The Truth About the Truth About Greenhouse Gases


I’ve been asked to comment on William Happer’s “The Truth about Greenhouse Gases“, and finding no competent discussion of it anywhere on the first three pages of hits have agreed to take it on.

To give you an idea of the tenor of the document, it starts off modestly, like this:

“The object of the Author in the following pages has been to collect the

most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been

excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to

show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and

gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes,” wrote Charles

Mackay in the preface to the first edition of his Extraordinary Popular

Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. I want to discuss a contemporary

moral epidemic: the notion that increasing atmospheric concentrations

of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide, will have disastrous

consequences for mankind and for the planet. This contemporary

“climate crusade” has much in common with the medieval crusades

Mackay describes, with true believers, opportunists, cynics, money-hungry

governments, manipulators of various types, and even children’s


Yes, Happer, who holds a named chair in physics at Princeton, is of the paranoiac school of skepticism, the one that would rather believe in a grand conspiracy than to consider for a minute the possible need for collective action on this matter.

After this blistering start, he takes some time to get warmed up. A few pages go on about how plants like CO2 and CO2 is necessary for life, so we shouldn’t call it a pollutant until we start suffocating. This, before taking on the climate question, is plainly putting the cart before the horse, but it takes up a few pages. And by now we are convinced that the reason the fellow is not getting around to making a point is that he hasn’t got one.

That is to say, William/Belette/Stoat’s point is basically the right approach:

So the question is, how can Happer not be aware of this? He is not obliged to agree with the IPCC report, but he cannot but realise that it is the authoritative voice of the position he disagrees with; he is obliged to at least know what it says and (if he is being honest) he is obliged to report (and then, if he can, refute) its arguments. It is dishonest of him to substitute strawmen.

I summarize the case at greater length than William does:

  • Most of the constituent gases of the atmosphere are transparent at the frequencies of the earth’s thermal radiation.
  • Most of the opacity in the infrared (“greenhouse effect”) is due to carbon dioxide and water vapor, and clouds (liquid and solid water emulsions) which of course are also opaque to incoming radiation
  • Human activity directly increases carbon dioxide, mostly due to fossil fuel consumption, but also through deforestation and chemical processes related to manufacture of cement. Human activity also affects the radiative properties of the atmosphere via a few other trace greenhouse gases, and via increases in aerosol dust.
  • Finally, human interference in surface processes over land can have large regional effects.
  • As these perturbations increase in rough proportion to economic activity, the carbon dioxide comes to dominate over time because of its long residency in atmosphere-upper-ocean-land system. Though exchanges among these reservoirs is large, that does not reduce the net amount of carbon in the atmosphere. To a first approximation, carbon is removed on the time scale of the deep overturning of the ocean, on the order of a thousand years.
  • While of course the sun is by far the dominant energy source for the system, its variability is small (measured in energy) compared to the disruptions due to greenhouse gases and aerosols. Climate forcing is dominated by anthropogenic effects, of which warming is expected to increasingly dominate.
  • Water vapor feedbacks are well characterized and are known to approximately double the temperature sensitivity of the system. Cloud feedbacks, which potentially might be ameliorating or exacerbating, remain poorly characterized.
  • Various forms of evidence are in rough agreement that sensitivity is on the order of 2.5 degrees per doubling, but the uncertainty has proven stubborn. Probably this is correct within a multiplicative factor of 2, i.e., almost certainly between 1.25 C and 5 C per doubling.
  • Simulation of the atmosphere (using GCMs) is a useful tool within science, but its results should not at present be considered as reliable projections of the future, even given emission scenarios. Simulations are tuned to the present day, be expected to understate risks and fail to represent unprecedented configurations of the climate system.
  • Very little is known about the potential geochemical feedbacks which clearly exacerbated the glacial cycle in the geologically recent past. These could potentially greatly amplify the dangers without actually affecting the sensitivity as usually measured. It is expected and hoped that these feedbacks would take a long time on human scales to appear, but we may be committing future generations to deal with them.

I think all the above is uncontroversial. Happer addresses none of it. What does he come up with instead?

At the bottom of page four we come to the first mention of climate, and we are well into the fifth page before the famous physicist manages to construct the following argument:

The argument starts something like this. CO2 levels have increased from

about 270 ppm to 390 ppm over the past 150 years or so, and the earth

has warmed by about 0.8 C during that time. Therefore the warming is

due to CO2. But correlation is not causation. The local rooster crows every

morning at sunrise, but that does not mean the rooster caused the sun to

rise. The sun will still rise on Monday if you decide to have the rooster for

Sunday dinner.

There have been many warmings and coolings in the past when the CO2

levels did not change.

Yes, after five pages he leads with a version of the “dinosaurs had no SUVs, QED” argument!

What’s more , he defends it with the “wine exported from Greenland” meme. I myself am responsible for tracking this one down to an archaeologust who showed that wine was imported into Greenland. A horse of a different color, you’ll admit.

So by the time we reach page five we have four pages of waffling, a stunningly weak fallacy, and an incorrect anecdote raised in support of it. Hardly an auspicious start.

Bah. My bad. It was wine “exported from England”. I jumped to a conclusion because the whole Greenlandic wine incident tickles me so. I have found lots of evidence, by the way, that wine was produced in the south of England in the middle ages for local consumption, but so far no evidence of any export. But that’s a quibble.

But it’s all in service of a ludicrous claim. Nobody has ever said that CO2 is the ONLY influence on global climate. This is a childish bit of misdirection, not befitting a scientist.

En passant, it’s worth noticing, Happer manages this howler:

Yet there are strident calls for immediately stopping further increases in

CO2 levels and reducing the current level (with 1990 levels the arbitrary


There are no such strident calls. Everybody knows that CO2 will continue to rise for some considerable time. It is emission levels that form the arbitrary benchmark. Again, the whole reason that CO2 is the key to anthropogenic forcing is that concentrations are approximately cumulative, that the residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere/upper-ocean/land-surface system is very long.


another rationale for reducing CO2 is now promoted: to

stop the hypothetical increase of extreme climate events like hurricanes

or tornados. But dispassionate data show that the frequency of extreme

events has hardly changed and in some cases has decreased in the 150

years that it has taken CO2 levels to increase from 270 ppm to 390 ppm.

Hurricanes and tornados have very noisy statistics with components at interannual time scales. There is also contention about the theoretical expectations, particularly regarind hurricanes. It will be some considerable time before we have much confidence in what the trend is.

But do we have theoretical and modeling reasons to expect increased floods and increased droughts in the greenhouse-enhanced world, and here the record is strongly supportive of those expectations. Happer carefully tiptoes around this evidence.

But these records show that changes

in temperature preceded changes in CO2 levels, so that CO2 levels were

an effect of temperature changes. Much of this was probably due to

outgassing of CO2 from the warming oceans or the reverse on cooling.

That the effect goes one way does not preclude it from going the other way. That, in fact, is what “feedback” means. There remains much for the scientific community to learn about the glacial cycles of the geologically recent past. But we are certain that it cannot be explained without the greenhouse effect. The energetics do not add up otherwise. Accounting for the CO2 brings temperatures back into balanace.

During the “Younger Dryas” some 12,000 years ago,

the earth very dramatically cooled and warmed — as much 10 C in fifty

years — with no apparent change in CO2 levels, and with life — including

our human ancestors — surviving the rapid change in temperature just


Um. No. The 10C in fifty years was the temperature shift in Greenland. Most life was not affected by it.

Our present global

warming is not at all unusual by the standards of geological history,

No, though it is unusual in human history. But this is not the point. The anticipated rate of CO2 increases, especially in the absence of a globally supported mitigation policy, are unprecedented in geological history (with the possible exception of the disastrous K-T PETM transition which nearly wiped out all ocean life, probably in a burst of ocean acidification). And the rate and duration of the incipient CO2 spike lead to a strong expectation of a very large shift in temperature to be anticipated over the coming century.

The organization charged with producing scientific support for

the climate crusade, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

(IPCC), finally found a solution. They rewrote the climate history of the

past 1000 years with the celebrated “hockey stick” temperature record

This is tendentious nonsense. Research advanced. The graph in the 1990 report was a rough schematic.

[M & M] showed that the hockey stick was not supported by observational data.

They nitpicked. The millenial preindustrial data remains unexciting. The evidence for a global Medieval Warm Period remains marginal and roughly irrelevant. And its removal has negligible impact on any serious estimation of the prospects. It’s really not in any way significant whether or not these events occurred. It would merely be incorrect to claim that they are in the global record, though to be sure regional changes did occur on this time scale.

One of the most consistent themes of the e-mails is the need to hide raw data from anyone outside the team. Why the obsession on withholding data? Because the hockey stick lost credibility when it was possible to see the raw, unmanipulated data on which it was based.

This, I am sorry to say, is not just vicious but quite wrong. The reticence is based on a distaste for cooperating with people who had shown themselves to be rude and malicious. There is a long story here with raw feelings on both sides, but one side of it starts with a desire to avoid what was perceived as unpleasant people and time-wasting interactions. But the general outlines of the hockey stick remain. Numerous independent procedural investigations have concluded that no data was altered or misrepresented, and numerous scientific investigations have confirmed the general outline of the result, albeit some with a bumpier “shaft” to the hockey stick, a perfectly ordinary point of research contention.

But finally we come to the central myth of post “Climateg*te” bunk:

Peer review in climate science means that the ”team” recommends publication of each other’s work, and tries to keep any off-message paper from being accepted for publication. Why this obsession with cleansing the “scientific” literature of any opposing views? Because it allows climate extremists to claim that they represent all of science and anyone who questions their message is at war with all of science, except for a few “flat-earthers”, “deniers,” or others scorned with carefully researched epithets, designed to discredit dissenting scientific opinion

This is simply begging the question. If there is in fact legitimate scientific argument that the consensus position is wrong, then it is wrong for people to keep these positions out of the literature. But if the so-called skeptic papers are garbage, scientific flat-earthism, it is the legitimate function of editors to keep them out of the literature and out of the literature review.

This can only be addressed by actually looking at the science, which Happer refuses to do. He simply repeats the usual political talking points, trying to justify doing so by his position and his reputation. But his reputation is as a physicist, not as a politician. He does himself and us no favors by repeating shabby talking points from the political press.

It goes on. Shabby attacks on the models:

John von Neumann once said, “With four

parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle

his trunk.” Climate models have dozens of parameters, not unlike the

epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy.

Yes, but with dozens of parameters, climate models simulate systems with millions of degrees of freedom at the implementation level, and at least thousands at the physical level. This can only be possible with an actual underlying physical model. It cannot be a coincidence.

No model predicted the lack of net warming of the

earth’s temperature that we have experienced over the past ten years

Well, we don’t have a date on this publication, or I didn;t find one at least. For a brief moment in 2008-9 one could actually make this case without being blatantly dishonest, but of course even so it is just cherry-picking. In other words, it is at best a truth of a mendacious sort. As has been explained many times, there is unforced interannual variability which can mask the trend over relatively short time intervals. If Happer had any genuine interest in the material, he would know this. And indeed, a later paragraph shows that he does understand how this works, yet he repeats the flawed argument in the very next breath.

All of the proposed controls that would

have such a significant impact on the world’s economic future are based

on computer models that are so complex and chaotic that many runs

are needed before we can get an “average” answer. Yet the models

have failed the simple scientific test of prediction.

etc. etc.

The last several pages are reduced to conspiracy-mongering of the worst kind and make no pretense to engaging the science at all. As with Dyson, the points of actual substance are few, incoherent, and ill-informed. But at least Dyson manages an air of decency and humility. Happer is blazing with anger and contempt, without showing any signs of having listened to the people he is criticizing.

It’s true that the intellectual style of earth science is different from that of pure physics. But it’s not as if Happer were remotely as intellectually lazy as this empty attack would indicate. Politics seems able to override reason. This is a pile of political talking points, not any sort of engagement with the evidence. It’s a shame.

Climate science could well do with competent criticism. It increasingly appears that serious concerns about the science must be impossible, because all the critiques are so spectacularly non-serious.

pic: William Happer from his lab’s website

Barton vs Gore: Discuss

Apparently, there has been a judgement rendered in the UK regarding the showing of An Inconvenient Truth in UK public schools, and it’s a mixed blessing. A Judge Burton has listed nine points of “guidance” that British teachers must bring to the classroom in order to show the film.

Thanks to James for the tipoff.

Are the nine points fair? That’s a bit much for discussion in a blog format, so I set up a quick wiki for the purposes of conversation. We’ll see if this works out or fizzles, or worse, if it takes off too far and I get swamped by administrivia. Consider it an experiment. Anyway, rather than trying to get to the bottom of all nine points, why not try to see how far you can get with one of them?

It seems likely that if we do a good job of this, the final result could be contributed as a collaborative RealClimate article.

(And remember, as we say in Austin, Barton Springs Eternal.)

Update: The majority appears to believe the judge is called Burton, not Barton, though the latter appears in many places. As far as I know, Burton does not spring eternal.

More Important Update: Excellent discussions at Stoat, Deltoid (thanks, john), and New Scientist

DailyKos pitches in with the progressive Democrat p.o.v.