As a statistician who teaches about the fundamental uncertainties of global climate models and the difficulty of finding data series that are good enough and long enough to find a recent trend in extreme weather and sea levels, I have for years scoffed at claims that “the debate is over.” The climate system is so complex and chaotic, and its many interactions so poorly understood on so many time scales, that I more think that there is little useful information with which to begin, let alone end, a debate.
“Anti-intellectual, and anti-science,” I would complain, as the catastrophists dominated mainstream debate, turning the noble scientific title of “skeptic” into the horrific libel of being a “denier” of a coming Holocaust. At least I could be thankful that the domination of mainstream and leftist debate did not translate into domination of policy. Both rich and poor countries continue to talk down fossil fuels while using them every chance they get, because these low-cost forms of energy have been the source of the economic growth and longer life expectancy the world has experienced in two dramatic waves: the industrialization of Europe, the United States and Japan in the 19th century and the industrialization of Korea, China, India, and others in Asia and to a lesser extent in Latin America and Africa in the 20th century.
…What finally brought me to my retirement from the Climate War was my attempt to think through the claims in a recent film about the Maldives Islands that my think-tank had sponsored. The former president had been a darling of the catastrophists, holding a cabinet meeting under water to show how his country would look if the wicked West didn’t stop warming the planet. A trip through journal articles, particularly one by a noted sea-level expert, Nils Axel-Morner, that disputed the rise in detail, showed me that the president’s claim is very hard to evaluate. Nowhere could I find evidence for dramatic changes over the past 40 years in the Maldives — which of course does not rule out dramatic changes being on the way — and I discovered that land sinks, and rises, to the clock of its underlying tectonic plates and geological formations as well as to the sea’s clock. Sea level is difficult to measure because it sloshes around, over tens of thousands of miles, and the measuring devices must be relative to some standard – the land, a dock, the bottom, all of which are always changing.
So here we are again on the Maldives, facing a question that relies on good historical data, systematic corrections and interpretations, and careful modeling. I could tell even before I read competing studies how the dispute would go. Just as with temperature, hurricanes, droughts, and global sea level, interested parties on both sides, skeptics and catastrophists, control the data and its manipulation, as well as the modeling. Even disinterested scientists are forced into line by the high political stakes, finding themselves either hailed and rewarded or castigated and exiled based on their results. I realized that no matter how much I studied the issue, I could never trust the data, the manipulation, and the models, because of the partisanship. And that is why the debate is over.
I’m gonna miss a lot of it – the excitement of learning about modeling, paleoclimate, satellite sounding, the 100,000 year cycles, how ice cores can provide temperature estimates, and the fun of watching students grapple with the possibility that everything they have been taught about climate change in college might be wrong. But I’m not gonna miss the stress of being the odd man out in my lefty think-tank, or of being in agreement with my usual foes. All I can say is, to people in both developed and developing countries, I hope I’ve helped just a little bit by being part of the resistance to the plan to de-industrialize your economies. So far, so good — not because we skeptics convinced anybody about the dangers of emissions, but because people remain convinced of their benefits.