FROM THE BOOK
MERCHANTS OF DOUBT
The Denial of Global Warming
Many Americans have the impression that global warming is something that scientists have only recently realized was important. In 2004, Discover magazine ran an article on the top science stories of die year, one of which was the emergence of a scientific consensus over the reality of global warming. National Geographic similarly declared 2004 the year that global warming "got respect."1
Many scientists felt that respect was overdue: as early as 1995, the leading international organization on climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), had concluded that human activities were affecting global climate. By 2001, IPCC's Third Assessment Report stated that die evidence was strong and getting stronger, and in 2007, the Fourth Assessment called global warming "unequivocal."2 Major scientific organizations and prominent scientists around the globe have repeatedly ratified the IPCC conclusion/ Today, all but a tiny handful of climate scientists are convinced that Earth's climate is heating up, and that human activities are the dominant cause.
Yet many Americans remained skeptical. A public opinion poll reported in Time magazine in 2006 found that just over half (56 percent) of Americans thought that average global temperatures had risen—despite the fact that virtually all climate scientists thought so.4 An ABC News poll that year reported that 85 percent of Americans believed that global warming was occurring! but more than half did not think that the science was settled; 64 percent of Americans perceived "a lot of disagreement among scientists." The Pew Center for the People and the Press gave the number believing that there is "solid evidence the Earth is warming” as 91 percent in 2008, but in 2009, the answer to that same question was only 57 percent. 5
The doubts and confusion of the American people are particularly peculiar when put into historical perspective, for scientific research on carbon dioxide and climate has been going on for 150 years. In hie mid-nineteenth century, Irish experimentalist John Tyndall first established that CO2 is a greenhouse gas—meaning that it traps heat and keeps it from escaping to outer space. He understood this as a fact about our planet, with no particular social or political implications. This changed in the early twentieth century, when Swedish geochemist Svante Arrhenius realized that CO2 released to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels could alter the Earth's climate, and British engineer Guy Callendar compiled the first empirical evidence that the "greenhouse effect" might already be detectable. In the 1960s, American scientists started to warn our political leaders that this could be a real problem, and at least some of them—including Lyndon Johnson—heard the message. Yet they failed to act on it.6
There are many reasons why the United States has failed to act on global warming, but at least one is the confusion raised by Bill Nierenberg, fired Seifz, and Fred Singer.
1979 A Seminal Year for Climate
In 1965, the President's Science Advisory Conxrnittee asked Roger Revelle, then director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to write a summary of the potential impacts of carbon dioxide-induced warming. Revelle had been interested in global climate for some time, and in the late 1950s had obtained funding for his colleague, chemist Charles David Keeling, to measure CO2 systematically. (This work would produce the Keeling curve—showing CO2's steady increase over time—for which Keeling would win the National Medal of Science and be made famous by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth.) Revelle knew that there was a lot about the problem that wasn't well understood, so he focused his essay on the impact he considered most certain: sea level rise.7 He also made a forecast: "By the year 2000 there will be about 25% more CO2 in our atmosphere than at present [and] this will modify the heat balance of the atmosphere to such an extent that marked changes in climate ... could occur."8
The report made it to the Office of the President, and Lyndon Johnson mentioned it in a Special Message to Congress later that year. "This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through ... a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels."9 But with the war in Vietnam going badly, civil rights workers being murdered in Mississippi, and the surgeon general declaring that smoking was hazardous to your health, Johnson had more pressing things to worry about. Nor was it easy to get Richard Nixon's focus a few years later. Nixon undertook a number of important environmentally oriented reforms, including creating the Environmental Protection Agency, but during his administration climate concerns were focused on the SST project and the potential climate impact of its water vapor emissions, not CO2.
Yet, while CO2 didn't get much attention in the 1970s, climate did, as drought-related famines in Africa and Asia drew attention to the vulnerability of world food supplies. The Soviet Union had a series of crop failures that forced the humiliated nation to buy gram on the world market, and six African nations south of the Sahel (the semi-arid region south of the Sahara) suffered a devastating drought that continued through much of the 1970s.10 These famines didn't just hurt poor Africans and Asians; they also caused skyrocketing food prices worldwide.
The famines were also noticed by the Jasons, a committee of elite scientists, mostly physicists, first gathered in the early 1960s to advise the U.S. government on national security issues.11 The Jasons have long been an independent, self confident group, and especially in its early days the committee members often told the government what they thought it needed to know. But the Jasons also respond to requests, and in 1977, die Department of Energy asked them to review the DOE research programs related to CO2. The Jasons decided to look at carbon dioxide and climate.
Their report began with a recognition of the acute sensitivity of agriculture, and thus society in general, to even small changes in climate: "The Sahelian drought and the Soviet grain failure... illustrate the fragility of die world's crop producing capacity, particularly in those marginal areas where small alterations in temperature and precipitation can bring about major changes in total productivity."12
Over two summers they developed a climate model, which showed that doubling the carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere from its preindustrial level (about 270 ppm) would result in "an increase of average surface temperature of 2.4 C." Perhaps more worrying than the average temperature increase was the prospect of "polar amplification—that warming would be greater, maybe a lot greater, at the poles. In their model, the poles warmed by 10°C to I2°C—a colossal amount.13
None of this was new. Professional climate modelers had already published papers that said pretty much the same thing, and in 1977, Robert M. White, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (and later head of the National Academy of Engineering) had headed a committee for the National Research Council that warned of the serious impacts of unimpeded climate change: "We now understand that industrial wastes, such as carbon dioxide released during the burning of fossil fuels, can have consequences for climate that pose a considerable threat to future society... The scientific problems are formidable, the technological problems, unprecedented, and the potential economic and social impacts, ominous."14
But what matters in science is not the same as what matters in politics, and while the Jason study found nothing new, the fact that it was a Jason study "stimulated some excitement in White House circles."15 Still, the Jasons were mostly physicists, not climate scientists.They included a couple of geophysicists, one of whom had a long-standling interest in climate, but none claimed climate as their central area of active research. So Frank Press, President Carter's science advisor, asked the National Academy of Sciences president Philip Handler to empanel a reviewof the Jason study. Handler turned to MIT professor Jule Charney.
One of the founders of modern numerical atmospheric modeling, and perhaps the most revered meteorologist in America, Charney assembled a panel of eight other scientists at the Academy's summer study facility in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Charney also decided to go a bit beyond reviewing what the Jasons had done, inviting two leading climate modelers— Syulcuro Manabe from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory and James E. Hansen at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies—to present the results of their new three-dimensional climate models. These were the state of the art—with a lot more detail and complexity than the Jason model—yet their results were basically the same. The key question in climate modeling is "sensitivity"—how sensitive the climate is to changing levels of C02. If you double, triple, or even quadruple C02, what average global temperature change would you expect? The state-of-the-art answer, for the convenient case of doubling CO2, was "near 3 C with a probable error of 1.5 C."16 That meant that total warming might be as little as 1.5°C or as much as 4°C, but either way, there was warming, and the most likely value was about 3°C. If you more than doubled CG you'd probably get more than 3°C of warming.
There were, however, natural processes that might act as a brake on warming. The panel spent some time thinking about such "negative feedbacks," but concluded they wouldn't prevent a substantial warming. "We have examined with care all known negative feedback mechanisms, such as increase in low or middle cloud amount, and have concluded that the oversimplifications and inaccuracies in the models are not likely to have vitiated the principal conclusions that there will be appreciable warming."17 The devil was not in the details. It was in the main story. CO2 was a greenhouse gas. It trapped heat. So if you increased C02, the Earth would warm up. It wasn’t quite that simple—clouds, winds, and ocean circulation did complicate matters—but those complications were "second-order effects"—things that make a difference in the second decimal place, but not the first. The report concluded, "If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible."18
How soon would these changes occur? Charney's group couldn't say, in part because that depended on how the oceans absorbed heat. The climate models had "swamp oceans," meaning they provided moisture to the atmosphere but did not hold or transport heat, so they weren't realistic.
What would happen in real life? Everyone understood that the oceans have a huge "thermal inertia"—meaning that they take a very long time to heat up. Exactly how long depended in part on how well mixed they are, because the more well mixed the oceans are, the more heat would be distributed into the deep waters, and the slower the warming of the atmosphere would be. Scientists use the word "sink" to describe processes that remove components from natural systems; the oceans are almost literally a heat sink, as heat in effect sinks to the bottom of the sea.
The available evidence suggested that ocean mixing was sufficient to delay the Earths atmospheric warming for several decades.19 Greenhouse gases would start to alter the atmosphere immediately—they already had—but it would take decades before the effects would be pronounced enough for people to really see and feel. This had very serious consequences: it meant that you might not be able to prove that warming was under way, even though it really was, and by the time you could prove it, it would be too late to stop it.
One Jason recalls being asked by colleagues, "When you go to Washington and tell them that the C02 will double in 50 years and will have major impacts on the planet, what do they say?" His reply? "They... ask me to come back in forty-nine years."20 But in forty-nine years it would be too late. We would be, as scientists would later say, "admitted" to the warming—although "sentenced" might have been a better word.
Verner E. Suomi, chairman of the National Academy's Climate Research Board, tried to explain this crucial point in bis foreword to the Charney report "The ocean, the great and ponderous flywheel of the global climate system, may be expected to slow the course of observable climatic change. A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late."21 Suomi realized that this conclusion might be "disturbing to policy makers."22 He was right.
Organizing Delay: The Second and Third Academy Assessments
Before Charney's study had even been published, the White House Office of Science and Technology started asking the National Academy of Sciences for more information.23 There was a host of questions about anthropogenic climate warming that Charney hadn't asked, let alone tried to answer. Prominent among them was quantification of the time frame. When would measurable change occur? "Decades" was a pretty loose estimate. What specific effects would follow? Policy makers wanted answers.
The next Academy study to address the anthropogenic warming problem produced only a letter, not a full scientific assessment, but it was nonetheless influential. Chaired by economist Thomas Schelling, famous for his work in game theory (and for which he would later win the Nobel Prize in Economics), the committee included Roger Revelle, Bill Nierenberg, and McGeorge Bundy, the national security advisor to presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Their letter report was submitted in April 1980.
Schelling focused on what warming would mean socially and politically, an aspect of the problem that was scarcely studied, much less understood. So his letter to the Academy focused on uncertainties, although he stressed not just the social scientific uncertainties, but the physical scientific ones as well. Because there were enormous uncertainties about both climate change and its potential costs, policy makers should do nothing yet, he argued, but fund more research. Moreover, Schelling wasn't certain that all the effects of warming would be bad. "The credible range of effects is extremely broad," he wrote. "By the middle of the next century, we may have a climate almost as different from today's as today's is from the peak of the hast major glaciation. At die other extreme, we may only experience noticeable but not necessarily unfavorable effects around mid-century or later."24 No one really knew.
Climate change wouldn't produce new kinds of climate, Schelling argued, but would simply change the distribution of climatic zones on Earth. This suggested an idea that climate skeptics would echo for the next three decades: that we could continue to burn fossil fuels without restriction and deal with the consequences through migration and adaptation. Schelling noted that past human migrations "to and throughout the new world subjected large numbers of people—together with their livestock, food crops, and culture—to drastically changed climate."25
Schelling acknowledged that these historic migrations occurred in eras with few or no national boundaries, very unlike the present, but he nevertheless suggested that adaptation would be the best response. We had time—Charney's group had said so—and during that time the cost of fossil fuel would probably go up, and so usage would go down. The slowing rate of fossil fuel use will make adaptation to climate change easier and may permit more absorption of carbon into non-atmospheric sinks. It will also permit conversion to alternative energy sources at a lower cumulative carbon dioxide concentration, and it is likely that the sooner we begin the transition from fossil fuels the easier the transition will be." All this, he suggested, would happen naturally as market forces kicked in, so there was no need for regulation now.
Considering all the other uncertainties that Schelling emphasized, his faith in the free market could have been viewed as surprising, and his predictions have turned out to be entirely wrong: fossil fuel use has risen dramatically over the past three decades even as global warming has accelerated. But if his prediction were true, then there would be no need for government action. So this panel of worthies did not recommend a program of emissions reduction that might be phased in over time, despite their own acknowledgment that the sooner we began the transition the easier it would be. Instead, they counselled research:
In view of the uncertainties, controversies, and complex linkages surrounding the carbon dioxide issue, and the possibility that some of the greatest uncertainties will be reduced within the decade, it seems to most of us that the near-term emphasis should be on research, with as low a political profile as possible. We do hot know enough to address most of these questions right now. We believe that we can learn faster than the problem can develop.26
At least one scientist dose to this work wasn't sure this prescription was right. John Perry, the chief staff officer for the Academy's Climate Research Board—and a meteorologist in his own right—was following the arguments closely, and penned an article for the journal Climatic Change. Its title gave away its argument, "Energy and Climate: Today's Problem, Not Tomorrow's.''27
Everyone was focusing on doubling C02 in their models and analyses, but Perry sagely pointed out that this was just a convenient point of comparison. "Physically, a doubling of carbon dioxide is no magic threshold," he noted. "If we have good reason to believe that a 100 percent increase in carbon dioxide will produce significant impacts on climate, then we must have equally good reason to suspect that even the small increase we have already produced may have subtly altered our climate," he concluded. "Climate change is not a matter for the next century; we are most probably doing it right now."28 Schelling's group had expressed the hope that we could "learn faster than the problem can develop." Perry countered, "The problem is already upon us; we must learn very quickly indeed."29 Perry would be proven right, but Schelling's view would prevail politically. Indeed, it provided the kernel of the emerging skeptics' argument, and the eventual basis for the Reagan administration to push the problem off the political agenda entirely.
Congress was also looking into climate change. The 1978 National Climate Act had established a national climate research program, and Connecticut senator Abraham Ribicoff was planning to introduce an amendment to fund a closer look at CO2. Its a cliche that scientists always say that more research is needed, but Ribicoff concluded that more research was needed.30 President Jimmy Carter was proposing a major effort to increase U.S. energy independence by developing "synfuels"—-liquid fuels made from coal, oil shales, and tar sancfrj—and scientific experts had warned that this could accelerate CO2 accumulation. Ribicoff’s amendment authorized the National Academy of Sciences to undertake a comprehensive study of CO2 and climate.31 While the formal charge to the new committee was not formulated until June of the foUcwing year, a committee was already in place by October 1980, with Bill Nierenberg as its chair.
Nierenberg seems to have done a certain amount of groundwork, if not actual lobbying, for the job. In August 1979, as the Charney group was compiling its conclusions, John Perry had already been pondering the follow-up. Following normal Academy patterns, Perry suggested to members of the Climate Research Board that the new committee should not undertake new research, but simply review the adequacy and conclusions of existing work.32 Nierenberg disagreed and argued for a much broader view. He thought the Academy should undertake a comprehensive, integrated assessment of all aspects of the problem, and that the members of the committee should be chosen with more than the usual care.33 They were. They included Tom Schelling, and another who would support his views, Yale economist William Nordhaus.
Most National Academy reports are written collectively, reviewed by all the committee members, and then reviewed again by outside reviewers. Changes are made by the authors of the various sections and by the chairperson, and the report is accepted and signed by all the authors. An Executive Summary, or synthesis, sometimes written by the chairperson, sometimes by Academy staff, is also reviewed to ensure that it accurately reflects the contents of the study. That didn't happen here. The Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee—chaired by Bill Nierenberg—could not agree on an integrated assessment, so they settled for chapters that were individually authored and signed. The result, Changing Climate: Report of the Carbon Dioxide Assessment Committee, was really two reports—five chapters detailing the likelihood of anthropogenic climate change written by natural scientists, and two chapters on emissions and climate impacts by economists—which presented very different impressions of the problem. The synthesis sided with the economists, not the natural scientists.
The chapters written by the natural scientists were broadly consistent with what other natural scientists had already said. No one challenged the basic claim that warming would occur, with serious physical and biological ramifications. Revelle's chapter on sea level rise warned of the possible disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which "would release about 2 million km3 of ice before the remaining half of the ice sheet began to float. The resulting worldwide rise in sea level would be between 5 and 6 m[eters]."34 The likely result: "The oceans would flood aB existing port facilities and other low-lying coastal structures, extensive sections of the heavily farmed and densely populated river deltas of the world, major portions of the state[s] of Florida and Louisiana, and large areas of many of the world's major cities."35
How quickly could such a disaster occur? Total disintegration off that ice sheet would take a long time, perhaps two hundred to five hundred years, but smaller effects might begin much sooner. If temperature increases of 2°C to 3°C were achieved by midcentury, thermal expansion alone would produce seventy centimeters of sea level rise, to which one could add another two meters by 2050 or so if the ice sheet began to fail. Whether fast or slow, "disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would have... far-reaching consequences."36
Other chapters addressed the impacts on climate, water availability, marine ecosystems, and more. The physical scientists allowed that many details were unclear—more research was needed—but they broadly agreed that the issue was very serious. When the chapters were boiled down to their essence, the overall conclusion was the same as before: CO2 had increased due to human activities, CO2 will continue to increase unless changes are made, and these increases will affect weather, agriculture, and ecosystems. None of the physical scientists suggested that accumulating CO2 was not a problem, or that we should simply wait and see.
But that's precisely what the economists' chapters, as well as the synthesis, argued. The report's first chapter, written by Nordhaus, National Research Council staff member Jesse Ausubel, and a consultant named Gary Yohe (an economics professor at Wesleyan University), focused on future energy use and carbon dioxide emissions. The long-and detailed chapter began by acknowledging the "widespread agreement that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions have been rising steadily, primarily driven by the combustion of fossil fuels." Their focus, however, was not so much on what was known, but on what was not known: the "enormous uncertainty" beyond 2000, and the "even greater uncertainty" about the "social and economic impacts of possible future trajectories of carbon dioxide. "37
Using a probabilistic scenario analysis, they projected atmospheric CO2 levels to 2100, using various assumptions regarding energy use, costs, and increased economic efficiencies. The range of possible outcomes was large, but they considered the most likely scenario to be CO2 doubling by 2065. 38 The economists acknowledged the "substantial probability that doubling will occur much more quickly," including a 27 percent chance that it would occur by 2050, and admitted that it was "unwise to dismiss the possibility that a doubling may occur in the first half of the twenty-first century." Yet they did just that.
What could be done to stop climate change? According to Nordhaus, not much. The most effective action would be to impose a large permanent carbon tax, but that would be hard to implement and enforce.
A significant reduction in the concentration of CO2 will require very stringent policies, such as hefty taxes on fossil fuels ... The strategies suggested later [in the report] by Schelling—climate modification or simply adaptation to a high CO2 and high temperature world—are likely to be more economical ways of adjusting... Whether the imponderable side effects on society— on coastlines and agriculture, on life in high latitudes, on human health, and simply the unforeseen—will in the end prove more costly than a stringent abatement of greenhouse gases, we do not now know.39
Rather than confront their own caveat that changes might happen much sooner than their model predicted—-and thus be much more costly than prevention—the economists assumed that serious changes were so far off as to be essentially discountable.
Schelling picked up the thread of this argument in the final chapter of the report, where the economists' reframing of die climate question became explicit. Natural scientists were not worried about climate change per se—because scientists knew climate was naturally variable—but about rapid, unidirectional change forced by carbon dioxide. Such change would seriously challenge ecosystems that couldn’t adapt in only a few decades, as well as human infrastructure. But Schelling rejected this view, insisting that the real issue was climate change and that the impact of carbon dioxide needed to be assessed together with "other climate-changing activities," such as dust, land use changes, and natural variability. It was wrong to single out CO2 for special consideration.
Common sense might suggest that if carbon dioxide is the cause of climate change, then controlling it is the obvious solution, but Schelling rejected this view, too. He insisted that it was a mistake to assume a "preference for... dealing with causes rather than symptoms... It would be wrong to commit ourselves to the principle that if fossil fuels and carbon dioxide are where the problem arises, that must also be where the solution lies."40 It might be best just to treat the symptoms through deliberate weather modification or to
Schelling's attempt to ignore the cause of global warming was pretty peculiar. It was equivalent to arguing that medical researchers, Shouldn't try to cure cancer, because that would be too expensive and in any case people in the future might decide that dying from cancer is not so bad. But it was based on an ordinary economic principle—the same principle invoked by Fred Singer when discussing acid rain—namely, discounting. A dollar today is worth more to us than a dollar tomorrow and a lot more than a dollar a century from now, so we can "discount" faraway costs. This is what Schelling was doing, presuming that the changes under consideration were "beyond the lifetimes of contemporary decision-makers."41 Not only did we not know how much energy future populations would use, and therefore how much CO2 they would produce, we didn't know how they would live, how mobile they would be, what technologies they would have at their disposal, or even what climates they might prefer.
Schelling had a point: if changes were a century away, then it would be impossible to predict how troubling they would be. Perhaps by 2100 everyone would be living indoors, with agriculture pursued in controlled hydro-ponic environments. The rub was that most of the physical scientists on the panel did not think that trouble was more than a century away. Most of them thought that significant changes were much closer, and that carbon dioxide was the problem.
So Nierenberg’s committee had produced a report with two quite different views: the physical scientists viewed accumulation CO2 as a serious problem; the economists argued that it wasn't. And the latter view framed the report—providing its first and last chapters. A fair synthesis might have laid out the conflicting views and tried to reconcile them or at least account for the differences. But this synthesis didn't. It followed the position advocated by Nordhaus and Schelling. It did not disagree with the scientific facts as laid out by Charney, the Jasons, and all the other physical scientists who had looked at the question, but it rejected the interpretation of those facts as a problem. "Viewed in terms of energy, global pollution, and worldwide environmental damage, the ‘CO problem’ appears intractable," the synthesis explained, but "viewed as a problem of changes in local environmental factors^rainfall, river flow, sea level—the myriad of individual incremental problems take their place among the other stresses to which nations and individuals adapt."42
Some climatic effects—like serious sea level rise—might make some areas of the world uninhabitable, but this could be addressed through migration. Nierenberg stressed that people had often migrated in the past, and when they did, they often had to adapt to new climates. "Not only have people moved" Nierenberg noted, "but they have taken with them their horses, dogs, children, technologies, crops, livestock, and hobbies. It is extraordinary how adaptable people can be."43 Thus Nierenberg's argument was the same as Schelling's had been in 1980: research, not policy action, was necessary, and that research should take the lowest possible political profile. Vern Suomi had admonished that a "wait and see" attitude was likely to be untenable, but that’s exactly what Nierenberg's committee recommended.
The fact is, historical mass migrations had been accompanied by massive sufFering, and typically people moved under duress and threat of violence. So Nierenberg's cavalier tone, and suggestion that these migrations were essentially benign, flew in the face of historical evidence. At least one reviewer recognized this. Alvin Weinberg, a physicist who had led the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for nearly twenty years, wrote a scathing eight-page critique. Weinberg was one of the first physicists to recognize the potential severity of global warming, arguing in 1974 that climate impacts might limit our use of fossil fuels before they were even close to running out.44 This perspective meshed with his advocacy of nuclear power, which he believed was the only energy source that could enable better living conditions for all humanity, an opinion he and Nierenberg shared. But Weinberg was outraged by what he read in Nierenberg's report.
The report was "so seriously flawed in its underlying analysis and in its conclusions," Weinberg wrote, that he hardly knew where to begin. The report flew in the face of virtually every other scientific analysis of the issue, yet presented almost no evidence to support its radical recommendation to do nothing. Improvements in irrigated agriculture would no doubt occur, but could they be put in place fast enough and on a sufficient scale, particularly in poor countries? The report provided no evidence. As for migration, "does the Committee really believe that the United States or Western Europe or Canada would accept the huge influx of refugees from poor countries that have suffered a drastic shift in rainfall pattern?," Weinberg demanded. "I can't for the life of me see how historic migrations, which generally have taken place when political boundaries were far more permeable than they are now, can tell us anything about migrations 75 to 100 years from now when large areas lose their capacity to support people. Surely there will be times of trouble then."45
Weinberg wasn’t alone in realizing that the claims made in the synthesis were not supported by the analysis presented in the body of the report. Two other reviewers made the same point, although with less passion.46
Yet these reviewers were also ignored. How was it possible for the reviewers' comments to be ignored, and for a report to be issued in which the synthesis was at odds with the report it claimed to synthesize and in which major claims were unsupported by evidence? One senior scientist many years later answered this way: "Academy review was much more lax in those days." But why didn't anyone object after the report was released? This same scientist: "We knew it was garbage so we just ignored it."47
But the Nierenberg report didn't go out with the morning trash. It was used by the White House to counter scientific work being done by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA prepared two reports of its own, both of which concluded that global warming would be serious, and that the nation should take immediate action to reduce coal use.48 When the EPA reports came out, White House Science Advisor George Keyworth used Nierenberg's report to refute them. In his monthly report for October prepared for Ed Meese, Keyworth wrote, "The Science Advisor has discredited the EPA reports ... and cited the NAS report as the best current assessment of the CO2 issue. The press seems to have discounted the EPA aJarmism and has taken the conservative NAS position as the wisest."49
Keyworth was right. The press would indeed take the "conservative" position. A New York Times reporter put it this way: "The Academy found that since there is no politically or economically realistic way of heading off the greenhouse effect, strategies must be prepared to adapt to a 'high temperature world.' "50 But the Academy hadn't found that; the committee had asserted it And it wasn't the Academy; it was Bill Nierenberg and a handful of economists.
Was it just coincidence—a meeting of minds—that Nierenberg gave the White House just what it wanted? The historical record suggests not In meetings with the Climate Research Board, Energy Department officials had told Academy members that they "did not approve of... speculative, alarmist, 'wolf-crying' scenarios."51 They simply wanted "guidance on the on-going research program."52 Tom Pestorius, the senior policy analyst at the White House Office of Science and Technology who was a White House liaison to the Acid Rain Peer Review, was involved here, too. There was no need for alarm, he told John Perry, who reported this back to Nierenberg's committee, because "technology will ultimately be the answer to the problems of providing energy and protecting the environment."53
Nierenberg's CO2 and climate report pioneered all the major themes behind later efforts to block greenhouse gas regulation, save one. Nierenberg didn't deny the legitimacy of climate science. He simply ignored it in favor of the claims made by economists: “that treating symptoms rather than causes would be less expensive, that new technology would solve the problems that might appear so long as government didn't interfere, and that if technology couldn't solve all the problems, we could just migrate.” In the two decades to come, these claims would be heard again and again.
But just as Alvin Weinberg hadn't bought these arguments, not all economists did, either. A handful of economists in the late 1960s had realized that free market economics, focused as it was oh consumption growth, was inherently destructive to the natural environment and to the ecosystems on which we all depend. The Earth doesn't have infinite resources, and, as we saw in chapter 3 with acid rain, it doesn't have an infinite ability to withstand pollution. Nierenberg hadn't put any of these economists on his panel. So just as Nierenberg had built his Executive Summary around a one-sided view of climate change, he'd built it around a one-sided view of economics.
Nierenberg gave the administration everything it wanted: a report that presented a united front rather than the real differences of opinion between the social and physical scientists, insisted that no action was needed now, and concluded that technology would solve any problems that did, in the future, emerge. The government did not need to do anything—except fund research.
TO BE CONTINUED