Climate Wars — From MIT to the White House

By Charles Clough Published on March 14, 2017

During his candidacy, Donald Trump said if elected President he would withdraw the United States from the climate agreement negotiated in Paris in late 2015. Knowing the Senate wouldn’t ratify it as a treaty, President Barack Obama had committed the U.S. to the agreement by executive action.

Now, with Trump in office and starting to take steps toward fulfilling his promise, the White House has received three letters by MIT scientists. They disagree over whether the United States should participate in international climate-change agreements.

The first came from MIT Professor Emeritus of Atmospheric Science Richard Lindzen. It accompanies a petition signed by some 300 scientists (including myself), urging Trump to withdraw from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which promotes international efforts like the Paris accord that claim to mitigate global warming and its predicted dangers.

Soon afterward, twenty-two scientists in the MIT Program in Atmospheres, Oceans and Climate (PAOC) wrote to the President. They said that Dr. Lindzen did not represent them and was not part of “the overwhelming majority of other scientists.” They added, “the risks to the Earth system associated with increasing levels of carbon dioxide are almost universally agreed by climate scientists to be real ones.”

A Look at Lindzen’s Letter and the PAOC Scientists’ Reply

Let’s take a calm look at the exchange before moving on to the third letter.

What did Lindzen actually claim? He wrote that “carbon dioxide is not a pollutant” but a “minor greenhouse gas” and that “increased atmospheric carbon dioxide is environmentally helpful to food crops. … [It] is plant food, not a poison.” So far, all true.

Moreover, Lindzen wrote, agreements that impose stringent regulation on CO2 are “not scientifically justified and … already have [caused], and will continue to cause serious social and economic harm — with no environmental benefits.” The economic damage of carbon asceticism is also real, as European experience has already shown. Energy poverty has resulted from skyrocketing electricity rates, which are driven by those countries’ substituting expensive wind and solar generation for inexpensive fossil fuels. This costs tens of thousands of lives annually.

So the beef must be about his point that proposed regulations of CO2 are not scientifically justified and will not actually produce environmental benefits.

Did the PAOC scientists engage Lindzen’s points? Not really.

First, they claimed consensus. If they had shown where Lindzen’s claims were faulty, this response might have been reasonable. But consensus is not an argument, particularly when, as here, it results from massive government funding focused exclusively on investigating human contributions while ignoring natural ones. Judith Curry, a recently retired Georgia Tech climate scientist and long-time contributing author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed this out in a peer-reviewed paper five years ago. She also discussed it in an interview following a lecture in late 2015. An exclusive focus on human rather than natural causes is endemic to the UNFCCC and its offspring, the IPCC.

Second, PAOC scientists listed as risks sea level rise, ocean acidification, and increases in extreme weather. These risks might warrant the programs demanded by UNFCCC only if all of the following were true:

  1. The major cause of climate change is indeed anthropogenic — otherwise such regulations would be useless.
  2. Sea level rise has accelerated following rises in CO2 levels.
  3. Models of ocean acidification have been validated without special tuning to fit the times of lower level CO2.
  4. Frequency and intensity of extreme weather can be clearly shown to have increased in correlation with rising CO2 levels.
  5. The benefits achieved by reducing these risks by the means recommended exceeded both the harms those means also caused and the benefits that could be achieved by expending the same resources addressing other problems instead.

Empirical evidence, in contrast with models, fails to confirm any of the first four conditions. Indeed, even if the second through fourth were true, if the first were not, proposed solutions would fail to mitigate any risks. They would be all pain, no gain.

And the fifth? Two questions need answering about how the Paris agreement would be implemented:

First, would it bring more benefits than harms? The best estimate — based on the IPCC’s own data and model projections — is that it would cost between $1 and $2 trillion per year from 2030 (when the agreement goes into effect) to the end of the century. That is, $70 to $140 trillion total. But even at such cost, it would achieve only a 0.17˚C (0.306˚F) reduction in global average temperature. That is far too little to have any significant impact on human wellbeing or natural ecosystems. Meanwhile, it would multiply deaths from energy poverty.

Second, would it bring a greater balance of benefits over harms than alternative uses of the resources demanded? Clearly no. The money would be much better spent on other causes. Here are a few examples: pure drinking water and sewage sanitation, infectious disease control, improved food supply, and electricity to the billions who still lack it. Millions of people still burn wood and dung for cooking and heating. The resulting indoor air pollution kills millions and sickens hundreds of millions annually.

The Third Letter

Finally, in the third letter to the President, Lindzen answered his colleagues. He wrote:

  • The IPCC’s periodic assessment reports admit that climate change prior to the 1960s could not have been due to man’s CO2 emissions — which implies that natural causes do exist but are virtually ignored given present climate-science funding priorities.
  • The risks cited by PAOC scientists “remain hypothetical, model-based projections” — from models that have projected warming far in excess of empirical observations.

Lindzen’s most significant point — born of many years observing the dynamics of the science-industrial complex — comes after he cites James Madison in Federalist #10:

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time.

In the debate over climate change, Lindzen points out, “For far too long, one body of men, establishment climate scientists, has been permitted to be [both] judges and parties.”

It’s time for that irrational, corruption-prone state of affairs to end. Pulling the U.S. out of the UNFCCC and the Paris climate agreement would be good first steps.


Charles Clough is a graduate of MIT, where he did graduate work in atmospheric science before becoming a meteorologist, eventually Chief of the U.S. Army Atmospheric Effects Team at Aberdeen Proving Ground before his retirement. He is also a pastor and theologian, and a Contributing Writer for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.

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