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Steve Schneider’s first letter to the editor

Filed under: — gavin @ 25 April 2011

There was a time at NASA when writing a letter to the paper without your director’s permission could get you fired. And no, I’m not talking about the last Bush administration.

It was 1971. Steve Schneider at the time was a postdoc at NASA GISS, working for the then director, Robert Jastrow (later of the George Marshall Institute). He had just co-authored the high profile Rasool and Schneider (1971) paper in Science on the radiative forcing from increasing aerosols and CO2.

His letter, which appears to be his first letter in the New York Times, was printed Sept. 16 1971. It was sent in response to a rather lame op-ed by a Eugene Guccione, editor of a mining magazine [Incidentally, this Guccione is not the Bob Guccione who edited Penthouse (despite a confusion on this point in Steve’s last book)]. Because the publication of the letter came as a surprise to Jastrow, he fired Schneider over the phone while Steve was visiting NCAR in Boulder. He was rapidly reinstated after NASA management let it be known that they appreciated young scientists like Schneider doing public outreach.

This was a period when the role of MIlankovitch (orbital) forcing in causing ice age cycles was starting to be elucidated and some discussion was already occurring on whether a new ice age driven by orbital variations was foreseeable. Scientists had known for a while that CO2 was increasing due to industrial activity – but they didn’t know about the rise in methane or CFCs. They knew too that aerosols had increased and that this would imply a cooling (all else being equal). They were not predicting imminent ice ages though, despite what you might read elsewhere.

Reading the Guccione op-ed (right, click for full size), it is immediately obvious that the rules for writing mendacious anti-science were discovered a long time ago. First, find some metric that you can use to indicate something is getting better – a cherry picked weather report, a pollution index in a specific town – it doesn’t really matter what, and because of the large amount of natural variability and almost infinite choice of metrics, one can always find something.

In 1957, … the average particulate concentration was 120 mg. …. In 1969, the average was 92.

(which cheerfully ignores the fact that aerosol optical depth was increasing (implying a big shift towards smaller particles)). Second, extrapolate your metric wildly to cover all pollution types/regions/impacts (it doesn’t matter if this makes any actual sense). For good measure, set up a strawman argument that is so ridiculous that your readers can instantly see that no-one in their right mind would agree with it (though don’t mention that no-one actually does).

.. environmentalists cling to the notion that sulphur dioxide concentration increases annually. If that were the case, none of us would be here today because our parents, grand-parents and great grand-parents would not have been born.

Oh those foolish so-called “environmentalists”, why would they believe anything so absurd? Be sure to put quotes around the names of your opponents in order to impugn their integrity without actually saying anything. Try to do this at least 3 or 4 times in any piece. Extend your critique to anything else that people might be concerned about, but there is no need to provide any actual evidence of your claims, merely declaring some “theory” to be self-evidently idiotic is sufficient.

Greenhouse Effect Theory: The build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so goes this particular idiocy, will cause a temperature increase throughout the planet…

And finally, conclude that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. It might be worth putting in something about how important reason or science is to dealing with problems. That neither reason nor science played much role in the argument just given will hopefully be missed by the casual reader.

Some people may recognise this style as somewhat cornucopian or even proto-Lomborgian. Schneider clearly recognised it for what it was – “often inaccurate and certainly misleading”. His letter is a good rebuttal that makes some points that are still apropos today. He points out the cherry picked nature of the metrics in Guccione’s op-ed, calls out the strawman arguments, and ends on two points that were exactly right in 1971:

[S]erious scientific studies have indicated that CO2 and dust [aerosols] can affect climate, albeit in opposite directions. We do not yet know the magnitude of these influences well enough to be certain which, if either, of those effects might predominate.

What we do need is an accelerated program of scientific research along with improved international cooperation.

Overall, a reasonable and scientific response.

Now, 40 years later, what has changed? Jastrow’s rather impetuous management style is not something seen very much anymore, and NASA scientists are now free to voice their opinions on science or policy. Similar op-eds to Guccione’s are still appearing – if not at the New York Times, then in Forbes or the WSJ (and similar rebuttals to Schneider’s are being sent too). This is despite the fact that the science has advanced tremendously – what were just “idiotic” predictions in 1971 are now history: temperature increases throughout the planet, polar ice caps melting etc. Efforts from those so-called “environmentalists” got the Clean Air Acts passed, and in the US and Europe, the air is cleaner of sulphur dioxide than it was (but that didn’t really happen until the after the 1990s cap-and-trade legislation).

In 1971, Schneider was correct to say that more research was needed to see which of the effects would predominate, but in 2011, it is very clear that greenhouse gases have, and will continue to do so.

67 Responses to “Steve Schneider’s first letter to the editor”

  1. 1
    Jack Maloney says:

    Isn’t 1971 around the same time Steve Schneider wrote this?

    “We report here on the first results of a calculation in which separate estimates were made of the effects on global temperature of large increases in the amount of CO2 and dust in the atmosphere. It is found that even an increase by a factor of 8 in the amount of CO2, which is highly unlikely in the next several thousand years, will produce an increase in the surface temperature of less than 2 deg. K.

    However, the effect on surface temperature of an increase in the aerosol content of the atmosphere is found to be quite significant. An increase by a factor of 4 in the equilibrium dust concentration in the global atmosphere, which cannot be ruled out as a possibility within the next century, could decrease the mean surface temperature by as much as 3.5 deg. K. If sustained over a period of several years, such a temperature decrease could be sufficient to trigger an ice age!”

    [Response: Yup – that was linked above (Rasool and Schneider, 1971). What is your point though? Increasing aerosols by a large amount would indeed cool the planet, and increasing CO2 would warm it (though the calculation in the 1971 paper was soon shown to be – by Schneider himself – an underestimate). Schneider rightly concluded in 1971 that more work was necessary to sort this out. – gavin]

  2. 2

    My goodness. This sort of nonsense has been going on for 40 years?

    Reading these two pieces felt like time travel — or rather, they made time travel feel like walking into the next room. If you hadn’t explicitly lead with the dates of the pieces, I would have been hard pressed to say whether they’d been written in 1971 or 2011… right down to the misleading use of facts, the “careful” use of “quotes”, the supercilious, dismissive, sarcastic tone, and the titles of participants (i.e. a chemical engineer representing the mining industry, versus a scientist in the field in question and working for NASA).

    I feel a strange and disquieting urge to go down into my basement, to check every corner of it for Morlocks.

  3. 3

    What a wonderful post. Thanks so much for the historical grounding.

    I tripped over a 30 year old news story that outlined the risks of warming

    Wow, it looks like the multi-decade suppression of political response and the consistent repression of climate science has been tremendously effective.

  4. 4

    Apparently we’re a little behind in Holland. Sending as letter to the paper is tricky business for most research institute’s employees. Getting fired for it is not really in the books afaik, but formal approval by one’s manager and often also the director is needed. Which in practice means that one can’t send a reply to some bogus article, because the window of opportunity to do so is short.

    This is to the detriment of the public discourse of course, since in practice it means that a fair proportion of scientists can’t effectively engage in the public debate.

  5. 5
    Adam R. says:

    Plus ça change…, I suppose, but I doubt a swarm of climate zombies appeared in the letters to the editor back then as they would in the comments today. The difference these days is the army of spear carriers the righties and their fossil fuel overlords can martial.

  6. 6
    caerbannog says:

    Isn’t 1971 around the same time Steve Schneider wrote this?

    Just a clarification — that would be “wet behind the ears postdoc” Steve Schneider as opposed to the “one of the world’s leading climate scientists” Steve Schneider. Maloney’s post is a nice illustration of the “try to discredit a currently-experienced scientist by citing a statement that he made long-ago when he was an inexperienced young postdoc” tactic.

  7. 7

    Nice “Candide” reference.

    Pangloss’s philosophy, like Rasool & Schneider 1971, was cutting edge when proposed in 1710, by none other than Gottfried Leibniz–though it had become quite dated by the time VoItaire sent it up so devastatingly in 1759.

    Unfortunately, it took the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 to really thoroughly do the ‘dating.’ Not to go too far in the direction of pessimism, but it does appear fairly likely that a few whacking great disasters may be required for a wake up call this time around, too.

  8. 8
    CM says:

    Bart (#4), I’m sorry to hear that. Academic freedom must have fallen into shocking disregard in the country that once suffered a Spinoza to speak his mind.

    (shameless bid to sound cultured like gavin or kevin dept.)

  9. 9
    Charles says:

    “They were not predicting imminent ice ages though, despite what you might read elsewhere.”
    Oh really? In fact they WERE predicting an imminent Ice Age in the following paper in Science:

    ‘Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate’
    S. I. Rasool and S. H. Schneider
    Science 9 July 1971:
    Vol. 173 no. 3992 pp. 138-141
    “For aerosols…the net effect of increase in density is to reduce the surface temperature of Earth… such a temperature decrease over the whole globe is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age.”

    [Response: The full quote is more worthwhile: An increase by only a factor of 4 in global aerosol background concentration may be sufficient to reduce the surface temperature by as much as 3.5 ° K. If sustained over a period of several years, such a temperature decrease over the whole globe is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age. This is true (more or less), not a prediction, and not a statement about an imminent ice age. Note the use of the word “If”. Had Rasool and Schnieder said “we predict that aerosols will increase by a factor of 4 imminently, AND that would lead to a cooling of 3.5 deg C AND that would lead to a new ice age”, you might have had a point. But they didn’t. – gavin]

    Additionally, an article by Victor Cohen in the Washington Post dated Jul 9, 1971 quotes Dr S.I. Rasool as saying that “the world could be as little as 50 or 60 years away from a disastrous new ice age”. The article also goes on to state that “Rasool came to his chilling conclusions by resorting in part to a new computer program developed by Mr. Hansen that studied clouds above Venus.”

    [Response: This would not be the first (or last) time, that a journalist’s desire for sensation gets in the way of reporting the story. The actual paper is clear: Even if we assume that the rate of scavenging and of other removal processes for atmospheric dust particles remains constant, it is still difficult to predict the rate at which global background opacity of the atmosphere will increase with increasing particulate injection by human activities. However, it is projected that man’s potential to pollute will increase six- to eightfold in the next 50 years. If this increased rate of injection of particulate matter in the atmosphere should raise the present global background opacity by a factor of 4, our calculations suggest a decrease in global temperature by as much as 3.5°K. Such a large decrease in the average surface temperature of Earth, sustained over a period of few years, is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age. However, by that time, nuclear power may have largely replaced fossil fuels as a means of
    energy production
    . -gavin]

    Seems that Mr Hansen and his models aren’t too good with predictions, doesn’t it?

    [Response: Hansen’s ‘model’ in the case was the calculations for Mie scattering by aerosols (see his discussion on this). A piece of work that is used (or something similar) in remote sensing of aerosols, field campaigns and almost any calculation of radiative transfer in the atmosphere of either Earth or Venus or Mars. I would be happy to have any of my work be a tenth as good or as well used. – gavin]

  10. 10
    Anders M says:

    I think you can add Jack Maloneys comment to the list of standard tactics described in the post. Allways fly by and drop some sh*t

  11. 11
    One Anonymous Bloke says:

    Brilliant article. Sulphur dioxide cap-and-trade: nice one. Prof. Schmidt’s responses to #1 and #9, even better: real world examples unfolding before our eyes.

  12. 12


    Yes, and ‘inconvenient’ facts be damned.

    If denialists would try to actually understand the sources they quote from, their entire enterprise would collapse.

  13. 13
    BillS says:

    Many are familiar with the Emerson quote from his essay “Self-Reliance”

    “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little
    statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

    The remainder of the passage is perhaps even more appropriate for
    scientists, especially when they are chided for admitting an error or
    expanding upon a previous position:

    “With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well
    concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now
    in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words
    again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you
    shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be
    misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus,
    and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure
    and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

    Even the far-from-great can survive a bit of misunderstanding if
    knowledge advances.

  14. 14
    Radge Havers says:

    Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?

    It can be pretty harsh, if history is any measure.

    And these days we’re approaching a point where understanding may be crucial to life as we know it. Misunderstanding is a barbarous luxury we can hardly afford to wallow in.

    Oh but threaten to take that luxury away, and denialists hop around on their hind legs trashing the shrubbery and waving sticks at everybody.


  15. 15
    Ron R. says:

    Caught by the spam filter. On the off chance that it the Arnold expletive I will edit.


    Is Guccione the official first of the anti-environmental spinmeisters? I remember others later like Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior James Watt, CEI darling Warren Brooks and the charming Ron Arnold.

    Here’s a Watt quote:

    “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”

    A few Arnold quotes from Sourcewatch (don’t bother looking him up on Wikipedia. That page has apparently been cleansed of negative info):

    “If chlorflourocarbons really destroy ozone, why isn’t there a hole over chlorflourocarbon factories? As for the greenhouse effect, he was emphatic. “There isn’t any such thing”.

    “People in industry, I’m going to do my best for you. Environmentalists, I’m coming to get you. …We’re out to kill the f***ers. We’re simply trying to eliminate them. Our goal is to destroy environmentalism once and for all.”

    “Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement … We’re mad as hell. We’re not going to take it anymore. We’re dead serious – we’re going to destroy them,” he said. “We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely … and we want people to understand that is a noble goal.”

    “Number one was educate the public about the use of natural resources. Immediately develop petroleum resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Cut down remaining old-growth forests on public lands and replace with new trees. Cut down 30,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest each year to promote economic forestry practices. Open all public lands, including national parks, to mining and oil drilling. Construct roads into all wilderness areas for motorized wheel chair use. Stop protecting endangered species, such as the California condor, that were in decline before man arrived. Force anyone who loses litigation against a development to pay for the increase in costs for completing the project, plus damages. But the idea of wise use has become embedded. It’s no longer a list like that.

    I said he was charming. I remember an article in Sierra magazine way back when. It said that some guy named Ron Arnold was turned down for an official position he coveted in the Sierra Club and warned that the guy was out to get revenge. Looks like he did.

    I wonder if the John Birch Society fit into any of this early anti-environmentalism.

    Jastrow, BTW, went on to become an icon in the creationist movement.

  16. 16
    Edward Greisch says:

    See: “Beyond the Climate Blame Game” and articles above that article.

    McCain added nuclear to the bill and some environmental groups dropped their support. The result was that nothing passed.

    NOTHING is changed since 1978. We are continuing to increase the CO2 production from coal fired power plants every year AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO SO as long as people keep on protesting against nuclear power.

    Climate Progress criticizes Nisbet but refuses to allow any nuclear at all.

    Journalists still don’t understand science and TV news reports exciting stories regardless of the truth, just as they did in the 1960s an no doubt before that. The average person gets wound around any axle the broadcast journalists can find, because the public schools teach so little. The public is as easily fooled as it was in P.T. Barnum’s day.

    Oh, no doubt there will be change. The problem is that Nature will be directing it rather than us, since most people won’t. That means life will be a whole lot harder and billions more people will die than would be the case if science were acted on now. The most freedom for the most people is achieved by acting on our scientific knowledge. There is not much freedom in returning to the stone age.

  17. 17
    Brian Dodge says:

    “If sustained over a period of several years, such a temperature decrease over the whole globe is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age…” Rasool & Schneider

    And if you win ten hands in a row at black$_jack in Las Vegas, letting the pot ride, you’ll make a ton o’ money. How many think that this is a prediction, instead of a projection? (Hint – the Las Vegas house won $5+ billion dollars in 2009 from people that don’t understand math, statistics, or the difference between modelling and prediction)

    Some smart people use models to elicit understanding of mechanisms.

    Many of us who don’t really understand the mechanisms of global warming can see the data showing decreasing Arctic ice, and glaciers, increasing extremes of rainfall, drought, and weather related insurance losses, increasing temperatures from the instrumental record (GISS, HadCRUT, BEST/Watts) and satellites (UAH, RSS), phenological changes, and rising sea levels, and appreciate that the experts who do understand the models know what they are talking about.

    Then there are those like Karl Rove who believe the first two groups are in “… what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”
    They believe “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    And those antiscience denialists will be left wondering what happened, as their acts start having consequences that don’t fit their intended reality.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    J Bowers says:

    Are you sure your captcha’s working as it should? Spilt coffee on my laptop last night and the ‘c’ key no longer works. “Reference” was in the captcha, I forgot to use the on-screen keyboard for the last ‘c’, but the comment went straight in. Thought it worth a mention.

  20. 20
    turboblocke says:

    An interminable debate then broke out between believers and skeptics in the scholarly societies and scientific journals. The “XXXX” inflamed all minds. During this memorable campaign, journalists making a profession of science battled with those making a profession of wit, spilling waves of ink and some of them even two or three drops of blood, since they went from XXXX to the most offensive personal remarks.

    How little things have changed: that’s a quote from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Seas published in 1869!

  21. 21
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Ah, count on the denialists to score an own goal. First, Schneider was mostly correct about the cooling due to sulfate aerosols. Where he erred was in assuming a CO2 sensitivity that was substantially too low. This now constitutes some of the evidence that supports a CO2 sensitivity around 3 degrees per doubling. Funny how even when denialists cite the errors of climate scientists, it winds up undermining their case. But then when you take a position contrary to all the evidence, you don’t leave yourself many good options.

  22. 22

    19, J Bowers,

    You only need to get one of the two captcha words right, usually the easier one, but there’s no way to tell which. One is a test to make sure that you’re human, and the other is a snippet from a book that Google is trying to digitize but the OCR program couldn’t interpret the word.

    reCaptcha is trying to kill two birds with one stone; verify that you’re human, and at the same time use your human brain to help digitize the parts of printed texts that give a computer fits.

  23. 23
    Steve Metzler says:

    J Bowers, re. captchas:

    Experience has shown me that you’re allowed to muff at least one letter and the comment is still allowed through.

  24. 24
    J Bowers says:

    @ Bob and Steve, ta.

  25. 25
    Alexander Harvey says:

    When satellites were called Sputniks we knew three important things:

    Emissions of GHGs tend to warm,

    emissions of aerosols tend to cool,

    concentrations of both were rising.

  26. 26
    Russell says:

    Thing’s really didn’t begin to accelerate downhill until a decade later, when someone got the brilliant idea of hiring PR firms before papers were published.

  27. 27
    Septic Matthew says:

    Good read, but has anyone ever actually said this? And finally, conclude that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

    Certainly not Lomborg, whom you allude to in the next paragraph. Lomborg’s message has been that this world has lots of problems for which any amelioration will require much capital and labor; and that the capital and labor are better invested there than in a rapid (and possibly futile) reduction in anthropogenic CO2.

    When Leibnitz wrote that this was the best of all possible worlds, the emphasis was on “possible”. Instead of a good but omnipotent God who permitted such suuffering and misery, Leibnitz posited a good but limited God, for whom this world was the best that He could create for us. Voltaire effectively lampooned Leibnitz, by ignoring Leibnitz’ message; but then, Voltaire did not believe in any God, so the idea of a God who was doing his best was as repugnant to him as any other idea of God.

    This shout out to Leibnitz and Voltaire does not have anything to do with the contemporary debates about global warming.

  28. 28


    Getting way OT, but Voltaire was a deist, not an atheist, so yes, he did believe in God. I dare say that what Voltaire was parodying was more the second-rater’s version of Leibnitz than the original.

    But I’d also say that the psychology which insists (for example) that we need not be responsible when dispersing “plant food” to the atmosphere because God promised Noah that we wouldn’t have another flood does have noticeable parallels to Pangloss’s debased theodicy.

  29. 29

    Perhaps I should have been more specific:

    Contemporary denialism, like Panglossean optimism, is happy to use religious and philosophical propositions to serve existing power structures. Don’t forget, “the best of all possible worlds” meant that “the best of all possible rulers” were already on the thrones of the world.

    Now, of course, we have the best of all possible oil and coal companies, the best of all possible utilities and the best of all possible ideologues.

  30. 30
    Eli Rabett says:

    Lomborg, and hies pals from the Pielkesphere, believe that we can’t chew gum and walk at the same time. Maybe they can’t

  31. 31
    Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen says:

    I mainly noticed the call for more research money inthis letter by Steve Schneider. And attracting research money has naturally remained a main activity of environmental researchers, and predicting gloom and doom has always heklped here. With some positive results, indeed.
    But why was only the warming hypothesis well funded by governments? Would teh cooling thrat have attracted funding? I doubt it, for there was no answer or solution already waiting in the lab and textbbok.

    [Response: Your ideological blinkers are just too thick. When there is a situation of uncertainty, I would have thought it was rational to want to investigate more – and indeed that was the case in 1971. But your thesis completely breaks down 20 years later. For 1988 onwards, scientists have been clear about the risks posed by increasing CO2. If we were doing this for the money, we’d still be saying we need more research. Your idea of what gets funded is also hopelessly naive. Have you ever looked a list of grants from NSF? Almost nothing in WG1-type science is predicated on any preconceived conclusion, yet alone “a solution”. How does investigating the formation and structure of secondary organic aerosols come with a “solution” or an agenda? Or improving parameterisations of evaporation? or the factors controlling 10Be in ice cores? – gavin]

    Didn’t the research lobbies need dangerous global warming instead, caused by carbon fuels and hence humans who could be regualted, to justify the considerable spending needed to decarbonise the global energy system? This agenda was then, in the 70s only just beginning, but the need for renewables and nuclear and energy conservation was driven by the ‘limits of growth ‘ scare and the fear of running out of natural resources. When the oil price was very high throughout the 70s and early 80s, these ‘green’ or alternative forms of energy generation could prosper and science was done without too much political interference. This changed when oil price dropped severely in the late 1980s and many energy and state interests, nuclear among them, needed anticarbon regulations, making coal and gas more expensive to burn, or alternatively providing heavy subsidies for wind and solar (they were already the ‘goodies then!), so that the latter, including nuclear, could remain profitable.

    The IPCC was born to justify this agenda, not to test the dangerous man-made warming hypothesis, it became tied to a treat (1992) that already knew the causes AND THE SOLUTIONS. Have a look at working group 3 of the IPCC and study this treaty!

    [Response: Nonsense – though I realise I will not convince you of this. The idea that world’s scientists – who are as diverse and competitive a bunch as you will ever meet – could ever agree on some globe-changing conspiracy is pure fantasy. The IPCC was born out the WMO Ozone assessment process – a way to get scientific information to governments without it coming from a single person, or a single country. If it didn’t exist, it would need to be invented. ]

    Man-made global warmig may well take place, but by how much, how fast and with what effects remains debated; some argue, with physics behind them, that the radiative forcing theory is wrong or much exaggerated.

    [Response: Yes – these people have left physics far behind them. – gavin]

    This preference for dangerous man-made warming as ‘fact’ – the science debate is over – makes political sense if linked to energy politics since the 1970s.
    We do know how dangerous a lot of warming might be be, but not what the benefits of a little warming and of smaller glaciated areas are likely to be. Such more moderate questions were not asked and not needed, regulators needed dangerous warming to justify the new energy technology aspirations and the associated funding. The benfits of more CO2 have not been included in research agendas. Read the Climate treaty!

    [Response: You don’t think there has been research into direct impacts of Co2 on plants? You’re completely incorrect. But there has also been a lot of research into ocean acidification – or doesn’t that matter? ]

    Can humanity really control climate without having to face, possibly, even worse political anarchy caused by rapidly rising energy costs or even failure of supply systems? Those unintended consequences….? A bit more longterm and socially responsible, as well as historically informed thinking would be of benefit to this ‘blog’ and its readers.

    sonja b-c

    [Response: Thanks for your concern. It is duly noted. But if you think that dealing with 1 meter of sea level will be handled with dignity and calm, or that longer and extended droughts over much of the sub tropics will not lead to any problems, then I envy you your optimism. – gavin]

  32. 32
    raypierrre says:

    Some of the comments here on Voltaire, Candide and Leibnitz are a bit off the mark. Many CO2 eco-polyannas are saying that warming will be good for us, and some of wings of fundamentalism even seem to imply that God wouldn’t make a substance like coal which is so tempting to use, but which would be ultimately harmful (unlike, say, an apple?)

    But this cheery optimism is quite different from what Voltaire was sending up. The doctrine of “best of all possible” embraces very bad consequences that turn out to have long term benefits. The Leibnitz scenario would apply, say, to a case where CO2 caused the human species to go extinct, clearing the way for further evolution much as the dinosaur-killer did.

    By the way, Voltaire had to try twice to get his message across. He tried first with Zadig, but evidently not many people realized it was a parody, so enter Pangloss in Candide. Both books are worth reading, but I also recommend the Leonard Bernstein musical based on Candide.

  33. 33
    Stephen Baines says:

    @ 31. Sonja…honestly, do you really believe all that? I’m interested because I can’t get my head around how somebody who has spent any time with a bunch of scientists comes to the opinion that scientists are engaged in some conspiracy. What a troublesome difficult and uncooperative bunch they are (and I consider myself to be one!)

    And your skepticism about their intensions (and the science) seems solely based on the fact that scientists get paid to do research. I just don’t get it – everyone gets paid. I don’t demean my plumber or my mechanic with conspiracy mind-control theories just because I pay them to do something. If they can tell me what’s wrong with my pipes or my car and suggest a good fix, why not pay them? And though I may not understand all of what they do, I think I can generally tell which ones are better than others at their job. Do you really think we are completely incapable as a society of making judgments about which scientists or scientific ideas are worthy of support?

    This other thought may not apply specifically to Sonja, but I also think it’s odd that free market notions –like “may the best idea get the money” — are so freely derided by those who seem to embrace them rampantly in other contexts. What’s with that?

  34. 34

    Was that post really from Sonja B-C (the Sonja B-C), or just someone posting with her name?

    I mean… the comment was just so trite and, well, riddled with the sort of stuff one usually only finds coming from the pathologically ignorant that it’s hard to believe that anyone with a high profile in a wannabe science journal could or would voice such things publicly.

    Doesn’t she think that active, publishing climate scientists read RC from time to time? Or that word will get around?

    The whole thing just seems so… Rod Serling/Twilight Zone-ish.

  35. 35
    Patrick 027 says:

    Re 31 Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen (or whoever you may be – as suggested by 34 Sphaerica) some argue, with physics behind them, that the radiative forcing theory is wrong or much exaggerated.

    The theory is wrong? Sure, some mechanical energy and convective heat transport do work there way up through the tropopause and above (with importance to stratospheric and mesospheric circulations (Brewer-Dobson, sudden stratospheric warmings, QBO), and – I suppose, speculatively, perhaps a little bit even altering circulations in the ionosphere, etc, and producing radio waves to emit to space – of the kind not emitted blackbody-style), but it’s a small amount** (and so feedbacks would have to be proportionately large to alter the equilibrium climatic response – it would be interesting to consider what magnitude of climate change would be necessary for that). To a first order approximation, in the global time average, the non-solar flux of energy above the tropopause and out into space is radiative (of the kind emitted as a function of temperature and optical properties in the LTE approximation), and the surface+troposphere will tend to warm or cool until the net LW radiative flux balances (in a global time average on a time scale that can characterize the climatic state) the net downward SW (solar) flux (plus geothermal and tidal heating, anthropogenic and other net combustion and nuclear heating, etc, and cosmic rays (some of which ulimately converted to heat with production and ultimate decay of C-14, for example), which are so small in comparison they can generally be ignored). (Note that the chemical energy associated with some SW heating of the atmosphere will generally not be accumulating or be depleted in an equilibrium climate, so no need to account for energy storage there. It would be interesting to know the amount of chemical energy stored in the ozone layer, ionosphere, etc, but I suspect it’s not really important in the bigger picture.)

    Or are you postulating that there are unaccounted-for mechanical, electromagnetic, chemical or nuclear reactions/processes that are actually sizable in comparison to ~ 1 W/m2 radiative flux? Or else questioning the law of conservation of energ (and mass via E=mc^2)? Well feel free to do that, but on what basis should either grant money for research, or textbooks, or policy for GHG emissions be altered according to such a claim?

    Or maybe you think the theory itself violates some physics? Well it can’t violate the same physics that is the basis of the theory, can it? The second law of thermodynamics can’t prevent either molecules or photons from flying around, chemical and physical reactions occuring, etc, in opposing directions; it does however describe a spontaneous tendency for a net flux to be down a gradient or down the component of a gradient (in space or category) that is a perturbation from thermodynamic equilibrium. Hence two objects may emit and absorb photons, some from each other, according to their temperature and their optical properties as well as the optical properties of the material between; when at the same temperature the photons exchanged must (tend to, for samples large enough for statitics to follow the probabilities) balance, otherwise the net photon energy flux (from emission to absorption, allowing scattering in between if necessary to include) is from higher to lower temperature (assuming LTE), thus creating more entropy.

    The average distance from emission to absorption will shrink with increasing optical thickness, so that the fluxes of photons one can find will come from closer layers, with values corresponding to temperatures found closer to where the fluxes are observed.

    And don’t be confused by the ‘up-down arrow’ that some talk about – that’s just a misunderstanding of a diagram. A layer of air (at LTE) sufficiently thin to be approximated as isothermal (or otherwise too optically thin to asorb or scatter much of it’s own emissions) will emit the same flux upward and downward – this does NOT mean the same photons are emitted upward and then downward or vice versa, it means the same number of photons of a given energy are emitted within and exit the layer upward and downward.

    OR maybe you’re thinking of the importance of regional climate and circulation patterns, and not just the total heat content but it’s distribution and associated circulation patterns and effects on the water cycle (and momentum fluxes, etc.). Well, of course that’s important – ENSO and all that. But internal variability fluctuates about equilibrium climate, and more than that, the size and shape of that variability is an aspect of the longer-term climate, a function of it. And forced spatial-temporal rearrangements with no changes to a global average can of course occur, but they need to be forced, and then you have to watch out for global-average non-zero feedback (consider the spatial-temporal rearrangment of TOA insolation from orbital (Milankovitch) cycles that leads to ice ages and interglacials). For forcings with spatial-temporal structure that is not too idiosyncratic, the spatial-temporal structure of the feedbacks and climate response can dominate over that of the forcings so that the regional effects are more a function of the total heat gain or loss rather than the type of forcing that causes it.

    ** Though I have never actually seen it quantified; anyone with the numbers feel free to tell us.

  36. 36
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Edward Greisch @ 16 “Climate Progress criticizes Nisbet but refuses to allow any nuclear at all.”

    The first half of that is true and Romm is hardly the only one to criticize Nisbet. What is very notable about Joe Romm of Climate Progress is that he constantly emphasizes the one thing that will help: Stop burning carbon!

  37. 37
    Edward Greisch says:

    36 Pete Dunkelberg: Just try posting pro-nuclear comments on Joe Romm will not compromise. My own stance is: “Let the engineers do the engineering.”

    Forbidding nuclear is the same as promoting coal because the electric generating companies are willing to do nuclear but cannot do renewables under their current business plans. You have to dissolve the electric generating companies and start all over from the year 1900 to do it without nuclear. That is a lot harder to do. It won’t happen.

    Sure Romm says: ” Stop burning carbon.” So what? Nothing will change. Nothing has changed since 1971 or 1961 or whenever. The arguments are the same. 2050 keeps getting closer.

    [Response: Not every thread has to be about nuclear power. This is OT for this thread, and pretty much for this entire blog except for occasional times. I’ve moved subsequent comments to the unforced variations thread. – gavin]

  38. 38
    CRS, Dr.P.H. says:

    Off-topic….it was good to see you on ABC Nightline tonight, Gavin! I agree with you regarding society’s short-term attention span vs. long-term effects of climate change, and I share your problem regarding “adding a few pounds every year & needing to do something about it!” Cheers, Chuck

  39. 39
    adelady says:

    Gavin (I presume) “The idea that world’s scientists – who are as diverse and competitive a bunch as you will ever meet – could ever agree on some globe-changing conspiracy is pure fantasy. ”

    My first exposure to academic publications was in philosophy. I sniffily expressed the view that it was like jostling for schoolyard supremacy – but with very, _very_ long words. Then I saw other publications.

    This competitiveness is all through academia. ABC said this in your journal last month, but … , therefore ABC are wrong and we, HJK, are right. So there! Stick that on your needles and knit it! (But in the super restrained technical language commonly used in history or micro-biology or ichthyology, etc.)

    The idea that climate scientists, from a couple of dozen disciplines, should violate this academic tradition and move straight to unified, universal, 20 year long conspiracy is beyond farcical.

  40. 40
    Steve Bloom says:

    Re #2: Bob, given present circumstances I think it might be better to remain upstairs and search your corners for Murdochs. His tentacles are eveywhere!

  41. 41
    Ray Ladbury says:

    You know, I keep trying to come up with a more charitable interpretation of the mental diarrhea that Sonja occasionally spews over here, but it really is difficult to reach any conclusion other than that Sonja just ain’t that bright.

    I mean it is clear that she doesn’t understand anything about climate science or environmental science. However, you’d think that she would at least understand that the single goal of science and scientists is to understand their subject matter. It wouldn’t matter how much money they raked in (Oh, yeah, we’re rolling in it. NOT!), if their research took them further from that goal, they would lose at the only thing that mattered. You would think that a person of at least average intelligence could grasp that fact.

    Instead, Sonja has to construct these wheels-within-wheels conspiracy theorists that utterly ignore the motivations of the conspirators–or of the tens of thousands of scientists in related fields who also support the consensus theory of Earth’s climate. She views the world through post-modern lenses and ideological blinkers, carefully avoiding any evidence that might contradict her worldview.

    So, the only question left is whether Sonja’s stupidity inate or ideologically induced.

  42. 42
    Martin Vermeer says:

    adelady #39:

    > unified, universal, 20 year long conspiracy

    Huh. I know for a fact that old Svante was in on the plot… he told me so ;-)

  43. 43
    adelady says:

    ray, as a feminist of the 1970s I see the maunderings of Sonja B-C as a small victory.

    We always maintained that one sign of success would be when the proportion of incompetent women in management and other important roles was the same as that for men. (Because we were sick of having to be twice as good as the best of men to be considered half as good as any man.)

    Not all victories are sweet.

  44. 44
    caerbannog says:

    OT, but congrats to Ben Santer! Now he really is a jolly good (AGU) fellow!

  45. 45
    Craig Allen says:


    Can anyone tell how much a really big volcano would potentially cut insolation by? Something on the scale of Tambora say. I’ve found estimates for Pinatubo ranging from 1.4 to 4.1% And would this affect wind?

    I’ve got a guy on another forum arguing that switching to renewables with lots of wind and solar would make us vulnerable to societal collapse because energy production would crash is a big eruption occurs. I’m guessing that it is very unlikely that even a really big eruption would drop insolation by more than 30%.

    I imagine that there will be some changes to wind patterns. But are we likely to see a significant reduction?

    [Response: Wind speed is not ‘one number’ – you do see changes in wind patterns after a big volcano – for instance an increase in westerlies in the North Atlantic, changes in the tropics – but it isn’t all of one sign, and it isn’t large enough to make a difference to how you would operate wind farms etc. Weather still happens. – gavin]

  46. 46
    Eli Rabett says:

    Eli honors the visit of Princess Denial to Real Climate in time for the Royal Wedding.

    More to the point, though not much, he just fled a faculty meeting where the meaning of is was being hotly debated.

  47. 47
    Eli Rabett says:

    Hi gavin, I think the point is more that the temperature differences in the atmosphere will decrease slowing winds down. More to the point wind and solar are not the real problems with Tambora II, but agricultural losses will be much more of a problem, as they were in 1816. Of course, solar insolation was really low then too.

  48. 48

    #45, 47–

    Craig, I looked at this a couple of hours back, but couldn’t post; there was some kind of weirdness going on with accessing RC there for a bit.

    Anyway, to summarize, I found a 2007 paper, Robock et al (if I recall the name correctly) that’s relevant here, and illustrates Eli’s point.

    They did full-bore model studies of nuclear winter (related to the volcanic sort you ask about), and in their worst-case scenario (95% discharge of American and Russian nuclear arsenals) they found a max reduction in insolation of around 40%. So solar power would be reduced, but not negated. Wind speeds weren’t addressed, but though atmospheric circulation was affected, it certainly didn’t cease.

    Most to the point, though, was that agriculture was–I want to say “wiped out,” but “rendered highly problematic” might be more in the spirit of scientific prose. So if your ‘friend’ wants to worry about something in the context of a possible extreme volcanic eruption, he should worry about food, not whether the lights are on.

    (I no longer have the link handy, but I got to it via “Nuclear winter” on Wikipedia–it’s sub-headed “2007 study,” so it’s very easy to find for them as wants to.)

  49. 49


    Also kind of weird that an editor, of all people, would leave in so many typos.

    But hey, maybe she was in a hurry.

  50. 50
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Kevin McKinney@49

    Even weirder: You just left a post complaining about typos and didn’t make a single one. Now THAT’S spooky