MIT’s Richard Lindzen is one of the world’s leading climate scientists. He is also a climate “skeptic,” rejecting claims that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are likely to create a climate catastrophe. Above all others, he is the climate skeptic environmental activists most fear, as he has unimpeachable credentials. As a prominent climate scientist who believes global warming could cause an environmental catastrophe confided to me, Dr. Lindzen’s views are not easily dismissed, even if his views are somewhat outside the “mainstream” of climate science. (Of course, we may have to reconsider what constitutes “mainstream” climate science after the leak of e-mails and other documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit.)
Today, Dr. Lindzen has an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on “ClimateGate” and the state of climate science. According to Dr. Lindzen, there is “a scandal that is, in my opinion, considerably greater than that implied in the hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit (though perhaps not as bad as their destruction of raw data): namely the suggestion that the very existence of warming or of the greenhouse effect is tantamount to catastrophe.” The problem is that the entire climate change policy debate proceeds as if the primary — if not only — question to be answered is whether human activity is having an effect on global temperatures. This quesiton is important, but it hardly resolves the relevant policy questions. Even if human activity is having significant effects on the cliamte system, we must determine whether those effects are likely to be negative, whether the causes or their effects can be prevented, as well as whether it is better to try and prevent such changes or adapt to their likely effects. We must also determine whether human welfare is at greater risk from climate change or proposed climate change policies — an open question at this point — and recognize that the answer to this question may vary from place to place. The answers to such questions will be informed, but not determined, by science. Normative and other considerations must also come into play.
As Dr. Lindzen suggests, the pretense that a given degree of warming requires a particular policy response — and a particualrly urgent and dramatic one at that — places substantial political pressure on the scientific process. “It is only such a scam that lends importance to the machinations in the emails designed to nudge temperatures a few tenths of a degree.” Whether or not one accepts Dr. Lindzen’s assessment of the science, this point about the nature of the climate change debate is immensely important.
Also worth reading, John Tierney on the threat of “smug groupthink” in climate science.