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A Mayor Mistake

By Dr. Richard Lindzen


Editor's note: After Newton, Mass., Mayor David Cohen and Worcester, Mass., Mayor Timothy P. Murray published an op-ed in the Sept. 1 Boston Globe calling upon the Bay State to put in place a climate action plan to combat global warming, Mayor Cohen received the following letter from a resident of his community.

Dear Mayor Cohen:

As a resident of Newton, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, a contributor to climate science for almost 40 years, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a lead author of the second IPCC Climate Assessment, I was amused to see your article (co-written with Mayor Murray of Worcester).

  Although I am currently on sabbatical in Paris, a friend was kind enough to e-mail me your article, knowing that I like to collect such pieces. There has been nothing quite like putative global warming to provoke politicians and journalists (and even some scientists) into expressing incoherent hysteria and alarm. Your article is a fine example. The use of the word "could" can of course be used with anything you choose to be alarming about, since rigorously disproving such a claim is logically impossible (or at least difficult).

  However, rest assured that whoever is advising you on this matter, has misinformed you when he or she stated that the scientific consensus is that a 75-85 percent reduction in greenhouse gases is necessary. Such a reduction in CO2 would end life as we know it, since most (if not all) plants would not survive at such low levels of CO2 which would be unprecedented in the Earth's history. Moreover, the most important greenhouse gas is water vapor, and the greenhouse effect of clouds also greatly exceed that of CO2.

However, thank goodness, I can't think of any policy that would reduce these essential substances by 75-85%. What you perhaps meant was that a reduction of 60% in emissions of CO2 might be necessary to stabilize levels of CO2. However, the carbon cycle is only poorly understood, and one can't be sure of this. Nor is there any basis for expecting this to eliminate climate change, which occurs all the time -- especially regionally -- without any external forcing at all.

There is nothing controversial about these facts. Neither is there any controversy over the fact that the Kyoto Protocol, itself, will do almost nothing to stabilize CO2. Capping CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated will have a negligible impact on CO2 levels, but it certainly will (barring, perhaps, the use of nuclear energy) increase the cost of electricity, and place those states pursuing such a path at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Why anyone would want this (even at the admittedly severe risk of appearing politically incorrect), baffles me.

I realize from your article that you and Mayor Murray are hardly interested in the technical fundamentals of this issue, but it still seems worth pointing out that the impact of CO2 on the Earth's heat budget is nonlinear. What this means is that although CO2 has only increased about 30% over its pre-industrial level, the impact on the heat budget of the Earth due to the increases in CO2 and other man influenced greenhouse substances has already reached about 75% of what one expects from a doubling of CO2, and that the temperature rise seen so far is much less (by a factor of 2-3) than models predict (assuming that all of the very irregular change in temperature over the past 120 years or so -- about 1 degree F -- is due to added greenhouse gases-- a very implausible assumption).

If we are, nonetheless, to believe the model predictions, then the argument goes roughly as follows: namely, the models are correct, but some unknown process has cancelled the impact of increasing greenhouse gases, and that process will henceforth cease. 

Do you really want to put the welfare of the Commonwealth at risk for such an argument? Judging from your article, your answer is a resounding "yes." I, for one, would hope for greater prudence from my elected officials.

Best wishes,

Richard S. Lindzen,

Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology,
MIT, Massachussetts Institute of Technology.



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