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Professor takes on Gore over global warming
The Providence Journal


November 21, 2007
Wednesday AM

Last month, professor Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spoke to the 350 students at St. Marks School in Providence, R.I., on the science of global warming.

With his large glasses and unruly hair, he could have been a professor from central casting. While he was being introduced by the headmaster, he leaned casually against the wall of the wood-paneled, three-level auditorium -- a little shocking at a prep school, where not long ago bad posture could get the odd fifth-quintilian the boot.

The students had been called together because last year, they had viewed Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth." The movie -- which won an Oscar and helped lead to Gore's being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize -- has been praised for describing in dramatic terms the consequences of the unchecked accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, chiefly carbon dioxide from the burning of coal and oil by the world's industrialized economies. The movie predicts the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the rise of sea levels by as much as 20 feet, increasingly violent weather patterns and droughts that will kill millions.

To the school's credit, it asked Lindzen, a critic of some of the extreme claims of global warming apostles, to give his views. Lindzen has been a minor affliction to those, like Gore, who maintain that the science on global warming is settled and the debate is over. Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences, has been pilloried as a mouthpiece for oil companies who has somehow infiltrated one of the country's leading science institutions.

Science is not knowledge, he told his audience. It is a method for determining what is true, based on observation and theory. Given the sorry state of science education in America, that may have been a revelation to students even at this fine private school.

In numerous papers and in other media Lindzen has cast doubt specifically on the impact of humans in global warming and climate change. As he told the students, the earth's climate is always changing: At present it seems to be warming, and greenhouse gases that we produce are probably contributing to it, but, for all our wasteful ways, the amounts aren't enough to make a difference. Beyond that, he doubted that the effects of warming are necessarily bad. Gore's dire forecasts of the amount of warming we can expect, as well as the severity of storms and droughts, are exaggerated.

If the debate surrounding global warming has become polarized and bitter, Lindzen said, it is because politics and science are not well suited to each other. Science is about description; politics is about authority and control. Science is disinterested, politics is partisan. Politics distorts science.

Lindzen's point was that the earth is huge, and a still mysterious place in many ways. Much of the problem assessing these questions comes from the difficulty of conceptualizing the scale of the entities involved -- chiefly the atmosphere and the oceans.

There were some questions following the talk, and Lindzen was asked if it wouldn't be better to sign Kyoto and follow-on agreements just to be on the safe side. Lindzen said no. Combating a hypothetical problem would waste resources, human more than material, which could be much better devoted to other ends, such as improving public health.

But the further problem with making global warming the object of a huge and highly political international project may be that every action has an equal and opposite reaction; that when the theory is inevitably discredited and dismissed, possibly after a few bad snowstorms, the whole package of environmentalism will be discredited too, along with all the worthy parts involving the reduction of harmful pollutants and preservation of wildlife habitat.

We'll have squandered much by chasing a will-o'-the-wisp -- a term in folklore for a floating ball of light. Most people believe a will-o'-the-wisp is -- fittingly, in this case -- a phenomenon related to methane, a greenhouse gas.



Irving C. Sheldon Jr. is a member of The Providence Journal's editorial board.
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