In Response to: Temperatures rising

Everywhere you look, and now in PAW, contrarian scientists get easy and respectful media coverage. Mark Bernstein ’83 gave Professors Happer and Austin a bully pulpit, and seems to have been taken in by them (feature, March 17).

The article starts by subtly framing the whole issue in pejorative terms, calling the effort to acquaint the general public with the climate-change crisis a secular religion. Later it calls Happer’s rejection of a professional consensus ”an act of apostasy.” Surely the two responded to widespread criticism, likening it to the Nazi persecution of Jews, in predictably emotional and ideological ways. A better journalist should have been cued by their outrageous statements that they, quite understandably, react to such general rejection of their views by feelings of hurt and persecution that verge on the paranoid. 

No, I am not calling them psychotic, nor am I presuming to diagnose at a distance.  Normal people do react in potentially pathological ways under stress. My main aim is to give the case they make a dispassionate hearing despite its emotional wording.

The first statement about data puts on equal footing the undeniable fact that glaciers are shrinking ”at the edges” and the hypothesis that “they may be getting thicker at the middle.” That speculation contrasts with many observations about the formation and then disappearance of surface lakes on the interior surface of the Greenland ice cap as they drain into fissures and lubricate the glaciers’ movement, an unprecedented and widely reported fact. Bernstein follows with a later statement that “glaciers, at least in some areas of the world, are shrinking”; would a lay reader think that “at least some” is actually the vast majority? 

Second, “20th- and 21st-century climate changes are neither exceptional nor persistent.” True, by an irrelevant reading of the facts. Some changes are indeed similar to others in the reconstructed record of the past million years, both periods of warming and of cooling. No climatologist denies that elementary observation. Part of the problem is that these two men, who may be distinguished in their own fields, write and speak as if colleagues whose work is much more directly relevant than theirs are ignorant of or don’t give adequate consideration to phenomena that are old hat to the real experts. Sure, “ocean cycles and solar variability also might account for rising temperature” – they explicitly are included in most climatological models, so why talk about them as if they had been overlooked?

Third, Happer’s claim that “climate-change advocates ignore the fact that there have been several periods, including the past 10 years, in which there has been no warming.”  No doubt it is true that many lay journalists have not noticed that the long, slow, upward trend of warming since the Industrial Revolution has had periods of temporary fluctuation, but deniers generally lack the perspective to see the long-term trend in a highly variable record. One would think that two distinguished Princeton professors would keep up with a topic in which they are interested by a regular reading of the AAAP’s journal Science, but it is hard to see how they could make many of their assertions if they did so. Even by last July, the exaggeratedly emphasized statement in the letter to Congress by the “skeptics” concerning evidence “to prove global warming,” that “THERE IS NO SUCH EVIDENCE; IT DOESN’T EXIST” could not have been made by a conscientious reader of just this one journal.

Fourth error: Dyson and Happer are simply wrong that rising levels of CO2 will benefit mankind “by increasing crop yields and making more parts of the globe available for cultivation.”  Well-designed research, recently published in peer-reviewed journals, shows that the beneficial effects of added CO2 are limited and reverse quickly just above current levels, while agronomists and climatologists alike are alarmed by the great increases in desertification, erosion, salination from over-irrigation, and other trends rapidly making far fewer “parts of the globe available for cultivation” while growth of populations and incomes create greatly increased demand for food.

Then there is the big fuss in the popular press about “Climategate” and “Glaciergate.” It does Professors Austin and Hopper little credit as skeptics that they credulously swallowed the charges that the stolen East Anglia e-mails were a tremendous exposure of flimsiness in the evidential basis of the climate-change crisis, amounting to the worst scientific fraud in memory! Their letter to the members of the American Physics Society showed them to have little better ability to counsel the public about global warming than most Tea Partiers, and should be an intense embarrassment following the careful examination of the facts and circumstances by impartial colleagues, which have shown both “Gates” to have been trivial errors.