Inside the Battle Over Climate Change Science

Give Stephen Schneider points for prescience. His new book, Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate, exposes the bare-knuckles infighting, bruising backroom brawls, and arm-twisting that characterize climate science, of which Schneider, now at Stanford University, has long been a leading light. By "prescience," I'm referring to the fact that the book arrives smack in the midst of the brouhaha over the e-mails that were hacked from the climate-research unit at the University of East Anglia, which show scientists saying nasty things about rivals, plotting to keep research they consider shoddy out of government reports, and wondering how to resolve anomalies in climate data. Newsflash: gloves-are-off behavior characterizes all sciences and, as Schneider shows, climate research is no exception.

In the late 1960s Schneider was a graduate student in physics at Columbia University when he did the research that led to the now-infamous warning of global cooling. He had been asked by S. Ichtiaque Rasool of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (who had just hired as his postdoctoral fellow James Hansen, now the world's most famous climatologist) to calculate the effect of aerosols and greenhouse gases on the planet's climate. Basic physics says that aerosols cool the atmosphere and greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide warm it. Human activities were filling the air with both. Which would win?

Schneider was a numerical whiz, not an atmospheric physicist, and describes what he did as using mathematics "to solve equations I didn't understand." The primitive equations at that time did not include reactions in the stratosphere. That omission, he later figured out, cut the greenhouse effect by half. As a result, aerosol cooling won out, and he (and Rasool) concluded in their 1971 paper that the earth might cool by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius (5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit). Rasool, in a throwaway line, wrote that could be "sufficient to trigger an ice age."

Ever since, that paper has been a favorite of climate-change deniers, who have ridiculed climatologists by accusing them of predicting an ice age before doing an about-face. In fact, the "prediction" hardly deserves that name. It was based on a single paper, not the thousands that underpin the case for global warming, and on a theoretical calculation alone rather than the measurements of current climate and records of paleoclimate that support the fact that greenhouse gases cause global warming. (And yes, NEWSWEEK reported on global cooling in a 1975 article.) Oh, and the rest of the climatology community immediately castigated Schneider and Rasool for their "irresponsible" paper. So much for the charge that in the 1970s there was anything like a consensus among experts that the world was headed for global cooling, let alone an ice age.

That internecine fight set the stage for years of bickering among climate scientists about whether computer models of earth's climate or actual observations (of other planets and their atmospheres, or of paleoclimate through proxy data such as ice cores and tree rings) should be the basis for predictions about the consequences of filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases. Schneider, who went from Columbia to the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., in 1972 to continue his research, was in the thick of it, arguing for "a hierarchy of approaches." He is frank about the limitations of climate models, especially those primitive 1980s versions, which he likens to "back-of-the-envelope" calculations. But for all that, the models have been in the right ballpark ever since the ice-age error: if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reached double their preindustrial levels, temperatures would rise 2.7 to 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit, Schneider calculated in a 1975 paper. And that's still about what climate models say, 35 years later. So much for the idea that climatologists flip-flop.

Science as a Contact Sport serves as a useful corrective to the idea that climate researchers are part of one big cabal aimed at (as e-mail from furious readers always tells me) redistributing global wealth and destroying capitalism. Schneider recounts how colleagues stamped BULLS--T on a story about his assertion that science didn't know enough in 1973 to predict whether the planet would warm or cool, and how a dispute at an international climate meeting over how much precision to demand of satellite measurements of the atmosphere was replete with French curse words. When he expressed doubt that a heat wave was caused by global warming--"nature, not humans, makes heat waves," he points out--he got irate e-mails from environmental groups, including one saying, "you can't take this heat wave away from us." Yet all Schneider wanted to do was hew to the science which, then as now, says that climate is changing in dangerous ways but that no single weather event can be blamed on global warming.

Climate deniers looking for dirt on how the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  conspired to exagerrate the greenhouse effect, or the strength of the science, will be disappointed. As Schneider recounts, debates within the IPCC tended to be about arcana such as the value of including probability distributions in forecasts, and whether to note that the climate system is "nonlinear" and thus can exhibit "unexpected behavior" (the Saudis liked that one because they thought it showed that climate science is uncertain). There was no credible science in support of the charge that the whole global warming thing is a sham, and research that underlined uncertainties and questions that needed more study has always been included in IPCC documents.

More interesting are Schneider's stories of how lobbyists, working for coal and oil groups opposed to greenhouse-gas controls, passed notes to the Saudi and Kuwaiti delegations at IPCC meetings telling them what scientific objections to raise, and how known contrarians such as Fred Singer typically sat quietly in the back of the rooms where scientists presented their conclusions, saving their attacks for the media rather than settings where experts could expose them. The IPCC process comes across as more brutal than rugby. During one 2007 meeting, the Chinese delegation was "challenging widely employed and sound methodologies and then putting into question the scientific work . . . based on some eleventh-hour, national side science they never produced." In response, the Australian delegate called the Chinese behavior "scientific vandalism." Contact sport, indeed.

But there were also instances of science-based and open-minded debate at IPCC meetings. In one set piece, Schneider describes how the delegate from Kenya, whom the Saudis tried to rope into a Third World revolt against the climate scientists, attended a side meeting on the conclusion that there was a "discernible" influence of human activities on climate--that is, the conclusion that a man-made greenhouse effect had been detected. The Saudis and others objected, but produced no science to back up their position. The Kenyan delegate, a meteorologist, listened intently to the scientists, and then voted with the scientists, saying he was "fully convinced" that the "discernible" conclusion was right. The Saudis and Kuwaitis were hung out to dry.

Environmental groups don't come out too well in Schneider's account. During a meeting to discuss giving countries credit for preserving their forests (which suck up CO2), a representative of one (unnamed) group protested. It would let big emitters like the U.S. avoid cutting their emissions from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, he said. But a ton of carbon is a ton of carbon, Schneider replied. "We simply can't let the U.S. find any excuse not to cut its industrial emissions," came the answer.

What comes through most clearly in Science as a Contact Sport is what a history of failure the effort to come to grips with climate change has been. We've known the gist of global warming and climate change since at least the 1980s. It's sobering that we've made so little progress since the U.S. National Academies' climate-change reports of 1991, 1992, 2001, 2002, and . . . well, you get the idea. To the contrary, global emissions of greenhouse gases have skyrocketed (no pun intended) in the 20-plus years that we've understood the threat.

For all the inside-baseball dirt that Schneider dishes, he never loses sight--or lets the reader lose sight--of the big picture. In the decades since he and others first sounded the alarm that humankind is engaged in an unprecedented experiment in atmospheric physics, what has changed most is not the precision of the computerized climate models, not the details of our knowledge about earth's past climate and what it tells us about what's coming, not the accuracy of our measurements of how much mass the Greenland ice sheet is losing. It is, instead, "that nature is cooperating with theory," Schneider writes. The ominous warnings that he and other climatologists sounded more than a generation ago are coming true sooner, and worse, than anyone predicted.

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