A Scientist, His Work and a Climate Reckoning
Jonathan Kingston/Aurora Select,
for The New York Times
WATCH The Mauna
Loa Observatory, at an altitude of 11,135 feet above sea level in
Hawaii, has been continuously monitoring and collecting data related to
climate change since the 1950s.
More Photos »
from an article By
in the New York Times 12/21/2010
MAUNA LOA OBSERVATORY, Hawaii — Two
gray machines sit inside a pair of utilitarian buildings here, sniffing
the fresh breezes that blow across thousands of miles of ocean.
Institution of Oceanography/UC San Diego
Charles D. Keeling, top, with his son Ralph in 1989.
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They make no noise. But once an hour,
they spit out a number, and for decades, it has been rising
The first machine of this
type was installed on Mauna Loa in the 1950s at the behest of
Charles David Keeling,
a scientist from San Diego. His resulting discovery, of the increasing
level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, transformed the scientific
understanding of humanity’s relationship with the earth. A graph of his
findings is inscribed on a wall in Washington as one of the great
achievements of modern science.
Yet, five years after
Dr. Keeling’s death,
his discovery is a focus not of celebration but of conflict. It has
become the touchstone of a worldwide political debate over
When Dr. Keeling, as a young
researcher, became the first person in the world to develop an accurate
technique for measuring carbon dioxide in the air, the amount he
discovered was 310 parts per million. That means every million pints of
air, for example, contained 310 pints of carbon dioxide.
By 2005, the year he died, the
number had risen to 380 parts per million. Sometime in the next few
years it is expected to pass 400. Without stronger action to limit
emissions, the number could pass 560 before the end of the century,
double what it was before the Industrial Revolution.
The greatest question in climate
science is: What will that do to the temperature of the earth?
Scientists have long known that
carbon dioxide traps heat at the surface of the planet. They cite
growing evidence that the inexorable rise of the gas is altering the
climate in ways that threaten human welfare.
Fossil fuel emissions,
they say, are like a runaway train, hurtling the world’s citizens toward
a stone wall — a carbon dioxide level that, over time, will cause
The risks include melting ice
sheets, rising seas, more droughts and heat waves, more flash floods,
worse storms, extinction of many plants and animals, depletion of sea
life and — perhaps most important — difficulty in producing an adequate
supply of food. Many of these changes are taking place at a modest level
already, the scientists say, but are expected to intensify.
Reacting to such warnings,
President George Bush committed the United States in 1992 to limiting
its emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. Scores of
other nations made the same pledge, in a treaty that was long on
promises and short on specifics.
But in 1998, when it came time to
commit to details in a document known as the Kyoto Protocol, Congress
balked. Many countries did ratify the protocol, but it had only a
limited effect, and the past decade has seen little additional progress
in controlling emissions.
Many countries are reluctant to
commit themselves to tough emission limits, fearing that doing so will
hurt economic growth. International climate talks in Cancún, Mexico,
this month ended with only modest progress. The Obama administration,
which came into office pledging to limit emissions in the United States,
scaled back its ambitions after climate and energy legislation died in
the Senate this year.
Challengers have mounted a vigorous
assault on the science of climate change. Polls indicate that the public
has grown more doubtful about that science. Some of the Republicans who
will take control of the House of Representatives in January have
promised to subject climate researchers to a season of new scrutiny.
One of them is Representative
Republican of California. In a recent Congressional hearing on global
warming, he said, “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather
But most scientists trained in the
physics of the atmosphere have a different reaction to the increase.
“I find it shocking,” said Pieter
P. Tans, who runs the government monitoring program of which the Mauna
Loa Observatory is a part. “We really are in a predicament here, and
it’s getting worse every year.”
As the political debate drags on,
the mute gray boxes atop Mauna Loa keep spitting out their numbers,
providing a reality check: not only is the carbon dioxide level rising
relentlessly, but the pace of that rise is accelerating over time.
“Nature doesn’t care how hard
Jeffrey D. Sachs,
the Columbia University economist, said at a recent seminar. “Nature
cares how high the parts per million mount. This is running away.”
A Passion for Precision
Perhaps the biggest reason the
world learned of the risk of global warming was the unusual personality
of a single American scientist.
Charles David Keeling’s
son Ralph remembers that when he was a child, his family bought a
new home in Del Mar, Calif., north of San Diego. His father assigned
him the task of edging the lawn. Dr. Keeling insisted that Ralph
copy the habits of the previous owner, an Englishman who had taken
pride in his garden, cutting a precise two-inch strip between the
sidewalk and the grass.
“It took a lot of work to
maintain this attractive gap,” Ralph Keeling recalled, but he said
his father believed “that was just the right way to do it, and if
you didn’t do that, you were cutting corners. It was a moral
Dr. Keeling was a punctilious
man. It was by no means his defining trait — relatives and
colleagues described a man who played a brilliant piano, loved
hiking mountains and might settle a friendly argument at dinner by
pulling an etymological dictionary off the shelf.
But the essence of his
scientific legacy was his passion for doing things in a meticulous
way. It explains why, even as challengers try to pick apart every
other aspect of climate science, his half-century record of carbon
dioxide measurements stands unchallenged.
By the 1950s, when Dr. Keeling
was completing his scientific training, scientists had been
observing the increasing use of fossil fuels and wondering whether
carbon dioxide in the air was rising as a result. But nobody had
been able to take accurate measurements of the gas.
As a young researcher, Dr.
Keeling built instruments and developed techniques that allowed him
to achieve great precision in making such measurements. Then he
spent the rest of his life applying his approach.
In his earliest measurements of
the air, taken in California and other parts of the West in the
mid-1950s, he found that the background level for carbon dioxide was
about 310 parts per million.
That discovery drew
attention in Washington, and Dr. Keeling soon found himself enjoying
government backing for his research. He joined the staff of the
Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
in the La Jolla section of San Diego, under the guidance of an
esteemed scientist named
and began laying plans to measure carbon dioxide around the world.
Some of the most important data
came from an analyzer he placed in a government geophysical
observatory that had been set up a few years earlier in a remote
location: near the top of Mauna Loa, one of the volcanoes that loom
over the Big Island of Hawaii.
He quickly made profound
discoveries. One was that
dioxide oscillated slightly
according to the seasons. Dr. Keeling realized the reason: most of
the world’s land is in the Northern Hemisphere, and plants there
were taking up carbon dioxide as they sprouted leaves and grew over
the summer, then shedding it as the leaves died and decayed in the
He had discovered that the
earth itself was breathing.
A more ominous finding was that
each year, the peak level was a little higher than the year before.
Carbon dioxide was indeed rising, and quickly. That finding
electrified the small community of scientists who understood its
implications. Later chemical tests, by Dr. Keeling and others,
proved that the increase was due to the combustion of fossil fuels.
The graph showing rising
carbon dioxide levels came to be known as the
Many Americans have never heard of it, but to climatologists, it is
the most recognizable emblem of their science, engraved in bronze on
a building at Mauna Loa and carved into a wall at the National
Academy of Sciences in Washington.
By the late 1960s, a decade
after Dr. Keeling began his measurements, the trend of rising carbon
dioxide was undeniable, and scientists began to warn of the
potential for a big increase in the temperature of the earth.
Dr. Keeling’s mentor, Dr.
Revelle, moved to Harvard, where he lectured about the problem.
Among the students in the 1960s who first saw the Keeling Curve
displayed in Dr. Revelle’s classroom was a senator’s son from
Tennessee named Albert Arnold Gore Jr., who marveled at what it
could mean for the future of the planet.
Throughout much of his career,
Dr. Keeling was cautious about interpreting his own measurements. He
left that to other people while he concentrated on creating a record
that would withstand scrutiny.
John Chin, a retired
technician in Hawaii who worked closely with Dr. Keeling, recently
described the painstaking steps he took, at Dr. Keeling’s behest, to
ensure accuracy. Many hours were required every week just to be
certain that the instruments atop Mauna Loa had not drifted out of
The golden rule was “no
hanky-panky,” Mr. Chin recalled in an interview in Hilo, Hawaii. Dr.
Keeling and his aides scrutinized the records closely, and if
workers in Hawaii fell down on the job, Mr. Chin said, they were
likely to get a call or letter: “What did you do? What happened that
In later years, as the
scientific evidence about climate change grew, Dr. Keeling’s
interpretations became bolder, and he began to issue warnings. In
an essay in
1998, he replied to claims that global warming was a myth, declaring
that the real myth was that “natural resources and the ability of
the earth’s habitable regions to absorb the impacts of human
activities are limitless.”
Still, by the time he
died, global warming had not become a major political issue. That
changed in 2006, when Mr. Gore’s movie and book, both titled “An
Inconvenient Truth,” brought the
issue to wider public attention. The Keeling Curve was featured in
appointed by the
declared that the scientific evidence that the earth was warming had
become unequivocal, and it added that humans were almost certainly
the main cause. Mr. Gore and the panel
the Nobel Peace Prize.
But as action began to seem
more likely, the political debate intensified, with fossil-fuel
industries mobilizing to fight emission-curbing measures.
Climate-change contrarians increased their attack on the science,
taking advantage of the Internet to distribute their views outside
the usual scientific channels.
In an interview in La Jolla,
Dr. Keeling’s widow, Louise, said that if her husband had lived to
see the hardening of the political battle lines over climate change,
he would have been dismayed.
“He was a registered
Republican,” she said. “He just didn’t think of it as a political
issue at all.”
Not long ago, standing on a
black volcanic plain two miles above the Pacific Ocean, the director
of the Mauna Loa Observatory, John E. Barnes, pointed toward a high
Samples are taken by hoses that
snake to the top of the tower to ensure that only clean air is
analyzed, he explained. He described other measures intended to
guarantee an accurate record. Then Dr. Barnes, who works for the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, displayed the
hourly calculation from one of the analyzers.
It showed the amount of carbon
dioxide that morning as 388 parts per million.
After Dr. Keeling had
established the importance of carbon dioxide measurements, the
government began making its own, in the early 1970s. Today, a NOAA
monitoring program and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
program operate in parallel at Mauna Loa and other sites, with each
record of measurements serving as a quality check on the other.
The Scripps program is now run
by Ralph Keeling, who grew up to become a renowned atmospheric
scientist in his own right and then joined the Scripps faculty. He
took control of the measurement program after his father’s sudden
death from a heart attack.
In an interview on the Scripps
campus in La Jolla, Ralph Keeling calculated that the carbon dioxide
level at Mauna Loa was likely to surpass 400 by May 2014, a sort of
odometer moment in mankind’s alteration of the atmosphere.
“We’re going to race through
400 like we didn’t see it go by,” Dr. Keeling said.
What do these numbers mean?
The basic physics of the
atmosphere, worked out more than a century ago, show that carbon
dioxide plays a powerful role in maintaining the earth’s climate.
Even though the amount in the air is tiny, the gas is so potent at
trapping the sun’s heat that it effectively works as a one-way
blanket, letting visible light in but stopping much of the resulting
heat from escaping back to space.
Without any of the gas, the
earth would most likely be a frozen wasteland — according to a
recent study, its average temperature would be colder by roughly 60
degrees Fahrenheit. But scientists say humanity is now polluting the
atmosphere with too much of a good thing.
In recent years,
researchers have been able to put the Keeling measurements into a
broader context. Bubbles of ancient air trapped by glaciers and ice
sheets have been tested, and they show that over the past 800,000
years, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air oscillated between
roughly 200 and 300 parts per million. Just before the Industrial
Revolution, the level was about 280 parts per million and had been
there for several thousand years.
That amount of the gas, in
other words, produced the equable climate in which human
Other studies, covering many
millions of years, show a close association between carbon dioxide
and the temperature of the earth. The gas seemingly played a major
role in amplifying the effects of the ice ages, which were caused by
wobbles in the earth’s orbit.
The geologic record suggests
that as the earth began cooling, the amount of carbon dioxide fell,
probably because much of it got locked up in the ocean, and that
fall amplified the initial cooling. Conversely, when the orbital
wobble caused the earth to begin warming, a great deal of carbon
dioxide escaped from the ocean, amplifying the warming.
Richard B. Alley, a climate
scientist at Pennsylvania State University, refers to carbon dioxide
as the master control knob of the earth’s climate. He said that
because the wobbles in the earth’s orbit were not, by themselves,
big enough to cause the large changes of the ice ages, the situation
made sense only when the amplification from carbon dioxide was
“What the ice ages tell us is
that our physical understanding of CO2 explains what happened and
nothing else does,” Dr. Alley said. “The ice ages are a very strong
test of whether we’ve got it right.”
When people began burning
substantial amounts of coal and oil in the 19th century, the carbon
dioxide level began to rise. It is now about 40 percent higher than
before the Industrial Revolution, and humans have put half the extra
gas into the air since just the late 1970s. Emissions are rising so
rapidly that some experts fear that the amount of the gas could
double or triple before emissions are brought under control.
The earth’s history offers no
exact parallel to the human combustion of fossil fuels, so
scientists have struggled to calculate the effect.
Their best estimate is that if
the amount of carbon dioxide doubles, the temperature of the earth
will rise about five or six degrees Fahrenheit. While that may sound
small given the daily and seasonal variations in the weather, the
number represents an annual global average, and therefore an immense
addition of heat to the planet.
The warming would be higher
over land, and it would be greatly amplified at the poles, where a
considerable amount of ice might melt, raising sea levels. The deep
ocean would also absorb a tremendous amount of heat.
Moreover, scientists say that
an increase of five or six degrees is a mildly optimistic outlook.
They cannot rule out an increase as high as 18 degrees Fahrenheit,
which would transform the planet.
Climate-change contrarians do
not accept these numbers.
The Internet has given rise to
a vocal cadre of challengers who question every aspect of the
science — even the physics, worked out in the 19th century, that
shows that carbon dioxide traps heat. That is a point so elementary
and well-established that demonstrations of it are routinely carried
out by high school students.
However, the contrarians who
have most influenced Congress are a handful of men trained in
atmospheric physics. They generally accept the rising carbon dioxide
numbers, they recognize that the increase is caused by human
activity, and they acknowledge that the earth is warming in
But they doubt that it will
warm nearly as much as mainstream scientists say, arguing that the
increase is likely to be less than two degrees Fahrenheit, a change
they characterize as manageable.
Among the most prominent
of these contrarians is Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, who contends that as the earth initially
warms, cloud patterns will shift in a way that should help to limit
the heat buildup. Most climate scientists contend that little
evidence supports this view, but Dr. Lindzen is regularly consulted
on Capitol Hill.
“I am quite willing to
state,” Dr. Lindzen said in
a speech this
year, “that unprecedented climate catastrophes are not on the
horizon, though in several thousand years we may return to an ice
The Fuel of
While the world’s governments
have largely accepted the science of climate change, their efforts
to bring emissions under control are lagging.
The simple reason is that
modern civilization is built on burning fossil fuels. Cars, trucks,
power plants, steel mills, farms, planes, cement factories, home
furnaces — virtually all of them spew carbon dioxide or lesser
heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.
Developed countries, especially
the United States, are largely responsible for the buildup that has
taken place since the Industrial Revolution. They have begun to make
some headway on the problem, reducing the energy they use to produce
a given amount of economic output, with some countries even managing
to lower their total emissions.
But these modest efforts are
being swamped by rising energy use in developing countries like
China, India and Brazil. In those lands, economic growth is not
simply desirable — it is a moral imperative, to lift more than a
third of the human race out of poverty. A recent scientific paper
referred to China’s surge as “the biggest transformation of human
well-being the earth has ever seen.”
China’s citizens, on average,
still use less than a third of the energy per person as Americans.
But with 1.3 billion people, four times as many as the United
States, China is so large and is growing so quickly that it has
surpassed the United States to become the world’s largest overall
user of energy.
Barring some big breakthrough
in clean-energy technology, this rapid growth in developing
countries threatens to make the emissions problem unsolvable.
Emissions dropped sharply
in Western nations in 2009, during the
that followed the financial crisis, but that decrease was largely
offset by continued growth in the East. And for 2010, global
emissions are projected to return to the rapid growth of the past
decade, rising more than 3 percent a year.
Many countries have, in
principle, embraced the idea of trying to limit global warming to
two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, feeling that any
greater warming would pose unacceptable risks. As best scientists
can calculate, that means about one trillion tons of carbon can be
burned and the gases released into the atmosphere before emissions
need to fall to nearly zero.
“It took 250 years to burn the
first half-trillion tons,” Myles R. Allen, a leading British climate
scientist, said in a briefing. “On current trends, we’ll burn the
next half-trillion in less than 40.”
Unless more serious efforts to
convert to a new energy system begin soon, scientists argue, it will
be impossible to hit the 3.6-degree target, and the risk will
increase that global warming could spiral out of control by
“We are quickly running out of
time,” said Joseph G. Canadell, an
Australian scientist who tracks emissions
In many countries, the
United States and China among them, a conversion of the energy
system has begun, with
and solar panels sprouting across the landscape. But they generate
only a tiny fraction of all power, with much of the world’s
electricity still coming from the combustion of coal, the dirtiest
With the exception of European
countries, few nations have been willing to raise the cost of fossil
fuels or set emissions caps as a way to speed the transformation. In
the United States, a particular fear has been that a carbon policy
will hurt the country’s industries as they compete with companies
abroad whose governments have adopted no such policy.
As he watches these
difficulties, Ralph Keeling contemplates the unbending math of
carbon dioxide emissions first documented by his father more than a
half-century ago and wonders about the future effects of that
“When I go see things with my
children, I let them know they might not be around when they’re
older,” he said. “ ‘Go enjoy these beautiful forests before they
disappear. Go enjoy the glaciers in these parks because they won’t
be around.’ It’s basically taking note of what we have, and
appreciating it, and saying goodbye to it.”
On Dec. 11, another round of
international climate negotiations, sponsored by the United Nations,
concluded in Cancún. As they have for 18 years running, the gathered
nations pledged renewed efforts. But they failed to agree on any
binding emission targets.
Late at night, as the delegates
were wrapping up in Mexico, the machines atop the volcano in the
middle of the Pacific Ocean issued their own silent verdict on the
At midnight Mauna Loa time, the
carbon dioxide level hit 390 — and rising.
Articles in this series are focusing on the central
arguments in the climate debate and examining the evidence
for global warming and its consequences.
Decade Of 2000s Was
Warmest Ever, Scientists Say
Excerpts from an article on
| 12/ 7/09
It dawned with the
warmest winter on record in the United
States. And when the sun sets this New
Year's Eve, the decade of the 2000s will end
as the warmest ever on global temperature
scientists say, lies ahead.
Through 10 years
of global boom and bust, of breakneck change
around the planet, of terrorism, war and
division, all people everywhere under that
warming sun faced one threat together: the
buildup of greenhouse gases, the rise in
temperatures, the danger of a shifting
climate, of drought, weather extremes and
encroaching seas, of untold damage to the
world humanity has created for itself over
As the decade
neared its close, the U.N. gathered
presidents and premiers of almost 100
nations for a "climate summit" to take
united action, to sharply cut back the
burning of coal and other fossil fuels.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told them they
had "a powerful opportunity to get on the
right side of history" at a year-ending
climate conference in Copenhagen.
however, disunity might keep the world's
nations on this side of making historic
"Deep down, we
know that you are not really listening," the
Maldives' Mohamed Nasheed told fellow
presidents at September's summit.
homeland, a sprinkling of low-lying islands
in the Indian Ocean, will be one of the
earliest victims of seas rising from heat
expansion and melting glaciers. On remote
islets of Papua New Guinea, on Pacific
atolls, on bleak Arctic shores, other
coastal peoples in the 2000s were already
making plans, packing up, seeking shelter.
The warming seas
were growing more acid, too, from absorbing
carbon dioxide, the biggest greenhouse gas
in an overloaded atmosphere. Together,
warmer waters and acidity will kill coral
reefs and imperil other marine life – from
plankton at the bottom of the food chain, to
starfish and crabs, mussels and sea urchins.
decade's first nine years, global
temperatures averaged 0.6 degrees Celsius
(1.1 degrees F) higher than the 1951-1980
average, NASA reported. And temperatures
rose faster in the far north than anyplace
else on Earth.
final three summers melted Arctic sea ice
more than ever before in modern times.
Greenland's gargantuan ice cap was pouring 3
percent more meltwater into the sea each
year. Every summer's thaw reached deeper
into the Arctic permafrost, threatening to
unlock vast amounts of methane, a
Less ice meant
less sunlight reflected, more heat absorbed
by the Earth. More methane escaping the
tundra meant more warming, more thawing,
more methane released.
At the bottom of
the world, late in the decade, International
Polar Year research found that Antarctica,
too, was warming. Floating ice shelves
fringing its coast weakened, some breaking
away, allowing the glaciers behind them to
push ice faster into the rising oceans.
continents the glaciers retreated through
the 2000s, shrinking future water sources
for countless millions of Indians, Chinese,
South Americans. The great lakes of Africa
were shrinking, too, from higher
temperatures, evaporation and drought.
Across the temperate zones, flowers bloomed
earlier, lakes froze later, bark beetles
bored their destructive way northward
through warmer forests. In the Arctic,
surprised Eskimos spotted the red breasts of
In the 2000s,
all this was happening faster than
anticipated, scientists said. So were other
things: By late in the decade, global
emissions of carbon dioxide matched the
worst case among seven scenarios laid down
in 2001 by the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, the U.N. scientific network
formed to peer into climate's future. Almost
29 billion tons of the gas poured skyward
annually – 23 percent higher than at the
2008, the 2000s already included eight of
the 10 warmest years on record. By 2060,
that trajectory could push temperatures a
dangerous 4 degrees C (7 degrees F) or more
higher than preindustrial levels, British
Early in the
decade, the president of the United States,
the biggest emitter, blamed "incomplete"
science for the U.S. stand against rolling
back emissions, as other industrial nations
were trying to do. As the decade wore on and
emissions grew, American reasoning leaned
more toward the economic.
By 2009, with a
new president and Congress, Washington
seemed ready to talk. But in the front ranks
of climate research – where they scale the
glaciers, drill into ocean sediments,
monitor a changing Earth through a web of
satellite eyes – scientists feared they were
running out of time.
Before the turn
of the last century, with slide rule, pencil
and months of tedious calculation, Svante
Arrhenius was the first to show that carbon
dioxide would warm the planet – in 3,000
years. The brilliant Swede hadn't foreseen
the 20th-century explosion in use of fossil
supercomputers tell his scientific heirs a
much more urgent story: To halt and reverse
that explosion of emissions, to head off a
planetary climate crisis, the 10 years that
dawn this Jan. 1 will be the fateful years,
the final chance, the last decade.
Climate Change Seen as Threat to
Published: August 8, 2009
WASHINGTON The changing global climate will pose profound strategic
challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military
intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and
pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.The conflict in southern Sudan, which
has killed and displaced tens of thousands of people, is partly a result of drought in
Such climate-induced crises
could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the
analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are
taking a serious look at the national security implications of
Recent war games and intelligence studies conclude that over the next 20 to 30
years, vulnerable regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South and
Southeast Asia, will face the prospect of food shortages, water crises and catastrophic
flooding driven by climate change that could demand an American humanitarian relief or
An exercise at the
National Defense University, an educational institute
overseen by the military, last December explored the potential impact of a flood in
Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India,
touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to
It gets real complicated real quickly, said Amanda J. Dory, the
deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, who is working with a Pentagon group
assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.
Much of the public and political debate on global warming has focused on
finding substitutes for fossil fuels, reducing emissions that contribute to greenhouse
gases and furthering negotiations toward an international climate treaty not
potential security challenges.
But a growing number of policy makers say that the worlds rising
temperatures, surging seas and melting glaciers are a direct threat to the national
interest. If the United States does not lead the world in reducing fossil-fuel consumption
and thus emissions of global warming gases, proponents of this view say, a series of
global environmental, social, political and possibly military crises loom that the nation
will urgently have to address.
This argument could prove a fulcrum for debate in the Senate next month when it
takes up climate and energy legislation passed in June by the House.
Lawmakers leading the debate before Congress are only now beginning to make the
national security argument for approving the legislation.
Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the
Foreign Relations Committee
and a leading advocate for the climate legislation, said he hoped to sway Senate skeptics
by pressing that issue to pass a meaningful bill.
Mr. Kerry said he did not know whether he would succeed but that he had spoken
with 30 undecided senators on the matter.
He did not identify the senators he had approached, but the list of undecideds
includes many from coal and manufacturing states and from the South and Southeast, which
will face the sharpest energy price increases from any carbon emissions control program.
Ive been making this argument for a number of years, Mr.
Kerry said, but it has not been a focus because a lot of people had not connected
the dots. He said he had urged
Obama to make the case, too.
Mr. Kerry said the continuing conflict in southern Sudan, which has killed and
displaced tens of thousands of people, is a result of drought and expansion of deserts in
the north. That is going to be repeated many times over and on a much larger scale,
The Department of Defenses assessment of the security issue came about
after prodding by Congress to include climate issues in its strategic plans
specifically, in 2008 budget authorizations by
Rodham Clinton and
W. Warner, then senators. The departments climate modeling is based on
and Air Force weather programs and other government climate research programs at
and Atmospheric Administration.
The Pentagon and the State Department have studied issues arising from
dependence on foreign sources of energy for years but are only now considering the effects
of global warming in their long-term planning documents. The Pentagon will include a
climate section in the Quadrennial Defense Review, due in February; the State Department
will address the issue in its new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.
The sense that climate change poses security and geopolitical challenges
is central to the thinking of the State Department and the climate office, said
Peter Ogden, chief of staff to Todd Stern, the State Departments top climate
Although military and intelligence planners have been aware of the challenges
posed by climate changes for some years, the Obama administration has made it a central
A changing climate presents a range of challenges for the military. Many of its
critical installations are vulnerable to rising seas and storm surges. In Florida,
Homestead Air Force
Base was essentially destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, and Hurricane Ivan badly
Naval Air Station Pensacola in
2004. Military planners are studying ways to protect the major naval stations in Norfolk,
Va., and San Diego from climate-induced rising seas and severe storms.
Another vulnerable installation is Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean
that serves as a logistics hub for American and British forces in the Middle East and sits
a few feet above sea level.
Arctic melting also presents new problems for the military. The shrinking of
the ice cap, which is proceeding faster than anticipated only a few years ago, opens a
shipping channel that must be defended and undersea resources that are already the focus
of international competition.
Ms. Dory, who has held senior Pentagon posts since the Clinton administration,
said she had seen a sea change in the militarys thinking about climate
change in the past year. These issues now have to be included and wrestled with
in drafting national security strategy, she said.
The National Intelligence Council, which produces governmentwide intelligence
analyses, produced the first assessment of the national security implications of global
climate change just last year. It concluded that climate change by itself would have
significant geopolitical impacts around the world and would contribute to a host of
problems, including poverty, environmental degradation and the weakening of national
The assessment warned that the storms, droughts and food shortages that might
result from a warming planet in coming decades would create numerous relief emergencies.
The demands of these potential humanitarian responses may significantly
tax U.S. military transportation and support force structures, resulting in a strained
readiness posture and decreased strategic depth for combat operations, the report
The intelligence community is preparing a series of reports on the impacts of
climate change on individual countries like China and India, a study of alternative fuels
and a look at how major power relations could be strained by a changing climate.
We will pay for this one way or another, Gen.
C. Zinni, a retired Marine and the former head of the Central Command, wrote recently
in a report he prepared as a member of a military advisory board on energy and climate at
CNA, a private group that does research for the Navy. We will pay to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions today, and well have to take an economic hit of some kind.
Or we will pay the price later in military terms, he warned. And
that will involve human lives.
The Truth About
Deniers continue to
insist there's no consensus on global warming. Well, there's not. There's well-tested
science and real-world observations.
By Joseph Romm Feb. 27, 2008
The more I write about global warming, the more I realize
I share some things in common with the doubters and deniers who populate the blogosphere
and the conservative movement. Like them, I am dubious about the process used by the U.N.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to write its reports. Like them, I am
skeptical of the so-called consensus on climate science as reflected in the IPCC reports.
Like them, I disagree with people who say "the science is settled." But that's
where the agreement ends.
The science isn't settled -- it's unsettling, and getting
more so every year as the scientific community learns more about the catastrophic
consequences of uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions.
AP Photo/John McConnico
An iceberg melts in
Kulusuk, Greenland, near the Arctic Circle.
The big difference I have with the doubters is they
believe the IPCC reports seriously overstate the impact of human emissions on the climate,
whereas the actual observed climate data clearly show the reports dramatically understate
But I do think the scientific community, the progressive
community, environmentalists and media are making a serious mistake by using the word
"consensus" to describe the shared understanding scientists have about the
ever-worsening impacts that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are having on this
planet. When scientists and others say there is a consensus, many if not most people
probably hear "consensus of opinion," which can -- and often is -- dismissed out
of hand. I've met lots of people like CNBC anchor Joe Kernen, who simply can't believe
that "as old as the planet is" that "puny, gnawing little humans"
could possibly change the climate in "70 years."
Well, Joe, it is more like 250 years, but yes, most of
the damage to date was done in the last 70 years, and yes, as counterintuitive as it may
seem, puny little humans are doing it, and it's going to get much, much worse unless we
act soon. Consensus of opinion is irrelevant to science because reality is often
counterintuitive -- just try studying quantum mechanics.
Fortunately Kernen wasn't around when scientists were
warning that puny little humans were destroying the Earth's protective ozone layer.
Otherwise we might never have banned chlorofluorocarbons in time.
Consensus of opinion is also dismissed as groupthink. In
a December article ignorantly titled "The Science of Gore's Nobel:
What If Everyone Believes in Global Warmism Only Because Everyone Believes in Global
Warmism?" Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote:
What if the heads being counted to certify an alleged
"consensus" arrived at their positions by counting heads?
It may seem strange that scientists would participate in
such a phenomenon. It shouldn't. Scientists are human; they do not wait for proof. Many
devote their professional lives to seeking evidence for hypotheses, especially well-funded
hypotheses, they've chosen to believe.
Less surprising is the readiness of many prominent
journalists to embrace the role of enforcer of an orthodoxy simply because it is the
orthodoxy. For them, a consensus apparently suffices as proof of itself.
How sad that the WSJ and CNBC have so little conception
of what science really is, especially since scientific advances drive so much of the
economy. If that's what Jenkins thinks science is, one would assume he is equally
skeptical of flossing, antibiotics and even boarding an airplane.
(Note to WSJ: One reason science works is that a lot of
scientists devote their whole lives to overturning whatever is the current hypothesis --
if it can be overturned. That's how you become famous and remembered by history, like
Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein.)
In fact, science doesn't work by consensus of opinion.
Science is in many respects the exact opposite of decision by consensus. General opinion
at one point might have been that the sun goes around the Earth, or that time was an
absolute quantity, but scientific theory supported by observations overturned that flawed
One of the most serious results of the overuse of the
term "consensus" in the public discussion of global warming is that it creates a
simple strategy for doubters to confuse the public, the press and politicians: Simply come
up with as long a list as you can of scientists who dispute the theory. After all, such
disagreement is prima facie proof that no consensus of opinion exists.
So we end up with the absurd but pointless spectacle of
the leading denier in the U.S. Senate, James Inhofe, R-Okla., who recently put out a list of more than 400 names of supposedly "prominent
scientists" who supposedly "recently voiced significant objections to major
aspects of the so-called 'consensus' on man-made global warming."
As it turned out, the list is both padded and laughable,
containing the opinions of TV weathermen, economists, a bunch of non-prominent scientists
who aren't climate experts, and, perhaps surprisingly, even a number of people who
actually believe in the consensus.
But in any case, nothing could be more irrelevant to
climate science than the opinion of people on the list such as Weather Channel founder
John Coleman or famed inventor Ray Kurzweil (who actually does "think global warming
is real"). Or, for that matter, my opinion -- even though I researched a Ph.D. thesis
at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography on physical oceanography in the Greenland Sea.
What matters is scientific findings -- data, not
opinions. The IPCC relies on the peer-reviewed scientific literature for its conclusions,
which must meet the rigorous requirements of the scientific method and which are
inevitably scrutinized by others seeking to disprove that work. That is why I cite and
link to as much research as is possible, hundreds of studies in the case of this article.
Opinions are irrelevant.
A good example of how scientific evidence drives our
understanding concerns how we know that humans are the dominant cause of global warming.
This is, of course, the deniers' favorite topic. Since it is increasingly obvious that the
climate is changing and the planet is warming, the remaining deniers have coalesced to
defend their Alamo -- that human emissions aren't the cause of recent climate change and
therefore that reducing those emissions is pointless.
Last year, longtime Nation columnist Alexander
Cockburn wrote, "There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic
production of CO2 is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming
trend. The greenhouse fearmongers rely entirely on unverified, crudely oversimplified
computer models to finger mankind's sinful contribution."
In fact, the evidence is amazingly strong. Moreover, if
the relatively complex climate models are oversimplified in any respect, it is by omitting
amplifying feedbacks and other factors that suggest human-caused climate change will be
worse than is widely realized.
concluded last year: "Greenhouse gas forcing has very likely (>90 percent)
caused most of the observed global warming over the last 50 years. This conclusion takes
into account ... the possibility that the response to solar forcing could be
underestimated by climate models."
Scientists have come to understand that
"forcings" (natural and human-made) explain most of the changes in our climate
and temperature both in recent decades and over the past millions of years. The primary
human-made forcings are the heat-trapping greenhouse gases we generate, particularly
carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil and natural gas. The natural forcings include
fluctuations in the intensity of sunlight (which can increase or decrease warming), and
major volcanoes that inject huge volumes of gases and aerosol particles into the
stratosphere (which tend to block sunlight and cause cooling).
A 2002 study by the U.S. National
Academy of Sciences warned, "Abrupt climate changes were especially common when
the climate system was being forced to change most rapidly." The rapidly growing
greenhouse warming we ourselves are causing today thus increases the chances for
"large, abrupt and unwelcome regional or global climatic events."
Over and over again, scientists have demonstrated that
observed changes in the climate in recent decades can only be explained by taking into
account the observed combination of human and natural forcings. Natural forcings alone
just don't explain what is happening to this planet.
For instance, in April 2005, one of the nation's top
climate scientists, NASA's James Hansen, led a team of scientists that made "precise
measurements of increasing ocean heat content over the past 10 years," which revealed
that the Earth is absorbing far more heat than it is emitting to space, confirming what
earlier computer models had shown about warming. Hansen called
this energy imbalance the "smoking gun" of climate change, and said, "There
can no longer be genuine doubt that human-made gases are the dominant cause of observed
Another 2005 study, led by the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography, compared actual ocean temperature data from the surface down to hundreds of
meters (in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans) with climate models and concluded:
A warming signal has penetrated into the world's oceans
over the past 40 years. The signal is complex, with a vertical structure that varies
widely by ocean; it cannot be explained by natural internal climate variability or solar
and volcanic forcing, but is well simulated by two anthropogenically [human-caused] forced
climate models. We conclude that it is of human origin, a conclusion robust to
observational sampling and model differences.
Such studies are also done for many other
observations: land-based temperature rise, atmospheric temperature rise, sea level rise,
arctic ice melt, inland glacier melt, Greeland and Antarctic ice sheet melt, expansion of
the tropics (desertification) and changes in precipitation. Studies compare every testable
prediction from climate change theory and models (and suggested by paleoclimate research)
to actual observations.
How many studies? Well, the IPCC's definitive treatment
of the subject, "Understanding and Attributing Climate Change," has 11 full
pages of references, some 500 peer-reviewed studies. This is not a consensus of opinion.
It is what scientific research and actual observations reveal.
Ignoring all the evidence, doubters and deniers keep
asserting that the cause of global warming isn't human emissions, but is instead natural
forcings, primarily the sun. Last year, brief presidential candidate Fred Thompson
commented on claims that planets like Mars were supposedly also warming -- an idea
debunked by RealClimate. Thompson said sarcastically:
I wonder what all those planets, dwarf planets and moons
in our SOLAR system have in common. Hmmmm. SOLAR system. Hmmmm. Solar? I wonder. Nah, I
guess we shouldn't even be talking about this. The science is absolutely decided. There's
a consensus. Ask Galileo.
The view that the sun is the source of observed global
warming seems credible mainly to people who are open to believing that the entire
scientific community has somehow, over a period of several decades, failed to adequately
study, analyze and understand the most visible influence on the Earth's temperature. Such
people typically cannot be influenced by the results of actual research and observations.
Those who can should visit Skeptical
Science, which discusses deniers' favorite arguments. In one discussion, the site
explains that the "study most quoted by skeptics actually concluded the sun can't be
causing global warming." Doh!
And that brings us to a recent study by the Proceedings of the Royal Society, which examined "all the trends
in the Sun that could have had an influence on the Earth's climate," such as sunlight
intensity and cosmic rays. The study found that in the past 20 years, all of those trends
"have been in the opposite direction to that required to explain the observed rise in
global mean temperatures."
Those trying to prove the sun is the sole cause of
warming have a double challenge. First they would have to show us a mechanism that
demonstrates how the sun explains recent warming, even though the data shows solar
activity has been declining recently. (In the past, increased warming was associated with
an increase in solar activity). They would also have to find an additional mechanism that
is counteracting the well-understood warming caused by rising emissions of heat-trapping
greenhouse gases. The doubters have done neither.
But then the doubters aren't interested in things like
data and observations and peer-reviewed research. If they were, why would they keep
pointing out that, historically, global temperature rise precedes a rise in carbon dioxide
emissions by a few hundred years -- as if that were a reason to cast doubt on the impact
of human emissions of greenhouse gases? Rep. Joe Barton said to Al Gore:
I have an article from Science magazine that explains a
rise in CO2 concentrations actually lagged temperature by 200 to 1000 years. CO2 levels
went up after the temperature rose. Temperature appears to drive CO2, not vice versa.
You're not just off a little. You're totally wrong.
Yes, historically, glacial periods appear to end with an
initial warming started by changes in the Earth's orbit around the sun. This in turn leads
to increases in carbon dioxide (and methane), which then accelerate the warming, which
increases the emissions, which increases the warming. That amplifying feedback in the
global carbon cycle is what drives the global temperature to change so fast.
But while this fact seems to make doubters less worried
about the impact of human emissions, it makes most scientists more worried. As famed
climatologist Wallace Broecker wrote in Nature in
The paleoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from
being self-stabilizing, the Earth's climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts
even to small nudges.
That is, you need a trigger to start the process of rapid
climate change. Historically, that has been orbital changes, or sometimes, massive natural
releases of greenhouse gases.
Now humans have interrupted and overwhelmed the natural
process of climate change. Thanks to humans, carbon dioxide levels are higher than they
have been for millions of years. Even more worrisome, carbon dioxide emissions are rising
200 times faster than at any time in the last 650,000 years.
If the "Earth's climate system is an ornery beast
which overreacts to even small nudges," what will happen to people foolish enough to
keep punching it in the face?
That brings us to another problem with the word
"consensus." It can mean "unanimity" or "the judgment arrived at
by most of those concerned." Many, if not most, people hear the second meaning:
"consensus" as majority opinion.
The scientific consensus most people are familiar with is
the IPCC's "Summary for Policymakers" reports. But those aren't a majority
opinion. Government representatives participate in a line-by-line review and revision of
these summaries. So China, Saudi Arabia and that hotbed of denialism -- the Bush
administration -- get to veto anything they don't like. The deniers call this
"politicized science," suggesting the process turns the IPCC summaries into some
sort of unscientific exaggeration. In fact, the reverse is true. The net result is
unanimous agreement on a conservative or watered-down document. You could argue that
rather than majority rules, this is "minority rules."
Last April, in an article titled "Conservative
Climate," Scientific American noted that objections by Saudi Arabia and China
led the IPCC to remove a sentence stating that the impact of human greenhouse gas
emissions on the Earth's recent warming is five times greater than that of the sun. In
fact, lead author Piers Forster of the University of Leeds in England said, "The
difference is really a factor of 10."
How decent of the IPCC not to smash the last hope of
deniers like Fred Thompson, whose irrational sun worshiping allows them to ignore the
overwhelming evidence that human emissions are the dominant cause of climate change.
How else does the IPCC lowball future impacts? The 2007
report projects sea level rise this century of 7 to 23 inches. Yet the IPCC itself stated
that "models [of sea level rise] used to date do not include uncertainties in
climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor do they include the full effect of changes in ice sheet
That is, since no existing climate models fully account
for the kinds of feedbacks we are now witnessing in Greenland and Antarctica, such as
dynamic acceleration of ice sheet disintegration or greenhouse gases released by melting
tundra, the IPCC is forced to ignore those realities. The result is that compared to the
"consensus" of the IPCC, the ice sheets appear to be shrinking "100 years
ahead of schedule," as Penn State climatologist Richard Alley put it in March 2006
According to both the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports, neither
Greenland nor Antarctica should lose significant mass by 2100. They both already are. Here
again, the conservative nature of the IPCC process puts it at odds with observed empirical
realities that are the basis of all science.
It's no surprise then that three scientific studies
released in the past year -- too late for inclusion by the IPCC -- argue that based on
historical data and recent observations, sea level rise this century will be much higher than the IPCC reports, up to 5 feet or more. Even
scarier, the rate of sea level rise in 2100 might be greater than 6 inches a decade!
And it's no surprise at all that sea-level rise from 1993
and 2006 -- 1.3 inches per decade as measured by satellites -- has been higher
than the IPCC climate models predicted.
The deniers are simply wrong when they claim that the
IPCC has overestimated either current or future warming impacts. As many other recent
observations reveal, the IPCC has been underestimating those impacts.
- Since 2000, carbon dioxide emissions have grown faster than any IPCC model had projected.
- The temperature rise from 1990 to 2005 -- 0.33°C -- was "near the
top end of the range" of IPCC climate model predictions.
- "The recent [Arctic] sea-ice retreat is larger than in any of the (19) IPCC [climate]
models" -- and that was a Norwegian expert in 2005. Since then, the Arctic retreat
has stunned scientists by accelerating, losing an area equal to Texas and California just
- "The unexpectedly rapid expansion of the tropical belt constitutes yet
another signal that climate change is occurring sooner than expected," noted one
climate researcher in December.
This last point, though little remarked on in the media,
should be as worrisome as the unexpectedly rapid melting of the ice sheets. As a recent study led by NOAA noted, "A poleward expansion of the
tropics is likely to bring even drier conditions to" the U.S. Southwest, Mexico,
Australia and parts of Africa and South America. Also: "An increase in the width of
the tropics could bring an increase in the area affected by tropical storms." And
finally: "An expansion of tropical pathogens and their insect vectors is almost
certainly sure to follow the expansion of tropical zones."
Why are recent observations on the high side of model
projections? First, as noted, most climate models used by the IPCC omit key amplifying
feedbacks in the carbon cycle. Second, it was widely thought that increased human carbon
dioxide emissions would be partly offset by more trees and other vegetation. But increases
in droughts and wildfires -- both predicted by global warming theory -- seem to have
negated that. Third, the ocean -- one of the largest sinks for carbon dioxide -- seems to
be saturating decades earlier than the models had projected.
The result, as a number of studies have shown, is that
the sensitivity of the world's climate to human emissions of greenhouse gases is no doubt
much higher than the sensitivity used in most IPCC models. NASA's Hansen argued in a paper
last year that the climate ultimately has twice the sensitivity used in IPCC models.
The bottom line is that recent observations and research
make clear the planet almost certainly faces a greater and more imminent threat than is
laid out in the IPCC reports. That's why climate scientists are so desperate. That's why
they keep begging for immediate action. And that's why the "consensus on global
warming" is a phrase that should be forever retired from the climate debate.
Global Warming Denials
by Froma Harrop
It has long been sage policy to ignore the crank denials around global warming. But now
and then you have a weather-related disaster like the fires devouring big chunks of
Southern California --- and you wonder about the extent to which the blockheads have
slowed progress in dealing with the problem.
Leading climatologists may debate how much of the drought in the West and the South
reflects normal weather cycles and how much climate change. Few question that global
warming is already here and that its acceleration will bring more of what we've been
seeing--- extreme dryness in parts of the United States and more hurricanes.
Neither I, nor the deniers, nor nearly everyone else reading this is qualified to
independently analyze global warming. What we do is choose whom to believe. We who worry
have as our teachers nearly every leading climatologist on the planet.
While the deniers' reflections on science are not very interesting, their politics can be.
Pat Buchanan insists that the fuss over climate changes is all a "con" to
transfer sovereignty, power and wealth to a global political elite."
To cast doubt on the scientists' warnings,
Buchanan lists examples in history of dire predictions that didn't come true, ignoring
those that did. He also tries to equate the squishy prophecies of social science with the
findings of hard science, now aided by sophisticated computer modeling.
And he found a helpful scientist, the contrarian Dr. William Gray. A meteorologist at
Colorado State University, Gray holds that human-caused global warming is "a
hoax." Gray has yet to establish his theory in a peer-reviewed journal, but he gets
lots of media attention, as you can imagine.
OK. The deniers declare it's not happening,
or if it is, humans aren't involved. Or they just say these things for political
expediency. It's a free country.
But when the deniers unfairly impugn the
motives of respected scientists, they cross a dark line.
Early on, they attacked the integrity of James Hansen, NASA's head climatologist. Hansen
had warned that the environmental calamity will happen sooner than expected. His newfound
enemies couldn't make a case that his science was bad. The best they could do was spread
the lie that George Soros had paid him $720,000.
The Bush administration tried to silence him
in sneaky ways. It empowered a lawyer from the petroleum industry to change Hansen's
climate reports. Political appointees forbid him to talk with certain journalists.
No one could find a plausible reason why
Hansen would subvert science. The reticent Iowan had no obvious lust for fame. He wasn't
pushing a book. His politics were middle-of-the-road.
The global-warming issue isn't about whether
you like Al Gore. It's not about the Kyoto Treaty, which no president was going to sign.
The treaty's flaws did not change the reality that global warming is a serious problem
needing international cooperation.
Bush could have suggested other approaches.
Instead, he decided to blow off the countries that had signed the Kyoto, including some of
our dearest allies. His strategy was to stall on taking any action. He declared the
science "not sufficiently reliable."
The people of Southern California can't be
terribly interested right now in such pronouncements. Most know full well that their
region, always subject to wildfires, is becoming more vulnerable as the planet warms.
Businesses, states and even the federal government have begun moving forward on climate
change. Too bad so much time has been wasted.
(Harrop is a writer for Creators Syndicate)
A COMMENT BY A DYNION MWYN
It's amazing to me that Global Warming is
even an issue that's up for debate. It seems perfectly clear to me what is going on around
the globe in the form of human influenced global warming. Instead of sitting around
debating with those who have no intention of changing their minds (an effort that would be
as futile as a Christian attempting to convert me) I am putting my energy towards thinking
about my future and the future of my family and friends here on this planet.
The changes aren't just coming- they are
HERE. Global warming will be one of the contributing factors that will make the 2012 shift
so dramatic. I firmly believe that one of the most destructive factors in the potential
calamity to come isn't the fact that a person can't can peaches (those that can't will
figure it out fast) but rather it will be the inability or refusal to open one's mind to
the possibility that life as we know it could change for ever. It isn't that far of a
stretch. All the modern conveniences we have created are simply DESTROYING the earth.
She's not going to take it much longer.
Something's got to give. I've been reading
the posts about the 2012 events and who will do what to prepare. Quite frankly I've been a
bit surprised by some of the responses. Especially the ones that state survival isn't an
option because if life as we kow it comes to an end they don't want to participate. Well,
this is natural selection. Mother Earth doesn't want humans living on her soil that don't
care to make changes in her favor. Personally, I compare the coming events to one of my
favorite cards in the Tarot- The Tower.
If all hell breakes loose and everything we
know comes crashing down, I hope to be standing there once the dust settles- hand in hand
with my bothers and sisters- survivors ready to take on the new challenges of life on