Monday, April 21, 2008

A Skeptic with a Degree

This article is a review of the book, Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians and Misguided Policies that Hurt the Poor, by Roy W. Spencer.

According to the dust jacket, Dr. Spencer holds a PhD in Meteorology and is a Principal Research Scientist in Climate Science at the University of Alabama. His expressed skepticism about human-caused climate change would, therefore, seem to be the clearest possible vindication of the skeptics' view on that topic.

Since Dr. Spencer is a professional scientist writing about his own specialty, one would expect any book he writes to be jammed with scientific information about this complex subject. But one would be disappointed. In fact, his scientific coverage extends over two pages, from page 80 to 82. In this short passage, he sums up the knowledge about climate change thus:

"First, we know that mankind is producing carbon dioxide as a result of our use of a wide variety of fuels, from coal and petroleum to natural gas and wood."

"A second observation we are certain of is that the carbon dioxide content of the global atmosphere has been slowly increasing. We are now about 40 percent of the way to a doubling of the pre-industrial concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide."

"Thirdly, we know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means that it traps infrared radiation and so tries to warm the lower troposphere to a higher temperature than if the gas was not there."

"Finally, we are pretty sure that the globally averaged surface temperature of the Earth is at least 1° Fahrenheit warmer now than it was about a century ago."

This is as clear a proof of climate change as could be imagined. Yet, Dr. Spencer demurs from stating the natural and obvious conclusion. Why, you may wonder. He says that he's withholding his conclusion because temperature rise and CO2 concentration rise might occur together only by coincidence. That is, global warming might be due to natural variability.

Natural variability is outside our experience with thermodynamic systems. We know why car engines warm up; it's because of fuel being burned. We know why houses warm up; it's either because the sun is beating on them or because of their furnaces. Our bodies warm up because we're exercising muscles or because the temperature control mechanisms are impaired by illness. But Dr. Spencer thinks it is realistically possible that Earth could just naturally change temperature without any cause. And that possibility prevents him from accepting the prevailing scientific view.

After seeing the subtitle of the book, though, one might wonder if that really is the reason. The other 180 pages could have been transcripted straight from hate-talk shows on AM radio. Environmentalists put the needs of wildlife above those of humans. Governments and philanthropic foundations reward and punish scientists according to their positions on climate change. Europeans prospered 1000 years ago because of unusually-warm conditions. People overreact when cities are wiped out by hurricanes. Scientists don't know as much as they think they do. Global warming is a religion. Politicians are using it as a trick for taking money away from working people. Scientists are milking it like a cow. Reducing emissions will harm the economy. The Precautionary Principle is wrong. Global warming is good for poor people. Left wingers killed millions of people by banning DDT. The United Nations works to make everybody poor.

Why is all this right-wing propaganda in a book written by a scientist? Since it takes up the largest part of the book by far, we can in all fairness ask if Dr. Spencer's skepticism is really due to scientific rigor or if his political views have overcome his objectivity.

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