First of all, I don’t want to give the impression that I am knocking the scientists. Many of them are wonderful people, and I deeply appreciate the time they’ve given me, the conversations we’ve had, and the many things I’ve learned from them. It is understandable that some might want to overstate their certainty about certain things, because they are aware, as I am, that the situation for us and the planet is dire and critical, and we needed to get people’s attention with the most powerful statements that we can come up with. For instance, the other day the Princeton geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer said on CNN that the link between global warming and human emissions is as firm as that between lung cancer and tobacco. The problem with this analogy is that there are many other factors in the global warming equation, known and unknown. Human emissions are certainly a significant part of it, but Dr. Oppenheimer is making it seem as if humans emissions are the main contribution. This is what the IPCC collectively declares too, but I think this is a case of scientists trying to make you think they know something they really don’t, and of adhering to what has become the scientific orthodoxy and party line. I don’t think anyone really knows, so I am immediately suspicious of anyone who says he does. We’re in uncharted waters here. If the greenhouse narrative did not exist, there would be a whole body of scientific literature with natural explanations that climate scientists would have to be in sync with.
I myself was a fervent unquestioning devotee of the greenhouse narrative, although I was increasingly aware of the subjective component in even the most rigorous hard science, until 2006, when I went to Russia to a story about the scramble for the Arctic’s rich oil deposits that are becoming increasingly accessible as the icecap melts. In Moscow I met with several eminences grises of the Russian Academy of Sciences, founded by Peter the Great in l724 (which my ancestor Johann D. Schumacher had been the first director of) who told me that the official position of the academy was the exact opposite of what everyone in the West was saying : the human contribution was negligible, and in fact the planet was cooling down. Some of the Russian metereological stations had been registering lower temperatures for the last few years. One scientist told me that 104 astronomical phenomena were also in play besides our emissions, and there were cyclical shifts in the jet stream over the western Arctic, and in the icepack, which is constantly moving, in two gyres. A lovely octogenarian glaciologist said he had been recording dramatic shifts in the size of the icepack since the 1930s, long before there was any talk of this greenhouse business, and that in fact in the early thirties, the entire Arctic coast from Murmansk to the Behring Strait had been ice-free and open to shipping, which it still isn’t today despite all the dramatic melting that is being reported, and this had nothing to do with human emissions, which didn’t really kick in till around l970.
But to what extent was this an even more toed and lockstep party line ? The old scientists were simply telling me what they had observed over their long careers, and it is natural that they would be skeptical of this new greenhouse theory, when they had recorded dramatic cyclical variation in the amount of summer ice in the Arctic. But how similar was this reactionary stance to the archaeologists whose careers had been devoted to the study of Clovis man and predicated on the assumption that the Clovis people were the first to arrive in the New World, whose applecart was upset by the discovery of Fulsom man, whose projectile points carbon-dated to several thousands years earlier than Clovis ? How bitterly they fought to discredit the findings of the new-wave Fulsom archaeologists. And to what extent was the Russian party line dictated by the Kremlin, which had an obvious interest in wanting the melting to continue and denying the human contribution so they could get at the oil and the Arctic coast would melt again and the lucrative shipping lanes would be reopened ? I was told that the academy’s anti-warmist position was dictated by its top climate guy, Yuri Israel, who was very political, and everybody had to adhere to it or else. But for the first time, the old scientists had raise legitimate doubts in my mind. It made perfect sense that a lot of other things would be involved besides our emissions.
I continued to Siberia (if you want to read the whole story, go to Dispatch #47), and in Yakutia, the capital of the Sakaha (Yakutia) Republic, I met an old communist science bureaucrat who had a bald head and pointed bearded and piercing eyes like Lenin, and he told me that the permafrost, which everything I had been reading in Western sources was supposed to be melting disastrously, was hardly melting at all, and within normal variation. A Dartmouth anthropologist who was doing a study of the Evenky reindeer herders’ perception of global warming told me that one woman told her “global warming is something you investigators brought with you. We had never heard of it until you came.” But a Yukaghir activist told me that his people were suffering severely from the melting permafrost, which was wreaking havoc with their traditional hunting and fishing patterns and undermining their villages. I met one dissident scientist, Maxim Trifomov, who presented me with his impressive thousand-page study detailing massive melting of the permafrost. He held the Western view that the human contribution was paramount.
So who was a poor boy to believe ? I flew up to the Arctic Circle and took a boat down a river where I saw a 100-foot wall of fossil ice on one of its banks that was melting away in a warm sifting September drizzle. The ice was full of the skeletons of Pleistocene mammals which had been locked in it for ten thousand years or more, and as the ice melted away, the bones were being disgorged into the river. I pocketed the huge vertebra of what a paleozoologist in Yakutia said was that of an extinct horse.
I came away from this assignment with two realizations : the global warming issue is highly politicized, and it is not just caused by human emissions. The foundations of my faith had been a little shaken, but I read carefully the 35-page Frequently Asked Questions section of the Physical Science Basis section of the IPCC’s which addressed in great detail my questions and restored my faith in the greenhouse narrative. This section on the physical science basis is essential reading for anyone who wants to get up to speed in the climate change debate However, looking at the FAQ discussion now, I find several statements that I have problems with. The first is that 98% of the climate scientists in the world and every science academy in every country agree that the human contribution is the main cause. There is virtual consensus. But the Russian Academy of Sciences, one of the oldest and most hallowed scientific institution, does not agree and in fact maintains the complete opposite, so this is not true. They may have since modified their position, but at the time of the IPCC’s 2006 report, this is what is was. Secondly, that it has to be our emissions because no known natural phenomena are happening that could explain what is going on. But what about the interglacial warming period, which we are still in because otherwise, the next Ice Age would be beginning and it would be getting colder ? What about the astronomical and atmospheric oscillations the Russian scientists told me about ? There is obviously not complete consensus, a huge grey area that science has not yet fleshed out and completely nailed down. Both sides are right, but they are examining a different part of the elephant. Wikipedia has a number of detailed, even-handed entries that are worth looking at : global warming controversy (36 pages), politics of global warming, climate change consensus (10 pages), scientific opinion on climate change (26 pages), climate change denial (9pages), and climate research unit e-mail hacking incident (15 pages; I will go into this incident in the next blog). Much food for thought.
But the scientists are not the real problem. It’s the lower-level mainstream media, which ignores their meticulously phrased caveats and qualifications and distorts and sensationalizes their findings and turns their conclusions into black and white statements that they went to great length to emphasize they were not in a position to make. It simply gets it wrong. And once a sexy but untrue factoid is out there it gets repeated and repeated until gradually it acquires the veneer of truth. The real villains, though, are the trash and disinformation machine of the interests that are interested in being able to conduct business as usual, however polluting and damaging to the health of the planet and its life. They are the ones who are doing the most damage to the effort to figure out what is really going on.
to be continued