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Ask an Aggie: Climate Change is Real

Deep in the heart of Texas, the scientific consensus is alive and kicking -- no matter what the local politicians say

For the tens of millions of Americans who are determined to "take their country back" (from what or whom exactly is still a mystery to me), there’s no climate debate. The jury is in. Global warming is a hoax, the product of a conspiracy so immense that it dwarfs anything Senator Joe McCarthy dreamed up when he was sniffing out Chinese communists in the State Department.

The command posts of this conspiracy are well known by now: the leftist radicals at the United Nations; the University of East "Climategate" Anglia; and pointy-headed, elitist institutions like Princeton and Yale, Stanford and Berkeley. By contrast to these bicoastal cosmopolitans, we’ve been hearing a lot recently about the homespun heartland virtues of schools like Texas A&M, where we’re told that a talent for yelling loudly at football games is just as important as good grades -- and is held to be no impediment to the pursuit of high office.

But hold on; there’s a problem with this scenario. It turns out that Texas A&M is in fact one of the nerve centers of the great climate conspiracy, together with other football-mad southern and Midwestern schools like the universities of Alabama, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, all of which are doing groundbreaking research on global warming.

The School of Atmospheric Science at Texas A&M boast some of the finest minds in the field. There’s department head Ken Bowman, for example, who tests and validates climate models, particularly their simulation of precipitation; there’s Andrew Dessler, who specializes in the role of clouds and water vapor in climate change; there’s Gerald North, who works on paleoclimate records from ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica; and many more. (North and Bowman also tell me they enjoy watching Aggies football games.)

Not only are these people brilliant; they’re outspoken. The school’s homepage greets the visitor with the following message, signed by all 23 faculty members after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its fourth periodic assessment report in 2007:

  1. It is virtually certain that the climate is warming, and that it has warmed by about 0.7 deg. C over the last 100 years.
  2. It is very likely that humans are responsible for most of the recent warming.
  3. If we do nothing to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, future warming will likely be at least two degrees Celsius over the next century.
  4. Such a climate change brings with it a risk of serious adverse impacts on our environment and society.

These guys were clearly out to make a point. It’s unprecedented for an academic institution to come out with this kind of in-your-face language on its homepage. I checked a very useful website that gives a compendium of institutions that back the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. I counted well over 100 entries: national academies of science from 21 countries (starting with the United States, China, Russia, and Britain); the G8; the Pentagon and a slew of other U.S. government agencies; peer-reviewed journals; corporate and financial leaders from the likes of Wal-Mart, General Electric, DuPont, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs; the Conference of Catholic Bishops; the National Association of Evangelicals… In the entire list, there was just one statement from university faculty: Texas A&M.

I asked Bowman and North why they had taken such an extraordinary step. Bowman e-mailed back, "As employees of a public university, we believe that it is our responsibility to provide the best scientific information and advice to policymakers and the public, particularly on issues of such social, political, and economic importance. Our statement on climate change makes clear that there is sound, well-tested science that supports predictions of potentially serious changes in the climate of Texas, the U.S., and the world."

Texas, it should be noted in passing, is currently in the throes of the worst one-year drought in its history, accompanied by record temperatures, with every single county in the state suffering from the highest levels of drought on the scale -- D3 (extreme) or D4 (exceptional). That’s official: the numbers come from the Texas state climatologist, Dr. John Nielsen-Gammon, who was appointed to the position by former governor George W. Bush.

It turns out that there’s no daylight between Nielsen-Gammon’s views and those of Bowman and North. Last year, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the state would defy the Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling, in response to a Supreme Court decision, that carbon dioxide should be regulated as an air pollutant. The reason, Abbott said, was that the EPA had relied on findings by the "scandal-plagued" IPCC. He added for good measure that, "We’re not focused on, nor need we be focused on, needing to prove anything from [sic] a scientific basis ourselves." Nielsen-Gammon retorted that the IPCC’s 2007 report is "probably as good as it gets in terms of a comprehensive analysis done by scientists," and that "anthropogenic increases of greenhouse gas concentrations clearly present a danger to the public welfare."

I asked Bowman and North what kind of relationship the Texas A&M faculty had with the state climatologist. They explained politely that this was kind of a stupid question. In addition to his official duties, Nielsen-Gammon is also a professor of meteorology at the school. "He’s probably the best state climatologist in the nation," North told me. He recommended that I take a look at Nielsen-Gammon’s blog, which is called "Climate Abyss" -- a title that doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

So where does all this lead us? To hope, I guess, that Texas politicians don’t carry through on their threat to have the state secede from the Union. We need their climate scientists too much.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
I have been trying to convey the notion that mankind's contribution to global warming is not the carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels but by the heat generated by these energy sources as well as by geothermal and atomic energy. In 2008 we spewed 50x10E16 BTUs into an whose atmosphere has a mass of 5.3x10E18 kilograms. This is enough heat to raise the temperature by twice the measured average for the period 1980-2000. (Were it not for thermal lag and melting of glaciers, the measured rise would come closer to matching the potential rise.) Forget carbon dioxide! Focus on heat! I have not seen any equation which can relate temperature rise as a function of the absolute CO2 concentration Carbon dioxide provides global cooling by removing energy from the environment as CO2, H2O, and sunlight are converted to trees or other long lasting vegetation.
If you think of energy flowing through the atmosphere like the amount of water flowing down a river, rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere is analogous to changing the height of a dam. The CO2 alters the amount of heat available at the surface of the earth, although there is very little change to the heat leaving the top of the atmosphere. All the heating of the atmosphere we humans add to the atmosphere does not stick around very long to be noticeable, similar to adding water to river. Unless the amount of heat we add to the atmosphere is at a rate comparable to the sun we won't notice. The heat quantities you mention are a small fraction of this amount.
The Geoscience faculty at Texas A&M University are excellent scholars. John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, is particularly noteworthy for his articulate and in-depth analyses of the issues. A few years ago, spurred on by the example set by Texas A&M, the people involved with the University of Texas at Austin program in climate system science also made a web statement affirming the statements made in the 2007 IPCC report on the physical basis of a changing climate. I went looking for this statement after reading this article as it was not mentioned in the website you listed. Indeed, it appears to have been orphaned with our constantly evolving website. Nevertheless, it still exists: http://www.ig.utexas.edu/jsg/css_jsg/people/statement.html