Nov 12, 2009

Climate Confusion

Climate Confusion: How Global Warming Hysteria Leads to Bad Science, Pandering Politicians, and Misguided Policies That Hurt the Poor by Roy W. Spencer (2008, Encounter Books)

Spencer is one of those bogeymen you may have heard about: a bona fide climate scientist who is skeptical of global warming theory. This book's dust jacket tells us he holds a PhD in meteorology, has been a Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA, and is co-developer of "the original satellite method for precise monitoring of global temperatures from Earth-orbiting satellites."

Currently a principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he also "serves as the U.S. Science Team Leader for the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer for EOS...flying on NASA's Aqua satellite." In other words, Spencer possesses credentials most of us can only dream about.

This does not make him infallible. But it does mean that, unlike many people who pontificate about global warming (Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sheryl Crow), he has authentic, firsthand knowledge of the scientific issues under discussion.

I saw Spencer deliver a presentation in quiet, scientifically-appropriate tones this past June and have seen clips of interviews with him. "Animated" is not the first descriptor that jumps to mind. Thus, the caustic tongue and wry wit in this volume was a fun surprise. (From page 48: "We'll use the following simplified illustration, which is appropriate for either middle school students or congressional testimony.")

Occasionally his judgments seem harsh and a tad too dismissive of ideas with which he disagrees. Elsewhere, he casts people in an unflattering light but provides the reader with so few details that independent corroboration of nasty allegations is impossible. Unsubstantiated allegations aren't helpful in an arena as emotionally and politically charged as the global warming debate. That Spencer includes not one footnote in the entire volume is a source of immense frustration to folks like me, who are reading his work as part of a larger research endeavor and feel obliged to independently verify everything anyone says.

Then there's the fact that one of the few external sources Spencer does overtly cite (in passing while discussing the scientific significance of the word "tendency") is a book titled Darwinian Fairytales. Introducing the evolution/creationism/intelligent design controversy, however obliquely, into an already politicized discussion seems unnecessarily provocative.

Much later in the book Spencer appears to clarify his position on these matters when he writes: "I have nothing against people's religious beliefs - only their labeling them as 'science.'" Still, in an era in which international environmental groups and public relations firms run entire websites devoted to smearing people - especially scientists - who fail to toe the global warming party line, it seems regrettable that Spencer chose to go there at all.

That being said, it's worth remembering that Al Gore is a practicing Baptist who aggressively talks about the "spiritual" and "moral" implications of his environmental crusade.

We should also take note of Bill McKibben, who wrote what is considered to be the
first mainstream book on global warming back in 1989, titled The End of Nature.

These days McKibben is known as the founder of "an international climate campaign". As the bio on his official website observes, he "is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent."

Indeed. Although he frequently cites scientists and their research in
The End of Nature, an uncharitable reader might characterize this as an attempt to provide a veneer of scientific respectability to what is essentially a philosophical/spiritual/overtly emotional tract.

McKibben talks incessantly about his feelings of "sadness." In one paragraph in particular, he uses the word four times (see pages 60, 68, 72, 73,
74, 160, 162). He also tells us a great deal about his other emotional responses to environmental questions:
  • grief (p.73)
  • loneliness (76, 144)
  • fretfulness (86)
  • fear, panic and nervousness (89, 175)
  • revulsion (147)
  • depression (182)
  • [Page numbers refer to the 2006 US paperback edition]
McKibbin says he locates "God in nature" (61, 68) and quotes a naturalist observing that "We now use the word Nature very much as our fathers used the word God" (61). He describes the Old Testament's Book of Job as "one of the most far-reaching defenses ever written of wilderness, of nature free from the hand of man" (64).

Moreover, throughout
The End of Nature, McKibben's language frequently echoes fire-and-brimstone moralism. He declares that "most of the Western world has gone along its prideful way" (65). He says humanity has the capacity to "destroy all that is good and worthwhile" (72) and speaks of "shame" and "self-loathing" (74).

He decries humanity's "turbocharged and jet-propelled arrogance" (87) and warns that "[s]ooner or later our loans will be called in" (39). He exhorts that we must "
choose to remain God's creatures" (182) and choose "between that old clarity or new darkness" (183). He says God may well be watching "to see if we...bow down and humble ourselves, or if we compound original sin with terminal sin" (184).

McKibben insists that "sacrifices" are "demanded" (12) and that refusing to follow his advice "will lead us, if not straight to hell, then straight to a place with a similar temperature" (124). Elsewhere, he exhorts, brandishing his finger at us, that "a few more decades of ungoverned fossil-fuel use and we burn up, to put it bluntly" (128).
(Recall, dear reader, that his book appeared in 1989. Two decades have come and gone, but we aren't soot and smoke yet.)

Perhaps most telling of all, McKibben describes pre-revolutionary America as a "paradise" (42), insists that we need to "rise out of the wreckage we have made of the world" (147), and longs openly for a lost Eden - the "sweet and wild garden" that humanity has replaced with "a greenhouse" (78).

But wait, there's more. On the book's very first page, McKibben sympathizes with the creationist point-of-view: "Muddled though they are scientifically," he writes, "the creationists, believing in the sudden appearance of the earth some seven thousand years ago, may intuitively understand more about the progress of time than the rest of us."

Critics of Spencer's global warming skepticism take note: If your reason for dismissing him involves religion or creationism, the influential McKibben (whose
End of Nature "has been printed in more than 20 languages") is arguably far more tainted.

But I digress. To get back to Climate Confusion, this book made me giggle and guffaw. Chapters three and four, titled "How Weather Works" and "How Global Warming (Allegedly) Works" were a bit of a slog for this non-scientist. The rest, however, were entertaining as well as thought-provoking.

When each of us is making up our minds about how much of the global warming hype to take seriously, Spencer's perspective is a helpful one. Here's a taste from the preface:
Not long ago we were told humanity had fifty years to solve the global warming problem. Then, we heard we have only ten years to change our polluting ways. Now, some are claiming we have only five years left. Soon, we'll be talking about sending a Terminator back through time to fix the problem for us. Maybe the Governor of California can help us with that.
Spencer is a member of a vulnerable and demonized community - climate researchers whose opinions diverge from the dire, catastrophic global warming predictions that now emanate from government, pop culture, and mass media. It's imperative that voices such as his get heard.

This blog post was intended to be a list of rough-and-ready quotes, compiled for my own research purposes, from Spencer's book. Instead, my creative genius (in the manner that Elizabeth Gilbert uses this term) put in an appearance and the post metamorphosed into something else. When that list is complete I'll link to it below. Cheers!