Getting to the bottom of global warming

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By The Staff

A few years ago, a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory climate scientist took on a project to review the major controversies surrounding global warming and climate change. Charles F. “Chick” Keller, who is a Laboratory Fellow and also serves as board president of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center, has now written substantial papers that focus on the main areas of disagreement.

The most recent, written in 2008, is titled “Global Warming: a review of this mostly settled issue.” The study grows out of a 2003 review, delving into the major controversies concerning how much confidence the scientific community can claim for its conclusions that humans are responsible for climate change and that temperatures are likely to continue to rise this century.

In an interview this week, Keller said he took some heat from his colleagues on both sides for calling it a “mostly settled issue,” because it means, “some people won’t even look at it.”

But the opening for a little bit of doubt, as well as strong affirmation is consistent with the 2007 conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Policy (IPCC) Makers Summary, the essential finding of the international scientific community, which stated, “We are 95 percent confident that most of the warming the past 50 years is due to humans.”

Keller’s paper and his approach has been to be an “active listener” to climate change critics, to see what could be learned from them, as well as to see if credible responses have been provided that might strengthen the overall argument.

In his paper, he suggests that the controversies provoked by the IPCC have been created to some extent by the “urgency associated with carbon increase in the atmosphere.”

“Because carbon dioxide has a residence time in the atmosphere of over a century, it is important to get the earliest estimate of how much and how soon any warming might be, if we are to do anything to slow projected warming before it occurs,” Keller wrote.

One of his motivations for updating his earlier paper was that an issue that had encouraged critics and troubled proponents of climate change had been substantially resolved.

That was the issue of why satellite and balloon data showed relatively little warming in the previous 25 years compared to surface temperature data. In his original review, Keller had noticed that something strange was happening, and over the next few years several teams of investigators got to the bottom of the inconsistencies.

Another issue has come up lately related to the effects of the sun’s cycle on warming.

“The big thing we’re working on right now is how it’s not warming up,” Keller said.

Normally, he explained, the 11-year cycle of the sun contributes a fraction of a degree to warming each year.

“It goes up fast, then goes down slowly and stays down,” Keller said. “It’s six months late for rising, suggesting the sun’s activity has had an unusual episode, which is something that hasn’t happened in the last 30 years.”

The effect has been to slow some measures of warming. While record heat continues on average, the warming has not met predictions for much of this decade, giving comfort to those who are skeptical of climate change.”

When the cycle returns to normal, Keller said, there’s going to be a small jolt of warming, barring a volcanic eruption or some other cooling event on Earth.

“If we don’t get a huge warming in another five years,” he said, “there are going to be a lot of questions to answer.”

The job of the climate umpire is not easy.

 “I always distinguish between the scientist and his agenda,” Keller said, “and I don’t impute motives.”

 He takes his role as a bridge between the two camps seriously and would like to see some more formal exercises developed, like a moot court or a set of “rules of engagement,” in which it would be possible for two sides to argue global warming propositions and have a kind of jury reach a conclusion.

How do you make sure that rhetoric doesn’t beat science?

Keller has taken up the Socratic method in investigating contrary theories and propositions.

“I just keep asking questions,” he said. “We have the world in the balance here.”

He remains an optimist, despite the dire motivational warnings of some of those climate partisans whom he calls, “the faithful.”

 “(T)he benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the costs of not acting … Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms,” Keller quoted a paper on climate policy by D. Kennedy in his conclusion.

On the other hand, the benefits from action are also persuasive, he continued, “not least of which are the national security benefits gained from energy independence, the environmental and health benefits of cleaner fuels, and the long-term efficiencies that can be delivered by reneweable energy.

“Amazing things will have to happen,” Keller said. “Conserving energy and moving to alternative is going to be cheaper,” and there is a lot of money to be made in developing solutions.