An MIT climatologist's quixotic struggle against global warming science

Science can accommodate Richard Lindzen’s global warming skepticism. It can even be said to require it.

Since 1988, when Jim Hansen’s testimony before Congress during a sweltering summer triggered the first major wave of global warming reports, Lindzen has sought the center of the public debate. Upset by what he saw as the media’s rush to judgment, the MIT meteorologist began arguing that opinion on global warming was far from consensus.  Newsweek and Forbes published his criticisms, as did newspapers across the country. A 1989 profile in Science dubbed him “a top general” in the skepticism movement.

An Inconvenient Truth and the turning tide of public opinion notwithstanding, Lindzen is still at it. Since April, he’s written two impassioned editorials for The Wall Street Journal, both of which caused a stir in the conservative and mainstream press. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), chairman of the Senate’s Environmental & Public Works Committee, quotes him from the Senate floor and in the pages of USA Today. Jack Kelly, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, saw fit to crown him “America’s leading climatologist.”

If Lindzen is a scientific leader, it’s difficult to pick out his acolytes. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a committee of hundreds of climate scientists from around the world, concluded in 2001 that the Earth would warm significantly over the next century and that most of this change will be caused by human activities. (Lindzen contributed to the IPCC’s first report, in 1996, but says he now “assiduously avoids” the panel’s proceedings.)

The conclusions of the IPCC and most other climate researchers are based in part on projections from hundreds of mathematical models. While these models differ in degree, all point to a warmer planet in the near future. These models are tested extensively against existing weather data, as well as the paleoclimatology record drawn from ice cores and tree rings.

In his recent statements, Lindzen rails against what he sees as a conformist and self-reinforcing “iron triangle of climate scientists, advocates and policymakers” with a “vested interest in alarm.”

“To a certain extent, how much confidence you have in any of the evidence is a matter of taste,” said Ron Miller, a NASA climatologist who worked with Lindzen at MIT in the late 1980s. “If you look at any individual piece of evidence—the surface temperature record or the climate models—they all have some uncertainties associated with them. But when I look at it, it seems like everything’s pointing in the same direction, and I find that pretty convincing. I guess Dick doesn’t.”

Lindzen has been researching the Earth’s climate since the 1960s. He is credited with doing fundamental work in atmospheric dynamics. In 1977, he was elected into the geophysics section of the National Academy of Sciences. His former graduate students describe him as fiercely intelligent, with a deep contrarian streak.

Because of his credentials, the scientific community took heed of his early arguments against climate modeling and global warming in general.

“I think his point was legitimate, at the time—the models really hadn’t been tested very thoroughly,” said Miller. “But there’s been a lot of improvement, I think, in large part in response to his criticism. The upshot, at least from my point of view, was that I ended up pretty convinced the models were actually doing the right thing.”

But Lindzen’s complaint wasn’t with the models’ performance or their development. He dismisses the very idea of climate modeling as a scientific endeavor.

“It’s a kind of replacement for theory,” Lindzen said. “We’re finding students taking the model developed by someone else—never tested by them—and just turning knobs and calling that research. That’s akin to using a Ouija board.”

While Lindzen’s critique of climate models has been relatively steady over the years, other pieces of his argument have shifted as more data supporting global warming have come in. Many other former skeptics have changed their tunes, acquiescing to the idea of warming, but holding out with regard to its cause or its severity.

In 2001, Lindzen published a paper speculating that as the Earth warmed, water vapor would decrease in the upper atmosphere, allowing heat to escape back into space more efficiently, and thereby reducing overall temperature.

The paper met with vigorous criticism. Eventually, he disavowed the idea. “That was an old view,” Lindzen said about his five-year-old hypothesis. “I find it insane that I am still forced to explain this.”

Despite Lindzen’s acknowledgment that the planet is warming, most of his writing in the media and for various think tanks is spun to imply a far more fundamental disagreement within the scientific community. His most recent Wall Street Journal editorial, for example, includes admissions that the Earth has warmed over the last century, that humans are influencing the climate, that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that its levels continue to rise. The editorial’s title was, “There Is No ‘Consensus’ On Global Warming.”

“If you parse his statements carefully, you find that he only very rarely strays across the line into scientific nonsense,” said Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler for NASA and contributor to the blog Real Climate. “People read him and say, ‘Oh, there’s no consensus on global warming.’ But, if you actually read what he says, he signs on to 90% of what everybody else is saying.”

Given the significant overlap between Lindzen and mainstream climate science, it might be surprising that Lindzen continues to be quoted in the press as a major contrarian voice. On the issue of the connection between human activity and warming, however, Lindzen differs radically from his colleagues, and this by itself would be sufficient to brand him a contrarian.

“Attributing this little change to man is virtually impossible,” said Lindzen. “The temperature is always changing, even without any external cause. If you’re still at the level of a few tenths of a degree, it’s pretty hard to make any attribution.”

Lindzen’s status as a pariah may also be attributable to his success at portraying himself as the principled underdog, a David against the Goliath of the scientific mainstream. In his recent statements, especially, Lindzen rails against what he sees as a conformist and self-reinforcing “iron triangle of climate scientists, advocates and policymakers” with a “vested interest in alarm.”

“If you want to prove yourself a brilliant scientist, you don’t always agree with the consensus,” said Daniel Kirk-Davidoff, a former student of Lindzen’s at MIT. “You show you’re right and everyone else is wrong.”

He certainly enjoys showing he’s right and everyone else is wrong,” Kirk-Davidoff continued. “If you have a ten minute conversation with him, you can tell that.”

The global climate system pretty much defines complexity, and no one event like Katrina or the heat wave in Europe will directly confirm the entirety of global warming theory. But in the absence of certainty, policy must be based on the best evidence available.

“The thing that is most bothersome is when you mix up what you should do about the science with the science itself,” said Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a lead author on several IPCC reports. “You ought to try and separate those issues, recognize what the science is and then indeed, there ought to be a really good discussion about what to do. But you should recognize what’s going on.”

For his part, Lindzen claims an obligation to speak out on behalf of the “dozens” of scientists who he says have privately voiced their support to him. He concedes that his arguments are sometimes distorted by groups with political and economic motivations for disputing global warming, but insists that environmentalists have been responsible for the most egregious abuses of science.

“I’ve been working on the scientific questions of climate for a long time, and I’m seeing them trivialized and ‘stupidified,’ and I’m upset by that,” Lindzen said.

Originally published August 24, 2006


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