|MERCHANTS OF DOUBT
How a Handul of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
Erik M. Conway
New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010
Of the many distortions introduced into the various debates over scientific conclusions during the past few decades, none is more reprehensible than Siegfried F. Singer's subversion of the conclusions of Roger Revelle. On pages 190-197, Oreskes and Conway provide the best account of this I have seen in print.
Roger Revelle in 1990 was director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He had taught at Harvard during the 1960s, and one thing he became notable for during that period was having taught Al Gore, who took Revelle's environmental warnings to heart and based his vice presidential campaign of 1992 upon them.
Revelle was 81 years old on 19 Feb 1990 when he presented a paper, "What Can We Do About Climate Change?" at the AAAS meeting in New Orleans. This paper acknowledged the major uncertainties in our knowledge of climate change and recommended more research. But it also laid out six measures that could be started immediately to offset the changes greater CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would bring. These included: replacing coal with natural gas in power plants, expanding northern forests, and sequestering carbon by accelerating the growth of ocean phytoplankton.
In its 1990 Assessment Report, the IPCC had clearly stated that unrestricted use of fossil fuels would cause the global mean temperature to increase by 0.3°C per decade during the next century. It added that such a rise had not been seen in the previous 10,000 years.
But Singer asserted that "the scientific base for [greenhouse warming] includes some facts, lots of uncertainty, and just plain ignorance," declaring that this level of uncertainty precluded "drastic action at this time." He had said the same thing about acid rain and ozone depletion.
His February 1991 draft asserted the next century's warming would be less than 1°C, "well below the normal year-to-year variation." This contravened the conclusions of the Jasons, the Charney panel, and the IPCC.
This, in a nutshell, was why — despite his earlier accomplishments in developing weather satellites — Singer was regarded by many as not a very good scientist. In my opinion the Revelle episode alone would justify his ostracism from science.
Being cautious and conservative, as a scientist should, Revelle refrained from overstating his warning. The final sentence of his paper read, "There is a good but by no means certain chance that the world's average climate will become significantly warmer during the next century." Here, Singer saw his opening. He approached Revelle after the talk to suggest writing a joint article for The Washington Post. Some of their discussions are lost to history, but enough evidence remains to give us the essence of Singer's deception.
On the airplane from New Orleans back to La Jolla, Revelle suffered a massive heart attack. He was taken straight from the airport to the hospital for triple-bypass surgery. After that, other medical problems had him in and out of the hospital. When he finally made it back to his home for good, in May, he was still very weak. This man, formerly famous for his abundant energy, now fell asleep while dictating letters. His staff had to limit his interviews to half an hour. Thus it is not clear how diligent Revelle was able to be when reviewing the drafts of the joint article. We do know that Singer sent Revelle three drafts during March. He would bury them under the pile of papers on his desk. When Singer called, Revelle's personal secretary Christa Beran would dig them out, only to find them buried again on Singer's next inquiry. She had asked about this, she later testified in an affadavit, and was told, "Some people don't think Fred Singer is a very good scientist."
Singer did not let Revelle's reluctance derail his campaign. He published his own article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, calling it "What To Do about Greenhouse Warming." Here he recited the Marshall Institute's talking points, emphasizing that "there is major uncertainty and disagreement" about the magnitude and causes of climate change. Of course this was true; the Marshall Institute and fellow-traveler think-tanks had generated that uncertainty and disagreement. However, there was also a general consensus among climate scientists that greenhouse warming was a serious problem which needed more attention and the beginning of mitigation efforts.
In February 1991, Singer visited Scripps to present Revelle the galley proofs of another draft. They reviewed this in a multi-hour meeting. One point of contention was the estimated sensitivity of Earth's climate system to increased greenhouse gases: How much would mean temperature go up for a given increase in GHG? Singer's latest draft contained these words: "Assume what we regard as the most likely outcome: A modest average warming in the next century of less than one degree Celsius, well below the normal year-to-year variation." Singer thus directly contradicted the mainstream view, which expected 1 to 3 degrees Celsius, a range outside the limits of natural variation for the past few hundred years.
Revelle registered his disapproval by writing "1 to 3 degrees" in the margin of the document. (The authors say he "apparently" made this correction.) Singer finessed this by removing the numbers. The paper when published read, "Assume what we regard as the most likely outcome: A modest average warming in the next century well below the normal year to year variation." Publication took place later that year in Cosmos, the journal of the Washington Cosmos Club. Revelle was listed as second author; a third, one Chauncey Starr, had been added. Revelle's prior work makes it unlikely that he would approve this conclusion, and his colleagues agree. Unfortunately, Revelle died in July of another heart attack without publicly making a judgement.
Cosmos had a small circulation and was not a peer-reviewed journal, so Revelle might have decided not to waste his energy on a public dispute with Singer over it. And it might not have mattered but for the 1992 election. The joint paper was used to attack Al Gore's position on climate change, expressed in his campaign for the vice presidency and in his new book Earth in the Balance. Gregg Easterbrook apparently fired the first salvo, quoting Singer's conclusions but attributing them to Revelle.1 (The custom is to credit the lead author of a paper for its conclusions. In this case, that was Fred Singer.) George Will next took up the cudgels in a September 1992 column, alleging that Gore knew his mentor had recanted on climate change. Admiral James B. Stockdale, running for vice president on Ross Perot's ticket, threw Singer's words at Gore during their one debate.
There was plenty of anger at the use of Revelle's name to attack Al Gore. Carolyn Hufbauer, Revelle's daughter, protested Will's column in an op-ed that ran just before the Gore-Stockdale debate, on 13 September. (The debate was in October.) Oceanographer Walter Munk and physicist Edward Frieman, two of Revelle's closest colleagues at Scripps, wrote to Cosmos that the Singer paper misrepresented Revelle's views, but the journal did not publish their letter. They published it in the journal Oceanography along with the text of Revelle's AAAS paper.
Justin Lancaster was Revelle's teaching assistant. He saw Revelle almost daily during the last year of his life. He too was convinced Revelle's view had been misrepresented. With his thesis advisor Dave Keeling, he wrote a letter challenging Easterbrook's article. But New Republic, where it had appeared, rejected their letter. Lancaster was on the editorial board for A Global Warming Forum, a volume of collected papers, in which Singer planned to publish the joint paper. A complicated dispute ensued in which Lancaster tried but failed to get Revelle's name removed from the paper in the book's version. He was able to insert a footnote pointing readers to Revelle's AAAS paper in Oceanography.
Harvard University held a memorial symposium for Revelle in October 1992. The organizers had planned to have Singer present the joint paper, but removed him from the program to avoid a confrontation with Revelle's family and colleagues. Unfortunately, Singer showed up anyway. Munk and Lancaster both objected to the Cosmos article, Munk verbally and Lancaster in a written statement. Singer blasted them for "politically inspired misrepresentations."2
Lancaster continued to publicly dispute Revelle's coauthorship of the joint paper. Singer slapped him with a libel suit. Christa Beran corroborated Lancaster's claims, but it wasn't enough. Having much deeper pockets, Singer prevailed. In 1994, Lancaster accepted a settlement that forced him to recant. The decision also gagged him for ten years and sealed the court documents. The gag order has now expired, and Justin Lancaster has a Web site.3
The authors agree that Revelle never believed what Singer's deceptive joint paper suggested. They scoured the late scientist's archives and found this statement from the apparently unpublished introduction to a November 1990 meeting on climate variability.
"There is good reason to expect that because of the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere there will be a climate warming. How big that warming will be is . . . very difficult to say. Probably somewhere between 2 and 5 degrees centigrade at the latitudes of the United States, probably a greater change in average temperature at higher latitudes and a lesser change at lower latitudes . . . Whatever climate change there is will have a profound effect on some aspects of water resources."
– Page 196
I could wish for something more definitive. But, taken in toto, Revelle's body of work, the testimony of his associates, and Singer's well-documented deceptiveness4 make it clear that Revelle's alleged recantation of his lifelong acceptance of the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change is as bogus as Darwin's supposed deathbed conversion to Christianity.
Neither this nor more recent revelations have stopped the cascade of character assassination. Later came the organized smearing of IPCC lead author Benjamin Santer, which the authors cover on pp. 208-211. Due to their higher profiles, James Hansen, Michael Mann and Stephen Schneider have endured steady vilification, and after this book's publication came the so-called "ClimateGate" in which stolen e-mails from scientists at Britain's CRU were released in a trumped-up scandal just ahead of the December 2009 climate conference at Copenhagen. Like Hansen, Mann, and Schneider, the CRU scientists received floods of hate mail including some death threats.
All of this — the denial of scientific evidence and historical fact, the selective quoting and manufacture of quotes, the allegations of conspiracy and fraud — is done in the service of free-market fundamentalism. The Gang of Four and their fellow travelers have an aversion to government as intractable as it is misguided. As the authors explain,
"Free market fundamentalists can perhaps hold to their views because often they have very little direct experience in commerce or industry. The men in our story all made their careers in programs or institutions that were either directly created by the federal government or largely funded by it. Robert Jastrow spent the lion's share of his career at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies—part of NASA. Frederick Seitz and Bill Nierenberg launched their careers in the atomic weapons programs, and expanded them at universities whose research activities were almost entirely funded by the government at taxpayer expense. Fred Singer worked directly for the government, first at the National Weather Satellite Service, later in the Department of Transportation. If government is bad and free markets are good, why did they not reject government support for their own research and professional positions and work in the private sector?"
– Page 250
It is an excellent question, and the authors proceed to answer it thoroughly, if in gentler terms than I would have used. But in the final analysis, I don't think motivation is that important. What matters is knowing that important scientific facts have been covered up or distorted, and bringing those facts to public attention.