Round and Round


Steven Milloy has now written a second article attacking my NRODT cover story on global warming. As per my previous response to his prior article, I will try to respond in as constructive a manner as possible to each of his assertions.

Here is his complete article with my comments inserted in italics:

In the cover story of the June 25 National Review, software company CEO Jim Manzi wrote that conservatives should stop “denying” that humans are warming the planet and instead figure out how to use global warming to “peel off” 1 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election. Manzi claims that this strategy could represent a “principled stand” for a “clever candidate.”

Actually, I propose a set of policies that I believe are correct on the merits, and make the subsequent point that these should be politically popular if presented correctly.

But Manzi’s strategy, in fact, represents the snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory — and all for relatively few votes of uncertain, if any, political value.

I don’t think that the position of “global warming is a fiction” is in any danger of imminent political victory.

Manzi says conservatives should believe in global warming, not because of “liberal scaremongering … but because of the underlying physics” — which he apparently doesn’t grasp in the least.

“All else being equal, the more carbon dioxide molecules we have in the atmosphere, the hotter it gets,” writes Manzi.

Mr. Milloy neglects to include the sentence that follows this one in my article. Here is the actual quote: “All else equal, the more CO2 molecules we have in the atmosphere, the hotter it gets. The key question is how much hotter.” This deletion turns out to be crucial.

Wrong. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not likely to significantly contribute to the greenhouse effect.

The key word here is “significantly”. Mr. Milloy agrees that additional CO2 molecules do contribute to the greenhouse effect, but he does not consider this increase to be “significant”, without ever quantifying “significant”. But, as I indicated, quantifying how much hotter is an open question, and a crucial one. This ground was covered in greater depth the prior post.

Clouds and greenhouse gases (GHGs), like water vapor and carbon dioxide, absorb radiation of varying wavelengths emitted by the earth. Some of these absorption bands overlap. In a sense, clouds and the various GHGs “compete” to absorb the earth’s radiation. Because of this competition, the heat-trapping potentials of clouds and GHGs don’t simply add up in a linear fashion.

As explained in greater detail on the Department of Energy Web site, there is — and has been since before the industrial revolution — enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to absorb about 36 percent of the radiation emitted by the earth.

But because of the “competition” for the earth’s radiation from clouds and other GHGs, the heat-trapping contribution of carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect is reduced to about 12 percent.

The point of these three paragraphs is that there are multiple gases that can absorb infrared radiation and CO2 is only one of them. Therefore, all else equal, adding a given amount of CO2 to an atmosphere that already has some molecules of these gases in it will have a smaller warming impact than adding it to one that does not. In this way, it is very similar to the fact that as I add more and more CO2 to the atmosphere, all else equal, each incremental unit of CO2 will cause less warming. Once again, just because the impact is less does not mean that it is not significant. The key open question is how we translate something like “the heat-trapping contribution of carbon dioxide to the greenhouse effect is reduced to about 12 percent” to a resulting temperature increase. Because of the complexity of climate feedbacks, we currently lack the ability to do this reliably. This ground was also covered in the prior post.

“By itself, however, carbon dioxide is capable of trapping three times as much radiation as it actually does in the earth’s atmosphere,” the DOE said.

Adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, then, can do little to trap more of the earth’s radiation and so won’t contribute much to higher temperatures or more global warming.

Once again, the key words here are “little” and “much”. Without quantification, this is really just rhetoric.

No doubt this phenomenon explains, at least in part, why global temperatures can decline as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels steadily increase — as happened, for example, during the period from 1940 to 1975. And let’s not forget Antarctic ice core samples indicate that increases in global temperature have historically preceded increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide by hundreds of years.

Both of these examples were addressed in detail in the prior post.

Despite Manzi’s “all else being equal” qualification, the reality is that in the real world of radiation absorption by clouds and GHGs, all things are not equal. And why anyone should pretend to the contrary is not at all clear.

Multiple paragraphs of my article were devoted to the point that all else is not close to equal because of complex, interacting climate feedback effects. As I said in the article, this is why we can’t reliably quantify the temperature impact of varying levels of CO2. As per the prior post, I have written extensively in NRO and Planet Gore about exactly this issue.

Manzi apparently has taken to heart Al Gore’s main message delivered to Congress on March 21, 2007 — that is, “There is no longer any serious debate over the basic points that make up the consensus on global warming.”

Gore’s testimony in March followed his typical rhetorical strategy of studied ambiguity about where the science ends and the policy prescription begins, therefore it is hard to know exactly what Gore was asserting about the scientific consensus. He appeared, at minimum, to be asserting that global warming has been responsible for increasing hurricane strength, which is not a consensus point of view. More to the point, I disagree with almost every policy proposal that he put forward, and I am clear about this in my article. I say, for example, that if Gore becomes the Democratic nominee in 2008, then his Republican opponent should wage “an all-out effort to demonstrate the folly of his proposals”.

But despite Gore’s box-office success with “An Inconvenient Truth,” his related Oscar award and nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, his global-warming crusade that seems to have brought him back from the political junkyard, the public doesn’t buy his sort of junk science after being presented with alternative views.

In March, the prestigious debating society Intelligence Squared sponsored a debate on global warming in New York City. The proposition debate was, “Global warming is not a crisis.” While the vast majority of the audience thought global warming was a crisis before the debate, a survey taken after the debate showed that the audience had reversed its position.

I defended this debate process and result at the time on RealClimate. Note that the audience concluded that “Global warming is not a crisis”. I agree. Here’s what I said in my article: “Global warming is a manageable risk, not an existential crisis, and we should get on with the job of managing it.”

In April, CNBC Squawk Box anchor Joe Kernen famously interviewed Gore acolytes Laurie David and singer Sheryl Crow, about global warming. In addition to refusing to respond to Kernen’s repeated questions about the underlying science of global warming, David contemptuously reiterated Gore’s mantra, “The debate is over.”

But the debate apparently is not over, at least according to the Squawk Box viewers who commented about the interview. Eighty percent of the viewer responses generated by the interview supported Kernen’s effort to delve into the science.

I have repeatedly raked both of these two lame eco-celebrities over the coals, such as here and here, but this is not really relevant to our objective evaluation of the risks of global warming.

Keeping the debate alive is all the more important given that the political dynamic of the climate controversy is slowly and subtly starting to turn away from Gore-wrought hysteria.

When NASA head Michael Griffin stated on National Public Radio on May 31 that “I am not sure that it is fair to say that [global warming] is a problem we must wrestle with,” it was NASA’s climate-alarmist-in-chief, Jim Hansen, who looked foolish for criticizing Griffin — who holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering and master’s degrees in aerospace science, electrical engineering, applied physics, civil engineering and business administration — as being “ignorant.”

Hansen has clearly become an unhinged ideologue on this issue. Griffin was making the practical point that NASA has a legally-defined mission that includes studying, but not “wrestling with”, climate change. Once again, this is not really relevant to our objective evaluation of the risks of global warming.

The UK newspaper Financial Times recently broke out of its self-imposed, long-standing tunnel vision in favor of climate alarmism in running an op-ed by Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus, who questioned global-warming orthodoxy from science to politics in a piece entitled “What Is at Risk Is Not the Climate but Freedom.”

I’m the person at Planet Gore who enthusiastically pointed readers to this op-ed the day after it was first published. While he is writing at a very high oratorical level, Klaus here predominantly makes the political point that we should not sacrifice either economic growth or an open political process to the threat of global warming. I agree.

Finally, for all its alleged concerns about catastrophic global warming, what is the alarmist-friendly Democratic Congress doing about it? The answer is nothing.

Though the Senate passed an energy bill last week, it didn’t dare approach the question of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It seems that burdening the economy because of Al Gore’s dubious science may, after all, be bad politics.

Just so. As I said in the article: “No matter how often activists feel as if they’d won all the debates in think tank meetings, editorial pages and faculty lounges, it is still going to be a tough battle to convince 51% of voters to make huge sacrifices based on the evidence that we have now.” The more we can move the debate to the tangible costs and benefits of alternative policy proposals, and off the debate about whether global warming is real, the more likely we are to prevent the introduction of a carbon tax, cap-and-trade system or similar program.

The more scientists research global climate, the more we learn how much they don’t know about it. The more alarmists talk, the more we realize that they don’t know what they’re talking about. The debate is over? We need it now more than ever.

To be both specific and practical about it, I believe that we need debate about the tangible costs and benefits of a carbon cap-and-trade system for the US. This is the big issue on the table – Clinton, Obama, Edwards and McCain all propose this policy. Conservatives can win the debate, and prevent this from happening. But letting cap-and-trade advocates of off the hook by allowing them to continue to argue at a high rhetorical plane with the straw man of “there is no global warming” is the wrong way to go about winning it.


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