The February 2007 issue of PhysicsWorld contains several articles relevant to climate research, with a main feature article on climate modelling written by Adam Scaife, Chris Folland, and John Mitchell, and a profile on Richard Lindzen as well as an article on geoengineering in the ‘News & Analyses’ section. The magazine also contains an article (‘Living in the greenhouse’) under ‘Lateral Thoughts’ that brings up a bunch of tentative analogies to a wide range of topics completely unrelated to the greenhouse effect in a technical sense, and an editorial comment ‘Hot topic‘, arguing that it would be wrong of PhysicsWorld to ignore those outside the mainstream. To be more precise, the editorial comment devotes a few lines justifying the profile on Lindzen and the report on geoengineering, with a reference to a Feynman quote: “There is no harm in doubt and scepticism, for it is through these that new discoveries are made”. Wise words! Nevertheless, I cannot resist making some reflections.
One thought that immediately struck me was: has PhysicsWorld tried to make a ‘balanced report‘, or does the issue of doubt and scepticism by itself merit the profile article? Is the scepticism or doubt really genuine (doubt is the product)? To be fair, the article does bring up objections against some of Lindzen’s arguments (citing Gavin). However, I’d like to see a more consistent and critical article, as Lindzen’s arguments – at least the way they are echoed in PhysicsWorld – are in my opinion inconsistent.
Here is one example: Take Lindzen’s controversial claim that the good comparison between modelled and historical temperature evolution is an exercise in “curve fitting”. Written between the lines is the assumption that the climate models are driven with forcings based on historical GHG emissions. Later in the article Lindzen argues that the climate models used by the IPCC are far too sensitive to changes in the concentrations of atmospheric CO2. To me, these two statements say opposite things – and are thus in violation with each other. Because, either the models give a good description of the historic evolution or they don’t, given past GHGs, aerosol emissions and natural forcings (surely, Lindzen must have known about these simulations).
So, why didn’t the magazine ask critical questions about these conflicting views, or at least comment on what appears to be faulty logic? Or, perhaps Lindzen bases his claim on other aspects of model evaluation? Lindzen argues that the effect of CO2 on the temperature is small because the effect of additional CO2 molecule decreases as the concentration increases, but at the same time, Lindzen also seems to forget – just for a moment – all the feedbacks which can enhance the warming. Gavin confounds him with an objection on a different point – that Lindzen has not taken the delay response properly into account, for instance due to the ocean thermal inertia. In the next paragraph, however, Lindzen maintains that climate models do not replicate the feedback mechanisms in the climate system, and later on refers to his hypothesis, the ‘infrared iris effect‘, which more or less has been buried by the scientific community.
Gavin makes this point in the article (also see an argument for why it is wrong), but a final thought that dawned on me was that Lindzen is probably no better at calculating the feedback effects in his head than the climate models.