Skip to content
Standing the Heat – A Global Warming Face-Off

Standing the Heat – A Global Warming Face-Off
September 1, 2007

by W. James Antle III


There’s no use arguing about it—global warming is an imminent catastrophe. At least that’s what the media-accredited experts keep telling us, and they aren’t shy about driving the point home. According to a headline in USA Today, the nation’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, “The debate’s over: Globe is Warming.” Apparently Rolling Stone has its own resident climatologist, who went a step further, declaring, “No serious scientist doubts that humans are warming up the planet.” The title of a 2006 Brookings Institution working paper is “Case Closed: The Debate Over Global Warming Is Over.”

But if the matter is settled and the scientific evidence so overwhelming, why isn’t the emphasis on refuting dissenters rather than telling them to shut up? The liberal columnist Ellen Goodman has compared skeptics of the apocalyptic view of global warming to Holocaust deniers. The author Chris Mooney considers them enemy combatants in what he calls “the Republican war on science.”

Not all minds are closed to discussion, however. In March, the Rosenkranz Foundation gathered six experts to debate the proposition “Global Warming Is Not A Crisis,” as part of its Oxford-style series of debates held in Manhattan called “Intelligence Squared.” In favor of the motion was Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Philip Stott, emeritus professor of bio-geography at the University of London; and the bestselling author and filmmaker Michael Crichton. Arguing against was Brenda Ekwurzel, climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists; Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; and Richard Somerville, oceanography professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Let us be clear: The panelists weren’t arguing about whether surface temperatures are warming or about the ability of human activity to influence climate changes. On these questions, both sides mostly agreed. In his opening statement, Crichton said, “Is the globe warming? Yes. Is the greenhouse effect real? Yes. Is carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, being increased by men? Yes. Would we expect this warming to have an effect? Yes. Do human beings in general affect the climate? Yes.”

The opposing camps did differ sharply on the likely consequences of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere—and whether Kyoto-style public policies are the only thing that can save us from disaster. “What we have fundamentally forgotten is simple primary school science,” argued Stott. “It is always…warming or cooling, it’s never stable. And if it were stable, it would actually be interesting scientifically because it would be the first time for four and a half billion years.”

Lindzen agreed: “Now, much of the current alarm, I would suggest, is based on ignorance of what is normal for weather and climate.” Over the centuries, numerous global warming and cooling trends have been observed and the climate was frequently changing. Yet somehow, the planet survived without Al Gore’s inconvenient truth-telling.

Schmidt countered that the pro-crisis side of the debate wasn’t engaged in alarmism or fear-mongering but was simply following the science to its logical conclusion, much like the forensic specialists on the popular CSI television crime series—“think of climate scientists as CSI Planet Earth,” he quipped. “We’re very confident that the planet has been warming up, and we’re pretty sure that the other things that are going on—changes to the sun, changes to particles in the air, changes to ozone—have made some difference but aren’t dominant,” Schmidt continued. “The physics tells us that this is a very consistent picture. Our suspects, the greenhouse gases, had both the opportunity and the means to cause this climate change, and they’re very likely guilty.”

And if the debate audience had been a jury, they might have returned a guilty verdict as well. Before the two sides sparred, 57 percent were against the motion—and therefore agreed that global warming is a crisis—while nearly 30 percent were in favor and 13 percent were undecided. After the debate, a 46 percent plurality favored the motion, 42 percent remained opposed, and 12 percent were undecided. The outcome was a stunning 16-point shift against the global warming conventional wisdom and a possible explanation of why defenders seem so eager to avoid debates—though maybe they should just try to get better at participating in them.

Whatever the scientific merits of its case, the pro-crisis side frequently resorted to common debating fallacy: the appeal to authority. Richard Somerville compared global warming “contrarians” to the “few retrovirus experts, AIDS and earth scientists who were slow to accept the reality of plate tectonics. “[L]ong experience shows that in science it tends to be the rare exception rather than the rule when a lone genius eventually prevails over conventional mainstream scientific thought,” he continued. “An occasional Galileo does come along or an Einstein. Not often. Most people who think they’re a Galileo are just wrong.”

“Serious scientists in the 1960s made predictions for what would be found if human emissions of greenhouse gases were to continue,” Gavin Schmidt argued. “They said the planet would warm. It has. They said the water vapor measurements would show rises. They do. They said that ocean heat content would rise. It has. They said the stratosphere would cool. It did.”

Even the moderator, radio talk show host Brian Lehrer, chimed in with a question based on the appeal to authority. “But in the real world out there,” he challenged the motion’s supporters, “we just had the big intergovernmental panel on climate change report in which 90 percent of the world’s governments and 90 percent of their atmospheric sciences declared with 90 percent certainty that global warming is real and human beings are causing it. Why would you three be more credible to the non-scientists in our audience than all of them?”

Perhaps because the three panelists who believed the global warming threat was exaggerated did such an effective job at pointing out that the scientific consensus has often been wrong about environmental issues, Philip Stott countered that science “does not progress by consensus, it progresses by falsification.” He went on to list some of the erroneous predictions of the past, citing mainstream media reports from the 1970s about the crisis of global cooling, including a Newsweek story that claimed meteorologists were “almost unanimous” that these trends would produce “catastrophic famines” that did not materialize.

Stott pointed out that on the first U.S. Earth Day, some claimed that the “population of America would have collapsed to 22 million by the year 2000.” At last count, it surpassed 300 million. Such arguments irritate people on the other side of the debate, who find them truly inconvenient. Somerville protested that Stott was confusing media hype with scientific consensus, saying that quoting Newsweek “is not the right way…to evaluate scientific thought.” Schmidt likened his opponents to creationists who argue against evolution because they see its implications as “dangerous to their world view.”

Yet it is the global warming hysterics who cling to a faith in computer models as they cite the uncertain consequences of climate change in support of public policies that will do predictable damage to living standards and economic growth. That is the point the winning side of the Rosenkranz Foundation debate kept driving home: There is much we still don’t know about the causes and effects of a warmer planet, while we already have reasons to be suspicious of many proposed government “solutions.” Robert Stavins of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has estimated that the price tag for the United States meeting the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction targets would be “approximately the cost of complying with all other environmental regulations combined.”

It is precisely because of these identifiable costs weighed against disputed benefits that environmental policy debates should be encouraged rather than shouted down. And as we saw one evening in Manhattan this spring, the alarmist side has difficulty answering hard questions to the public’s satisfaction.

So shut up, they explain.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.