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Will Clouds Save the Day?

Will Clouds Save the Day?

I hope he’s right. Richard S. Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, leads the climate scientists who argue that human activities are not endangering climate. Dr. Lindzen, who is 72, has made a sub-career out of climate change skepticism. He has testified on the topic before Congress and to other important decision makers, and has broadcast contrarian views in numerous appearances in popular media. He has published more that 200 scientific papers and books, some challenging “scientific alarmism” about global warming. Dr. Lindzen’s most recent explanation of why global warming does not threaten us is his 2001 “Iris” hypothesis. He acknowledges that human activities have increased carbon dioxide levels in earth’s atmosphere, and that CO2 is a “greenhouse gas” that keeps solar heat near the earth’s surface. But, he says, the heated Earth’s atmosphere acts like an “infrared iris” because warmer sea temperatures reduce high-level cirrus cloud coverage. Fewer cirrus clouds allow more infrared radiation leakage from Earth’s atmosphere back into space, so overall warming is much less than additional greenhouse gasses would otherwise produce.

The April 30, 2012 New York Times had a front page story featuring Dr. Lindzen headlined “Clouds’ Effect on Climate Is Last Bastion for Dissenters.” The story outlined the uncertainty scientists face in predicting the effects of clouds and of how much, if any, cloud coverage will dampen global warming caused by higher greenhouse gas emissions. Dr. Lindzer is in a small minority, about one in thirty, of climate scientists who believe that the “iris” effect or other natural adjustments to higher greenhouse gas levels make it safe to continue burning fossil fuels at present levels. Dr. Lindzer has many critics, and even the the wording of Times’ above headline was criticized.

The fact that Dr. Lindzer’s climate change denial is a minority opinion among scientists does not mean it’s wrong. Science progresses by people challenging existing “truths” accepted by majorities. In Galileo’s time, everyone, including that day’s scientists, believed that the sun moved around a stationary Earth. Galileo asserted that Earth moved around the sun, and the Pope and the establishment were so offended that they pressured Galileo into recanting. Galileo muttered “yet it moves” as he retreated from a papal dressing down and formal abandonment of his heretical theory, all of which was totally irrelevant to how the sun and the earth actually moved. I’ve actively looked for facts and informed scientific opinions, in Dr. Lindzer’s work and elsewhere, which tell me that everything’s going to be ok. I haven’t found much, but am still looking.

I started this blog intending to examine, objectively, evidence that human activities are changing our world, with the hope that facts we publicized would be persuasive and would generate action. As we’ve proceeded, I’ve written posts which acknowledge that advances in psychology and brain science clearly demonstrate that the influence of facts and reason on human decision making is much less than they taught me at Harvard College. There has been a good deal of passionate, unequivocal, negative feedback to my posts on climate change. A sampling of emails I’ve received includes:

We still HAVE NO CHOICE but to burn fossil fuel!!!!!!!! A punishing hydrocarbon tax? Are you kidding me?
On global warming you guys are nuts — I truly believe that the arguments are bogus and Al Gore is in it for his own riches!!
I can’t for the life of me imagine where Grier gets the ideas that flow through his head. He and people like him are endangering the future of this country.

College roommate Dave Miller helped me get perspective:

Grier…not surprised at reaction. You have to remember (you know better than I) that so much of the debate today starts with emotion….and occasionally wanders to fact…but not always.

Dave’s right, and I’m doing what I can to adjust and be effective. I need all the support I can get.

Image by Greg Lundeen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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