The nation’s two top authorities on global satellite temperature data — Dr. Roy Spencer of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and Dr. John Christy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville — came to Washington last week to discuss the reasons they’re not too concerned about a putative global warming. Speaking before an audience of approximately 80 Congressional staff, policy analysts, and journalists, Spencer and Christy covered points familiar to scientists who have studied the global warming issue, all of them underscoring deficiencies in the global climate models:

To begin with, they said, all weather — clouds, rain, wind — acts to remove excess heat from the Earth’s surface, but the models do not explicitly account for these rain systems. Water vapor makes up 95 percent of the greenhouse effect; half of the IPCC-predicted global warming depends on how water vapor responds to increased carbon dioxide. Yet the climate models do not have the cloud microphysics to predict how water vapor will respond.As the models have improved over the last decade, the IPCC’s “best estimate” of global warming by the year 2100 continues to be revised downward: 3.3 degrees C in 1990, 2.8 degrees C in 1992, and 2 degrees C in 1996.

Spencer and Christy stressed that the surface temperature record is not global and has not been independently validated. The satellite data covers the entire Earth and has been independently validated by balloon radiosonde data. (Another study independently validating the satellite record will appear shortly in the Journal of Geophysical Research.) Global climate models — the foundation for the Global Climate Treaty — base their forecasts on temperatures in the lower troposphere (not the surface itself), which is the area tracked by satellites. At this point, said Christy, GCMs say the satellite temperatures should be running 50 percent higher than surface temperatures. Instead, surface temperatures are going up and lower troposphere temperatures are heading slightly down.

Dr. Christy criticized the press briefing two weeks ago by Vice President Al Gore, saying attempts to use the recent El Nino to whip up the media on global warming was a case of picking examples that sounded impressive but on closer examination had no merit. For example, Gore cited 5 small U.S. states as setting record high temperatures during the first five months of 1998, when the El Nino was having its strongest impact on U.S. weather. But Christy said that the selected five states amounted to just 1.3 percent of the total land area of the United States. Of all of the 50 states, he said, 37 had record high temperatures posted before 1940, and only 13 set records since then. Christy added that the Earth has been generally cooler for the past 5,500 years, a period often referred to by scientists as “neoglacial.” Six thousand years ago it was much warmer than today and Norway’s glaciers had completely disappeared. Now Norwegian glaciers are advancing at record speed.

The Vice President is adamant, however, even risking embarrassment to shove the Kyoto Protocol down the public’s collective throat. Associated Press reported last Wednesday, June 17, that Gore was threatening to shut down the federal government if Congress failed to approve the Clinton Administration’s proposed environmental spending. Heading the list is the five-year, $6.3 billion package of tax credits, subsidies, and research grants targeting the global warming issue. Speaking to a group of Green activists, Gore hinted that President Clinton would veto any legislation containing riders that would choke off the proposed spending. “We are putting Congress on notice,” he said. “We are drawing the line.” A White House official, who asked to remain anonymous, said it was “premature” to say specifically if Clinton would veto any bills.

As American humorist P.J. O’Rourke has said: “Some people will do anything to save the Earth, except take a science course.” Well, some who have “taken a science course” have a higher calling. A colleague recently forwarded to us “A Scientist’s Belief in God and the Earth,” from the March 18th Financial Times of London. The article is a profile of Sir John Houghton, co-chairman of the IPCC, who is described as a “devout Christian” and “a man who occupies an interesting position at the point where science, government and faith meet — some might say clash…”

Houghton makes some interesting statements. He “admits that, in spite of the refinement of science, there is still uncertainty about where the climate is actually heading, especially…how the climate may change.” According to Sir John, who obviously hasn’t talked to Vice President Gore lately, “People haven’t seen global warming yet. It’s all in the future. We can’t expect them to take drastic action yet in the face of these uncertainties. It’s not that they don’t care. They just can’t be bothered…” Still, reasonable evidence isn’t really necessary, in his view. Governments simply need to show a little “leadership,” take on “the high moral and spiritual challenges” of environment, population growth, allocation of resources, etc., even in the face of uncertainty. In other words, as Houghton said in a Times of London article last year, cutting energy use by more than 50 percent “can contribute powerfully to the material salvation of the planet from mankind’s greed and indifference.”

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Candice Crandall

Candice Crandall writes for the Science & Environmental Policy Project.