Climate Change 101: Interview with S. Fred Singer

S. Fred SingerS. Fred Singer is an American atmospheric physicist, Professor Emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, specializing in planetary science, global warming, ozone depletion, and other global environmental issues. He was a Special Advisor on space developments to President Eisenhower and the first Director of the National Weather Satellite Service Center. He is President of the non-profit Science & Environmental Policy Project, author of Hot Talk Cold Science: Global Warming's Unfinished Debate, Unstoppable Global Warming (NY Times Bestseller), and editor of Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate.


Westmiller: Is the globe warming?

Singer: Yes, global mean temperatures have been increasing since 1978, or since 1910, or since 1600, or since the last ice age ended, around 8,000 BC. Global climate has always changed and we should be grateful that we're in one of those warming periods, which have always been beneficial to humans.

Scientists have been able to identify some of the temperature cycles in nature, but historic data is sparse and inconsistent, depending on conflicting proxies for temperature measurements. Our best global temperature measures are from satellites and weather balloons, covering only the last few decades.

If we use the standard definition of climate as 30-year norms, we don't have accurate data for even one cycle. Our best measures indicate that global temperatures have been stable, or slightly declining, over the past decade.

Westmiller: Is recent global warming exceptional?

Singer: Not in terms of decadal, much less millennial, trends. Several natural cycles, like El Niño, solar intensity, and ocean currents have probably influenced the minor warming trends of the last three decades. In the context of ice ages, the globe is approaching another ice age, just as it has been doing every100,000 years or so.

Ice core sampling doesn't produce high-resolution data, like modern satellites do, so the short-term variations can't be compared. During the past decade, annual averages have fallen and trends have stabilized.

Some temperature charts give the impression of exceptional warming because they begin at the trough of prior cool periods, such as the Little Ice Age and Maunder Minimum. Most charts start at 1890, when we first started to estimate global temperatures from direct instrumentation. There's nothing exceptional about that date in terms of industrialization or the intensive use of fossil fuels, which accelerated several decades later.

Westmiller: But, the North Pole is melting, polar bears are dying, and sea levels are rising. Right?

Singer: Let's take those one at a time. When global temperatures are increasing, the amount of sea ice decreases. Arctic ice cover has been decreasing. Some of our media expresses surprise that some northern shipping lanes are nearly ice free. They shouldn't be shocked. Just a hundred years ago, Roald Amundsen navigated the Northwest Passage, above Canada, in a wooden boat, when no icebreakers existed. Baron Adolf Nordenskiöld sailed through the Northeast Passage, above Russia, in 1878. It's really nothing new.

Remember that Arctic ice cover is only ten percent of the global area, with the remainder in Antarctica. We've been able to accurately measure total global ice cover by satellite since 1979 and the trend line is nearly flat, with some decreases in the Northern Hemisphere and some increases in the Southern.

I'm no expert on polar bears, but there was over-hunting in the 1970s that reduced the population. Since restrictions were imposed, almost all of those populations have recovered. The bottom line is that polar bears don't need ice to survive; they need open water, where they catch and eat seals.

Sea levels. It is absolutely true that sea levels are rising. It's also absolutely true that they've been rising at about the same rate for the past 3000 years; roughly 7 inches per century..

Let me add another: retreating glaciers. There are many anecdotal stories about mountain glaciers fading away in temperate climes. Mount Kilimanjaro is one. Scientists have studied the causes and discovered that global warming is not the culprit. Changing humidity, prevailing winds, and deforestation explain almost all of the retreat.

[Part 2]

Westmiller: Does carbon dioxide cause global warming?

Singer: Carbon dioxide is a trace gas that doesn't produce any heat of its own, but it does act like a blanket. Most solar rays pass through it, warming the earth. Most heat radiated from earth is absorbed and then re-emitted by the CO2, or more importantly, water vapor. That's why CO2 is called a "greenhouse gas", even though it doesn't actually retain heat in exactly that same way that a sealed greenhouse does. Nevertheless, it is certainly one factor that affects the amount of retained heat on earth and therefore the dominant temperature.

In theory, any warming caused by CO2 will be most evident in the upper troposphere, where most commercial airliners fly, particularly over the tropics. If atmospheric CO2 were the primary cause of increased global temperatures, the increase would be even more pronounced at those altitudes. The most accurate measurements indicated that, over the last three decades, there has been slight warming. So, it's very hard to make the case that CO2 is a primary factor.

More important, the Vostok ice core studies demonstrate that increased CO2 concentrations follow the millennial temperature increases by about a thousand years. That's been true for hundreds of thousands of years. The common sense view is that warming causes more CO2, not that higher CO2 causes warming. Of course, there are fudge factors. We don't know exactly how fast CO2 is absorbed - we call it 'sequestered' - in the oceans during temperature declines, nor do we know how fast it is released when atmospheric temperatures rise. What we don't know far exceeds what we do know.

What people should know is that CO2 is only one of a half-dozen greenhouse gases [GHG] in the atmosphere. Most of them have a stronger effect on warming than CO2 and the overwhelming GHG is simple water vapor. Almost all of the alarming computer models have to assume some positive feedback effect, so that CO2 increases cause more water vapor, multiplying the greenhouse effect, in order to portray CO2 as a causative effect of warming. Those computer models have thousands of related assumptions that haven't been scientifically demonstrated by actual, confirmed testing.

So, to answer your question, yes: CO2 concentrations certainly have some effect on global temperatures. It's just that the predicted effects aren't evident and CO2 alone may be a relatively insignificant factor in warming.

Westmiller: Isn't CO2 a pollutant, as designated by the Environmental Protection Agency?

Singer: The EPA was given a very broad mandate by Congress, granting them control over any substance that they believed might cause harm. They simply accepted the U.N. conclusions that anthropogenic CO2 causes warming and all warming causes harm. Neither conclusion is defensible, but the agency has accepted them as the scientific consensus, so they want to impose restrictions on CO2 emissions. Consensus is totally irrelevant to science, but it's very important to politics. Ask Galileo.

We learned in grade school that CO2 is absolutely essential to all life on earth. If it didn't exist, all plants would die and every animal would eventually starve to death, including every human. Calling CO2 a pollutant is silly, or at least a very bad euphemism. If the EPA were to strictly follow its mandate, it would punish every human being that exhaled.

It is absolutely true that CO2 can be dangerous to your health, but only if concentrations are extremely high, more than 20 times the present level. We have to get a significant amount of plain old oxygen in every breath we take. But, you don't have to worry about too much CO2 fizz in your soda, seltzer, or champagne.

Westmiller: Hasn't the burning of fossil fuels by humans produced a lot of CO2 over the past century?

Singer: Yes, but you have to put that in context. While natural sources of CO2 are twenty times greater than human sources, the observed rise in the past 150 years is almost all anthropogenic, mostly from burning of fossil fuels, from cement manufacture, and from land clearing. The influence of all CO2 is guesstimated at less than 10 percent of the total greenhouse effect, with water vapor the main GH gas.

Now, put those greenhouse effects into the context of all the other temperature factors, like changes in solar activity, cloud cover, and ocean circulation. The human impact on warming becomes inconsequential.

Given that the "fingerprint" of CO2 warming has not been detected, we should discount the influence of human fossil fuel combustion to practically zero.

Beyond that cursory evaluation, there are many confounding factors in the analysis of CO2 influence on warming. As global temperatures increase, some CO2 dissolved in the oceans is released into the atmosphere. At the same time, increased temperatures and CO2 encourage plant growth, which increases the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere. Earth's climate is a complex and chaotic system. We only understand a few of the interactive components that influence temperature. There is no scientific certainty about all the causative factors, much less a consensus that humans have caused recent warming.

[Part 3]

Westmiller: Does the International Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] have it all wrong?

Singer: The Panel was established by agencies of the United Nations with an assortment of political objectives in mind. Hundreds of scientists are doing commendable research and they have contributed to many of the Working Group reports, but they don't participate in writing the final "Summary for Policymakers" that gets all the attention of media and national leaders. The IPCC procedure actually requires the Working Groups to conform their findings to the political conclusions written by a tiny group of politically oriented scientists. Don't forget that its Charter directs the IPCC to assess literature “relevant to the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.” Indeed, the IPCC has largely ignored climate changes induced by nature.

No doubt, there are some scientists who want to collect large government grants for studying climate. The recent release of emails from the East Anglia Climate Research Unit suggests that some of them want to provide their employers with an unjustified political consensus that serves their purposes. Interestingly, the CRU was set up with a large grant from Shell Oil and still draws support from Shell and BP.

Some IPCC contributors have publicly rejected the Summary conclusions.. Thousands of competent scientists who have scrutinized the reports agree that many of the IPCC conclusions are unsupported by the scientific evidence. A number have gone so far as to organize the Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change [NIPCC], an independent group that reviews pretty much the same science as the IPCC but has reached a completely different conclusion. One year after the 4th annual IPCC report, NIPCC published a summary report entitled "Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Climate”. NIPCC's full report was printed in 2009 and contains over 4000 references to peer-reviewed papers. In my opinion, every good scientist is a skeptic. Humans don't dictate facts to nature. As our knowledge of global climate improves, we may discover that all of the popular IPCC assumptions are wrong.

Westmiller: How did the anthropogenic theory get started and why has it been so popular?

Singer: There have always been people who recognized that pollution was a problem and adopted the perspective that the natural environment needed to be protected from human abuse. If I were to speculate, I suppose the Wicca religion created the seeds in Europe. Native American traditions and fables had an influence in the United States. But that's sociology, not science.

In the scientific community, the idea of human causation was probably started by David Keeling in 1958, when he observed that CO2 increases he was measuring at the South Pole seemed to match the increase in the combustion of fossil fuels during recent decades. Keeling devoted most of his life to measuring atmospheric CO2 and founded the modern research facility at Mauna Loa, Hawaii. His speculation wasn't improper and his surmise was certainly worthy of investigation, but many scientists adopted the proposition of anthropogenic causation as a matter of faith.

I don't like to speculate about people's motives, but there are many reasons that scientists, politicians, and businessmen latched on to the anthropogenic theory. For scientists, it was an interesting idea and may have been related to their field of study, usually meteorology. Twenty years ago, there were no "climate scientists", nor any PhD in "Climatology", so it was an enticing field, open for exploration.

The idea that humans might be responsible for a potentially damaging warming trend certainly appealed to politicians, particularly those with a strong "environmental" record and reputation. It was a chance to “save the world" and be a hero. I won't even mention the name of one politician who has made it a career.

Finally, when governments began adopting policies that embraced the anthropogenic theory, money started flowing. Businessmen saw an opportunity for profit and took advantage of financial incentives and government subsidies. The tempting promise of huge profits probably encouraged a transition from legitimate pollution control investments to energy opportunities. The speculative "sustainable" technology required equipment and servicing; the new "climate modeling" required huge supercomputers and programmers; and the proposed "carbon markets" needed traders, speculators, and investors. Beyond all that, businesses want to develop a good image and are anxious to be associated with popular trends. So, "BP" no longer stands for "British Petroleum", it means "Beyond Petroleum".

All of those trends feed back into the faith-driven scientists, who are expected to maintain the appearance of a consensus, suppress skepticism, and ensure that the published facts conform to the objectives of business and politics. It's the ultimate in bio-feedback loops.

Westmiller: Whether you're right or wrong, do you think the Kyoto Protocol or energy taxes have any merit?

Singer: Let's assume that I'm stupid and crazy? If fossil fuel combustion were a problem, there is a vast array of scientific mitigation measures that could be effective. There is also plenty of speculation about relatively simple, but global-scale, interventions that might impede warming. I would be very reluctant to assume responsibility for a project that might very well move the globe, more quickly than nature otherwise would, into the next Ice Age. I suppose, if I were a crazed fanatic I would encourage people to burn as much fossil fuel as possible to forestall eventual global cooling. I wouldn't expect anyone to follow that advice, but it might make me a famous ... or infamous ... celebrity. But then, of course, higher levels of CO2 would benefit agriculture and save the lives of millions around the world, especially children, who now suffer from malnutrition

Kyoto is a strange blend of superficial government promises and artificial market incentives. It hasn't worked, even for the limited purposes and goals it had set for itself, primarily because of the absence of any enforcement measures. I would be the last person to propose some global government that actually had the power to impose strict limits on energy use or emissions worldwide. That's a huge amount of power, which would surely result in a huge amount of international corruption.

There are several energy tax schemes that have been proposed by warming advocates. They're taking the popular approach, politically: there are very few politicians who don't salivate at the thought of some new method of imposing taxes that they can spend. Saving the world from some despicable horror sells well; persuading people ... or forcing other people ... to make financial sacrifices for the "common good". I'm a scientist, not a politician, so my sole interest is in finding the truth. That requires evidence, based on data and verifiable facts. I don't think I could stomach the process of writing laws to force people to conform with my own sentiments, passions, and beliefs. To each his own.

Westmiller: You've devoted a lot of time and energy to this debate. Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Singer: I am really quite optimistic. I am sure that sound science must -- and will -- win out in the long run and convince not only scientists but also the public and politicians that climate change is almost all natural, and that a modest warming, should it occur, is good for humanity overall. The revelations of “ClimateGate” will be very helpful here and show how a gang of determined climatologists was able to con almost everyone by cooking the data and stifling any scientific criticism from 'skeptics.'

Of course, 'long run' may mean many more years -- during which the alarmists will try to impose policies that produce great economic hardships for no good reason. I fear especially those who have learned to game the system and are using global warming scares to enrich themselves at our expense. I won't mention names but you know who they are: Utopians who believe that global governance will lead to a better world; Luddites who oppose technological advance and economic growth; international bureaucrats and profiteers who want power and money. If they ever gain the upper hand, the world may have a difficult time recovering.

I hope I can be around when we can look back on past decades and say: "How could this climate insanity have fooled so many smart people?"

Published as a three-part series at
Interview by William Westmiller, Public Policy Examiner
Copenhagen warming conference enters Ice Age

Image Credits: SingerEarth
Editorial Composite (William Westmiller)
Original Photo (Jennifer Morahasy)
Earth Image (NASA Goddard/Reto Stöckli)