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Climate Statistician: Don’t confuse science with modeling – It’s Kathleen Hartnett White, not Ed Markey, Who’s Right on Climate Models

Special To Climate Depot

It’s Kathleen Hartnett White, not Ed Markey, Who’s Right on Climate Models

By Caleb Rossiter

(Caleb Rossiter is a former congressional staffer on foreign policy and a former professor at American University.  He is now an adjunct professorial lecturer in the university’s School of International Service as well as in its Department of Mathematics and Statistics.  He writes a blog on climate change, We Love Electricity, at

Kathleen Hartnett White, the former head of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, testified last week at a Senate hearing on her nomination to be the chair of the national version of that coordinating body, the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  At the hearing Senator Ed Markey questioned her fitness for the office on the grounds that her views on climate science as expressed in her 2016 book Fueling Freedom are “so far out of the mainstream” that she is a “fringe voice.”  

As someone who has worked closely with both Ed and Kathleen, and admires them both as public servants and as friends, I was sorry to see Ed dismissing the thoughtful analysis Kathleen presented in her book rather than engaging with it.  

I think Ed is confusing science with modeling when he and other Democrats in the Senate label Kathleen a “science denier.”  The science of warming gasses like carbon dioxide and methane is sound, and nobody denies it: molecules composed of a number of atoms rotate and vibrate, and these particular ones do so at the same frequency as heat waves leaving the earth’s surface.  They can absorb and reemit heat waves many times before the waves finally escape to space from high, cold altitudes, with diminished heat-transfer rates   

What is complex and highly-debatable is climate modeling.  This term refers to the use of super-computers to hammer thousands of what Oxford physicist Fred Taylor calls “opaque” guesses about conditions and interactions through millions of short-term iterations into the future.  

The result of billions of dollars worth of modeling over the past few decades is essentially an educated guess about how much warming industrial gasses have caused in the multi-variable, chaotic real-world climate system.  The models similarly try, with similarly limited success, to isolate the impact that warming, whether its cause is natural or industrial, has had on climate variables such as ice and sea levels and the number and intensity of hurricanes, droughts, floods, infestations of tree beetles, and forest fires.  

My experience teaching climate models for the past decade convinces me that Kathleen was right when she said in the hearing: “The extent to which (temperature has risen in response to industrial carbon dioxide) is uncertain.”  This is in large part both because global temperature has been rising steadily, rebounding from a down-turn, since well before industrial gasses were an issue and because a number of natural, decades-long natural fluctuations in temperature, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Pacific Oscillation and its cousin El Niῇo, are so poorly understood and measured.

As Kathleen has noted in her book the modeling record does indeed show tremendous uncertainty about what modelers call the “sensitivity” of the atmosphere to a doubling of carbon dioxide levels from 300 parts per million (.03 percent) in 1900 to 600 parts per million (.06 percent) in perhaps 2100.  Mainstream modelers’ estimates of sensitivity to doubling, as reported by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have declined from the three to four degree Celsius range to the one to two degree Celsius range as the past 40 years of global temperature data have become available.  

Even this latter estimate, as MIT physicist Richard Lindzen has pointed out, assumes that most of the increase in temperature comes from positive feedbacks by water vapor and clouds, the most important warming factors.  Lindzen has published a number of studies indicating water vapor and clouds may lessen, not increase, surface warming from carbon dioxide or solar heating.  Moreover, even if all the warming were due to anthropogenic warming gasses, this would still be consistent with low climate sensitivity.  The agreement of more sensitive models with observed warming is only achieved by arbitrarily assuming that aerosols cancel much of the warming.

As for the modeling of the impact of warming, whatever its cause, on storms and sea levels, my students often discover to their surprise that the peer-reviewed studies that try to measure these “climate changes” are generally suggestive and cautious.  Some, though, are then exaggerated into conclusions of current and future doom either in the politicized summary reports put out periodically by the IPCC or in further exaggeration of these summaries by politicians and the mainstream media.

It is ironic that when I worked with Ed in the 1980’s as a congressional staffer he was a junior congressman who was being attacked as a fringe voice, outside the mainstream, when he took on the conventional wisdom among the Washington experts about Central America.  The conventional wisdom then was that the United States had to back brutal armed forces like the Salvadoran and Guatemalan armies and the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels because only they could forestall the takeover of the region by the Soviet Union.  

Ed stood strong against this narrative, offering amendments to constrain U.S. military support for the Central American wars.  One of his ideas in 1985, a ban on U.S. combat troops in the region without a congressional authorization, was condemned by the experts as too radical even for consideration on the House floor, but he persevered and arranged for Majority Whip Tom Foley to offer it, successfully.  

Ed was right back then, no matter what the mainstream of the Reagan administration, the media, and the foreign policy elite said.  He had discovered with his own research into conditions and dissenting voices in the region that the so-called mainstream was wrong.  His efforts helped bring an end to U.S. military aid, which in turn led to lasting peace agreements throughout the region.  I hope he keeps that in mind when Kathleen’s nomination comes up for a vote, and that he takes a fresh look at her caution about “mainstream” claims of climate catastrophe.

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