December 8, 2021

kayumanisspa

Beyond law

Why’s it so hard to convince climate skeptics of a looming catastrophe?

WASHINGTON — Jim Walzel doesn’t fit the profile of what most people would think of as a climate denier — a term he rejects.

A chemical engineer who made his money as a pipeline executive, Walzel lives in West University, a Houston enclave populated with academics from nearby Rice University. He points to his COVID-19 vaccination card as proof he trusts in science, and says he has little doubt that fossil fuels are warming the planet.

But he’s not convinced that climate change will result in the cataclysmic future predicted by forecasters.

“I wouldn’t call myself a denier, but I am skeptical about the gravity of the thing,” he said. “I’m trying to look at the facts and say what’s the deal here. And from what I’m seeing the consensus of scientists is not as pervasive as you describe.”

Walzel’s views open a window on how and why climate skepticism persists, despite mounting evidence that global warming not only poses a serious threat to the planet but is already doing damage. In Houston, long the unofficial capital of the world’s oil and gas industry, such strains of thought are particularly persistent, often grounded in the work of a small cadre of scientists who fixate on legitimate uncertainties within climate science.

They do not question the fundamental notion that greenhouse gas emissions are raising global temperatures but rather that it will all end in catastrophe. Dismissed as kooks or contrarians, these scientists continue to find followings among those like Walzel who believe if the world is going to shift from fossil fuels in just a matter of decades, we better be certain on the science.

Go to NASA’s website, and it states 97 percent of published climate scientists agree that manmade carbon emissions have caused the planet to warm over the past century. But once you get past the consensus that the planet is warming faster than it would naturally, agreement fractures over how fast polar ice caps are melting or whether climate change will cause more hurricanes and heat waves — hugely complex questions that require looking decades or centuries into the future.

Climate skeptics, or realists as they prefer to be called, fixate on the details under debate, even though the overwhelming the majority of climate scientists agree that global warming will go very badly unless mankind takes immediate action.

For instance, United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change recently released another terrifying report calling climate change a “code red for humanity.” But in the nearly 4,000-page study, skeptics note, the term “low confidence” — jargon for findings where there is conflicting evidence — occurs almost 1,400 times.

The term “likely” — which could mean a degree of certainty as low as 66 percent — appears thousands of times, including as to whether major hurricanes have increased in frequency since the 1980s.

When you add up that uncertainty, it amounts to a field of science that has a long way to go, said Steve Koonin, a physicist who worked at Cal Tech and MIT and served as undersecretary of science at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration.

Now the director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, Koonin published a book earlier this year entitled, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters,” prompting a wave of criticism from other scientists, accusing him of cherry picking data to suit his thesis.

“We should be making societal decisions in a fully informed way, and there are things in the (International Panel on Climate Change) reports that contradict the narrative and nobody ever talks about them,” Koonin said. “Some of it is there are some scientists who really think they’re going to save the world. There’s others and it’s peer pressure. I’ve had scientists say to me, ‘You’re right, but I wouldn’t dare say it.’”

Jim Walzel, holds a copy of Unsettled by Steven E. Koonin at his Houston home on Aug. 18, 2021.

Marie D. De Jesús, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Code of silence

Climate scientists acknowledge the uncertainties, but stress there is plenty of well documented evidence showing that climate change and its dire consequences are not only real, but already happening, as wildfires and extreme flooding became regular events.

“You don’t need to agree with all the details to recognize there is a profound need to change the way we emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” said Chris Field, director of Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment .

But in Koonin’s mind, there are simply too many open questions to express that level of confidence, and scientists have entered into a dangerous code of silence.

Among them: the rate of ice melt in the Arctic. While polar ice is melting faster than it did in the 1990s, historical data indicates it’s occurring at the same pace as during the 1940s.

Another unsettled question is whether climate change is causing more intense hurricanes — a phenomenon commonly cited by politicians. The latest United Nations report said category 3 or higher storms have only “likely” increased in intensity since 1980.

In those and other cases, the uncertainty comes from the relatively short period in which climate data has been collected. Satellites weren’t put into orbit until the 1960s, leaving scientists who track climate over the centuries to rely on murky historical records from say, a ship captain who spotted a hurricane at sea or a scientist observing in person the loss of ice in the Arctic.

The motivation for downplaying these uncertainties, Koonin says, comes from belief that talking freely about the unknown would fuel public skepticism when the world needs political agreement to act on climate change.

What sounds like a conspiracy theory stems in part from a 1989 magazine interview with Stephen Schneider, the late Stanford University professor and pioneer in climate science. Schneider described a “double ethical bind” that required scientists to “offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have” to attract public attention.

“As scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but,” he said. “On the other hand, we are not just scientists, but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change.”

That comment followed an infamous 1988 appearance before Congress by the climate scientist James Hansen, who traveled to Washington during a historic heat wave. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he proclaimed, “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

Climate modeling, however, wasn’t nearly as developed as now, and other scientists took issue with what they viewed as a clever piece of stagecraft exaggerating their findings, said Deborah Coen, a science historian at Yale University

”They believed he had compromised his integrity and their integrity,” she said. “This is less common now, but if you go back to the earlier days, there were credentialed scientists who were skeptical of the models. At that point, it wasn’t clear how bad the consequences were, and how much political opposition the science would face.”

The year after Hansen’s appearance, oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron, formed the Global Climate Coalition to challenge findings that human activity caused global warming and campaign against regulation of greenhouse gas emissions.

The oil companies lobbied Congress and blanketed the media with claims that greenhouse gas limits would wreck the economy. They even distributed a video claiming increased carbon dioxide was positive because it would likely increase crop yields since plants need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.

They were not alone. A number of prominent scientists, including physicist Frederick Seitz, the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Freeman Dyson, the ground breaking theoretical physicist from Princeton University, questioned whether global warming was the emergency that climate scientists portrayed.

“The skeptics kind of forced a lot of climate scientists to back off,” Coen said. “Tow the line on facts (not computer simulations) or be labeled alarmists.”

Changing tenor

Eventually, mounting evidence that climate change was not only real but already happening made outright denial unfeasible. To question the finer points of climate theory was no longer just scientific method but also a political statement. Disputing any aspect of accepted views of global warming risked scorn, ridicule and isolation.

Walzel, the retired president of the former pipeline company Houston Natural Gas, knows the feeling.

While not a household name, the 84-year-old Walzel is prominent in Houston business and philanthropic circles. He has given so much money to Southwestern University that the school put his and his wife Pat’s name on a building.

As a young graduate of Rice University’s chemical engineering program, he advanced through Houston Natural Gas, working under the late Ken Lay before leaving the company in 1985 as it merged with Omaha-based Internorth to eventually form Enron. “I narrowly escaped being an Enron guy,” Walzel quipped.

Today, he serves on the boards of charities, and, in his spare time, reads frequently about climate change — his current stack is nine books tall. Earlier this summer, he wrote to this reporter, recommending Koonin’s book.

“If enough people read it,” he wrote, “it might raise the level of discussion on climate to what it deserves.”

But climate change is not a subject Walzel discusses with friends and neighbors. He is reluctant to raise the issue outside a small circle of like-minded friends — even his wife disagrees with him — because it would inevitably lead to an argument. “There would be nothing to be gained from it,” he said.

That sort of quiet division has emerged within science as well. Interview requests for this story were routinely declined or met with no response. Matthew Hersch, a science history professor at Harvard University, took umbrage with this reporter’s description of scientists like Koonin as “seemingly well-reasoned skeptics.”

“Generally speaking, I would not call a person inclined to ignore known, catastrophic dangers because they are ‘decades away’ to be ‘well-reasoned,’ especially if those dangers are already manifest,” he said in an email. “That seems to be a simple case of wishing for something not to be true that is, or a kind of self-interested shortsightedness.”

A drilling rig operates in Reeves County on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, near Pecos.

A drilling rig operates in Reeves County on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019, near Pecos.

Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

High stakes

Differing viewpoints are common in science. But unlike say, biochemistry or theoretical physics, climate change is not just about who’s right, but also the future of the planet.

The differences over climate science often correlate to the particular field in which scientists work. Physicists, like Koonin, are particularly well represented among skeptics, said Matthew Stanley, a philosophy of science professor at NYU.

Much of physics relies on precise measurements of the natural world. But climate science is too complex for such an approach. Instead it relies on computer models, which assimilate countless variables to project how the earth might respond to increases in temperature.

In the early days, those models struggled, but over the past three decades, computer simulations have evolved to the point where scientists can quantify to which degree increases in flooding or wildfires were caused by climate change.

“Particle physics is the classic exact science,” Stanley said. “You expect an exact answer down to 30 decimal places, and if you don’t get that you failed. If that’s your perspective, the models are incredibly messy.”

Losing faith

Koonin came to the climate debate in 2014 when the American Physical Society asked him to lead an effort to review its statement on climate change, after a number of physicists objected to the description of the evidence of global warming as “incontrovertible.”

Until then, he said, he accepted climate science as dogma. But when he assembled a group of six climate scientists in Brooklyn, he realized they could agree that man was causing the planet to warm, but not much else.

“Is it going to be catastrophic? That’s where the discussion broke down,” he said. “I had a committee member say we can’t write about uncertainty because it will give ammunition to the deniers.”

Koonin ended up resigning from the American Physical Society and writing an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal claiming climate science was not settled, making him a pariah within the scientific community.

Former energy secretary Ernest Moniz, with whom Koonin worked at MIT and described as a “good friend and colleague for 30 years,” declined through a spokesman to comment about Koonin’s work.

Asked about Koonin’s claims on ice melt and hurricanes, Field, the Stanford climate scientist, did not directly contradict him. On the question of why ice sheets are melting around the same rate as the 1940s, Field said it was “incredibly complicated” and “diverse interpretations” remain about how fast polar ice will melt and cause sea levels to rise.

But he expressed exasperation with those who suggest that uncertainty on ice caps or other details undermines the overall theory that climate change would be catastrophic.

“You don’t get featured in The New York Times for saying I agree with that guy,” Field said. “That’s not the culture of science. Science is based on finding flaws and new interpretations.”

‘Global cooling’

Science’s inclination to debate and reconsider itself has, in part, driven modern climate skepticism .

Walzel, the philanthropist and former executive, vividly recounts media coverage of a group of scientists warning in the 1970s that the world was headed for another ice age due to a perceived trend of “global cooling,” as well as forecasts of imminent global famines caused by overpopulation — predictions that didn’t come to pass.

Those theories never came close to achieving the consensus among scientists that climate change has amassed, or accumulating the empirical evidence that expanded the climate consensus over the years. But Walzel remains skeptical of anyone claiming the world is coming to an end.

“People like a crisis.” he said. “It’s human nature.”

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