a and b, and judiciously choosing C, you can create a temperature vs. time that would not have been far-fetched for the last century or this century. Yet Rahmstorf's equation will yield zero sea-level rise. I believe that this point invalidates their proposed relationship between temperature and sea-level rise rate. You can see their PNAS paper ( "Global sea level linked to global temperature." You can see the details of my argument ( Best Regards, ( Tom Moriarty

Denis Ables Says:

2010-03-22 15:04:20

Kenneth Sandale Says:

2010-03-23 13:40:34

Wow, what a bunch of nuts most of you people at Princeton are. The Earth emits a blackbody spectrum. Carbon dioxide has a strong resonance at a major blackbody frequency. Therefore it prevents energy that otherwise would escape from escaping. The shift in energy balance causes heating. It is bizarre that Princeton is actually an accredited university.

Ken Towe Says:

2010-03-23 16:05:44

Are the rising temperatures of the last 40 years really different from the 40 years at the beginning of the last century? Global temperatures are usually reported as anomalies, plus or minus, with respect to a 30 year base period "normal". In 1975 most temperature charts for the northern hemisphere showed a steady upward trend beginning around 1910 or 1920 leading to a peak positive anomaly of ~0.6°C at the end of the 1930s. This peak was followed by a steady downward return toward the zero level (normal) by 1975. This ~0.5°C cooling led to the well-documented global cooling ice-age-is-coming frenzy at that time. The base normal zero-level temperature in 1975 was 15°C. Thus, in 1938 the average temperature for the northern hemisphere had risen to 15.6°C but had returned to near 15°C in the mid-70s. The story was chronicled in a 1976 National Geographic article "What's Happening to our Climate?" [ Chart located at:] All of today's anomaly charts look completely different from those in the 70s. The base period NH temperature has been moved down to 14.6°C. With the average NH anomaly for the last decade near plus 0.6, the average temperature for the northern hemisphere is now 15.2°C or about 0.4°C less than in 1938. The prominent 1938 plus 0.6 anomaly is nearly gone, reduced to near normal. And what was considered about normal for the period from 1900 to 1920 is shown on today's charts to be well below normal. This arbitrary change in the frame of reference for the y-axis of these charts has had the net effect of making the recent history of the Earth's temperature look much more dramatically warming than it might otherwise have been. It has been argued that once you have created an appropriate baseline for an anomaly analysis, it seems sensible not to change it mid-stream. But it was... in mid-stream. Plus 0.6 anomaly in 1938 and plus 0.6 in 2008.

Ric Merritt '74 Says:

2010-03-29 09:22:50

This article and comments seem to have attracted a forlorn gathering of all the least useful and most often debunked talking points from those who think they somehow know better than nearly every scientist who has published relevant articles. 1) Prof. Happer obviously enjoys taking an unusual position on this important matter. A brief look at his publication list reveals nothing contradicting mainstream climate science, indeed nothing centrally relevant to controversial subjects in climate science. I am not a professional in this area. Would anyone who is so quick to support Prof. Happer care to cite publications that support his views? Peer-reviewed science journals count heavily, political statements not so much. Lindzen is the only climate scientist of any distinction to have a position close to Happer's, and Lindzen has received hardly any support from his fellow researchers in recent years. 2) The George C.Marshall Institute is a think tank on the political right. Its views on climate science don't count for much compared to peer-reviewed science either. 3) Ken Towe cites one of the hoariest of the "skeptic" talking points, the alleged frenzy in the 1970s about a putative coming ice age. His object is presumably to make current science look silly. The parallel is so faint as to be worse than useless. The consensus among scientists in the 1970s was already that warming would probably predominate, though there was less certainty and unanimity than there is today. Exhaustive information on this is easily available all over the Web, see especially and the writings of William Connolley. The high point of the alleged "frenzy" was an article in Newsweek. Again, not exactly an authoritative accumulation of science articles.

Susan B. Miller p'93 Says:

2010-03-29 09:24:55

The word "consensus" is used in this and many other articles about climate change with the implication that it's a generally accepted truth. But my understanding of the term in a scientific context is that it's only meaningful and acceptable when all competing theories have been disproved. One example I was told is that Einstein's Theory of Relativity has never been proved as truth; but since all competing theories have been disproved, it is thereby accepted by consensus; therefore it is still open to further scientific inquiry, as is climate change. Claiming consensus in climate change is not just wrong; it's misleading and could proved to have disastrous consequences. Before we rush in and make profound changes that will dramatically alter our world, let's acknowledge the fact that neither side of the debate can claim consensus, and invite further inquiry of all kinds and from all quarters, until we reach truth. Only then can we move forward with confidence and conviction.

Jeannie Sowers *03 Says:

2010-04-07 09:23:37

Just goes to show, Princeton professors can make as bizarre claims as anyone else. Who else could get away with comparing their opponents to Nazi propagandists and get quoted in PAW? Please, if you are going to write a serious article on climate change, interview a range of Princeton professors who work on climate science, who hold a range of interesting perspectives. We have enough sensationalist media out there as it is.

Peter Seldin '76 Says:

2010-04-07 16:26:01

When the movie "An Inconvenient Truth" is shown in classrooms in the U.K., the teachers are required to present to the students the nine significant scientific errors in the movie. Most of our teachers here in the USA have no idea what these errors are and thus cannot present a balanced, scientifically accurate treatment of this subject. I applaud Princeton professors for encouraging serious discussion of a subject that often appears to be more of a matter of faith than anything else.

Robert A. Epsen '61 Says:

2010-04-07 16:27:26

Would this kind of robust debate among alumni take place if all scientists meekly accepted the political orthodoxy of climate change? Kudos to Professors Happer and Austin for their courage, not to mention their scientific rather than political approach to the issue.

J.M. Parish '65 Says:

2010-04-09 11:25:23

Obviously the amateurs and professional skeptics have been encouraged by the "brave" dissidence of these professors in the midst of as chaotic a situation as one could imagine involving the earth, its behavior and its future. As we have seen in many other areas where economics and politics collide with science, there has been a huge amount of "bought and paid for" pseudo-science and propaganda promoted by large corporate interests so that fossil fuels will continue to provide the wherewithal for the privileged classes of the privileged countries to live as they do now. Can we deny also that we have been conditioned by it, and that there is a culture of intimidation as is typical of elitist authoritarian political structures such as we have evolved to in this country? Change is hard, especially if you're on the top of the global heap and, sadly, the rest of the world wants to be you and own a big car and be 5% of the world's population consuming 25% of the world's resources. Why doesn't anyone ask the questions -- (a) is this the life a thoughtful and altruistic person would lead and (b) what are the consequences if these "maverick" professors are right, and what, much more frighteningly and apocalyptic, if they are dead wrong?

Chinmaya Kulkarni Says:

2011-04-27 09:24:17

Oh dear. So much wrong with this, I'm lost as I try to frame a response. A few points that come to mind immediately (with an attempt to avoid obfuscating the logic with jargon and trivial points): Suckewer's claim that we can't attribute CO2 rise to human activity: well, we can. The recent trend in increasing CO2 has come with a decline in the relative abundance of both 14C and 13C isotopes of carbon in atmospheric carbon dioxide. On the timescales we're talking about, this can only really point to fossil fuels. Look up the Suess effect for details. Rising CO2 in its current manifestation is not about vague, arm-wavy, mysterious water vapour or ocean currents that Suckewer is pointing to. The claim that CO2 levels have been higher in the past without any involvement of positive feedbacks is also misleading. First, we're already at about Pliocene(~4 million years ago) levels of CO2, and we're headed to levels much higher. Yes, the planet's been there. But the world was a different place. No polar ice caps before the Pliocene, for example. Our species has never been in such a world (I assume, of course, that the reader is on board with the idea that the world existed during and before the Pliocene, which is to say several million years ago, had a dynamic climate, and that humans weren't around then). Adapting to a world like that will cost huge amounts in human lives, money, and quality of living, given that virtually everything we've built is built around a Holocene climate. Also, feedbacks must have happened, and we don't even need to go to drastically high CO2 levels to see them. Even during the Pleistocene, the amplitude of glacial cycles cannot be explained by changes in incoming solar radiation (insolation), although the timing can. CO2 levels are seen to rise with (actually, slightly lagging behind) global temperatures. This suggests that there was an initial trigger (insolation changes) that caused a larger response (largely CO2 feedbacks) that then drove the magnitude of oscillations. Again, carbon isotope ratios from ice cores and marine sediments back this general idea. In the current situation, we don't need an insolation trigger. We're triggering the initial change in the earth's heat budget ourselves, with CO2 emissions. Then there is this interesting conflict where Happer implies, essentially, that incidental cool periods prevent us from being certain that temperatures are rising, whereas Austin seems to agree that there is a warming trend (a rarity in this article -- an appreciation for something as nuanced as a trend, or an average, or probabilities) -- but seeks to explain it away by more hand-waving. "... there is no evidence that the rate [of sea level rise] is increasing." That's not quite true. It's been one of the harder things to be confident about because of the different processes (thermal expansion and melting of ice, interacting with the complexities of ocean-heat budgets) that lead to such rise. But we're at a point where it's getting really hard to explain away observed sea-level rise through the background processes that have been at work since the end of the "ice age." Climategate: Seriously, that's been milked for all it's worth and has been beaten to death. The whole thing about hiding the decline and the "trick" have been shown to have been gross, out-of-context misrepresentations. The "trick" was a rigorous, reasoned technique used to "hide the decline" in the faithfulness of a proxy. All of this has been well-documented, and is really irrelevant in assessing the integrity of climate science. There are many more points to take issue with. Most of them have been dealt with extensively on various forums, accessible to everyone. See Ric Merritt's excellent post above, especially the reference to the RealClimate website. In that sense, there's not a whole lot new in this article -- it's mostly the same old tired stuff that is all to easy to lap up without basic background knowledge and critical thought. For all those on this forum who want robust debate, climate scientists in general actually welcome it. Socolow's patience, as indicated in this article, is but one example. The one favor they would ask in return is an open mind. They can talk to reason, and to skepticism based on reason; they can't talk to doctrinaire certainty that is independent of rational, critical thought.
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