Shocking: Scientist Commits Heresy

Paul Greenberg

11/2/2007 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

- John Adams

I almost spilled my coffee. I just stood there, dumbstruck right in my own kitchen. Flipping through the Wall Street Journal the other morning while waiting for the oatmeal to cool, my eye was caught by an article I had to read all the way through - then and there. It was the text of an interview with the latest Nobel Prize laureate. No, not the one named Al Gore.

Few may have noticed, but Mr. Gore shared this year's Nobel Peace Prize with a real scientist, or rather a whole slew of them on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That group's work is as unglamorous as its bureaucratic name. It's never even made a horror film (GLOBAL WARNING!) about the earth's being inundated as the polar icecaps melt.

This international panel just plods along trying to find out what's really going on with the climate. Facts are stubborn things, as dour John Adams once noted, and it takes a lot of patient research to find and evaluate them, then suggest an appropriate response. It's about as exciting as bookkeeping.

Being an alarmist is a lot easier; some politicians and pamphleteers make highly successful careers of it. Real scientists may not be pleased by the sensationalism that envelops the whole subject of global warming. But if they speak up, they could be labeled heretics and exiled to the farthest reaches of academic opprobrium. For global warming has become more of a fighting faith than a topic for calm analysis. Disagree and you're liable to be called not just wrong but anti-science. Today it is the ultimate heresy.

One of the scientific dissenters is John Christy, a member of both the UN panel and the University of Alabama's faculty. (He's the director of that university's Earth System Science Center.) In a break with tradition, Dr. Christy declined to perform the traditional pas de deux of mutual flattery when Nobel laureates share the same prize. Not when Al Gore's may be the first on record awarded essentially for the kind of PR that comes too close to being propaganda. It makes you wonder what propagandist will get it next year - Michael Moore?

It turns out there are indeed reasonable things to be said about global warming - and on television at that. I was amazed. The transcript of Dr. Christy's interview with CNN's Miles O'Brien is worth reading: (Just set down your coffee cup first.)

Miles O'Brien: I assume you're not happy about sharing this award with Al Gore. You going to renounce it in some way?

John Christy: Well, as a scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I always thought that - I may sound like the Grinch who stole Christmas here - that prizes were given for performance, and not for promotional activities. And, when I look at the world, I see that the carbon dioxide rate is increasing, and energy demand, of course, is increasing. And that's because, without energy, life is brutal and short. So, I don't see very much effect in trying to scare people into not using energy, when it is the very basis of how we can live in our society.

O'Brien: So, what about the movie ("An Inconvenient Truth") do you take issue with, then, Dr. Christy?

Christy: Well, there's any number of things. I suppose, fundamentally, it's the fact that someone is speaking about a science that I have been very heavily involved with and have labored so hard in, and been humiliated by, in the sense that the climate is so difficult to understand, Mother Nature is so complex, and so the uncertainties are great, and then to hear someone speak with such certainty and such confidence about what the climate is going to do is - well, I suppose I could be kind and say, it's annoying to me.

O'Brien: But you just got through saying that the carbon dioxide levels are up. Temperatures are going up. There is a certain degree of certainty that goes along with that, right?

Christy: Well, the carbon dioxide is going up. And remember that carbon dioxide is plant food in the fundamental sense. All of life depends on the fact carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. So, we're fortunate it's not a toxic gas. But, on the other hand, what is the climate doing? And when we build - and I'm one of the few people in the world that actually builds these climate data sets - we don't see the catastrophic changes that are being promoted all over the place. For example, I suppose CNN did not announce two weeks ago when the Antarctic sea ice extent reached its all-time maximum, even though, in the Arctic in the North Pole, it reached its all-time minimum.

And so heretically on. There are others like Dr. Christy out there in the scientific community who don't believe the best way to approach science is in a panic.

For example, Daniel Botkin of the University of California's Center for the Study of the Environment. His is an opinion some of us mere laymen may share: "My concern is that we may be moving away from an irrational lack of concern about climate change to an equally irrational panic about it."

The planet does seem to be returning to one of its warmer phases, but the extent, cause and response to that phenomenon should be a matter for analysis and discussion, not frenzy.

It's as if we've forgotten that the first qualification for doing science may be a certain skepticism. I come by mine naturally when the subject is global warming, for I can remember being taught in school not that the planet is warming but that another ice age is almost upon us. It was a widespread assumption at the time taught as scientific fact. There was no doubt about it. All the scientists agreed. It said so right there in the book. I must have missed it somewhere along the way.