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Non-Climate Scientist 'Climate Scientist' Sets the Record Straight

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Have you noticed that a new kind of scientific expert has been born? It is the non-climate scientist "climate scientist," better known in the trade as the NCSCS....

What is a NCSCS? It is someone who is not a climate scientist but is nevertheless happy to speak authoritatively about the alleged scientific errors being made by the real climate scientists. A dead ringer for a NCSCS is one who begins with words to the effect of: "I am not a climatologist, but ..."

Those were the exact words spoken by William Happer, the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics at Princeton University, in his testimony to the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on February 25, 2009 (written testimony [pdf] | video).

Like former astronaut and former U.S. senator Harrison Schmitt, a fellow NCSCS, Happer is incensed about this global warming "scare." Happer is convinced that carbon dioxide (CO2) is "good for mankind" and, based on statements made to the Daily Princetonian, appears to equate all this talk of the evils of CO2 with the anti-Semitic Nazi slur that "Jews are the scum of the earth." He's got to be kidding. Granted carbon dioxide, at only 380 parts per million, is a minority gas, but come on.

Let's take a look at five pieces of climate science and the arguments advanced in Happer's non-expert, expert testimony to see how they stand up against each other.

Happer: Water Vapor Feedback Does Not Exist

Happer recently told the Senate EPW Committee: "To get these scary scenarios that we hear about, water vapor and clouds must amplify the direct effects of CO2. In fact observations suggest that water vapor and clouds actually diminish the already small global warming expected from CO2, not amplify it."

Really? I don't think so. Let's take a look at what scientific observations actually show. First, water vapor, not CO2, is the most important greenhouse gas.

An increase in CO2 in and of itself causes a relatively small warming. But that small warming from CO2 is amplified by a water vapor feedback process: water vapor concentrations increase as temperatures increase (and vice versa). We've all seen this temperature-water vapor dependence. It's why dew forms at night (when temperatures cool and the air holds less vapor) and burns off during the day (as temperatures rise, allowing the air to hold more water vapor); it's also why water beads up on a cold window pane in the winter.

So when CO2 increases, temperatures increase slightly; these higher temperatures cause an increase in water vapor, which causes an additional increase in temperatures, which causes an increase in water vapor, and so on. The result is a vicious cycle with a much larger temperature increase than would have happened if only CO2 increased.

That's the theory, but does the feedback really exist? Happer, in his written testimony, says no: "With each passing year, experimental observations further undermine the claim of a large positive feedback from water. In fact, observations suggest that the feedback is close to zero and may even be negative."

Wrong. In fact satellite observations show that water vapor concentrations have increased in the past decades as predicted by the water vapor theory. (See this 2008 article from Geophysical Research Letters and this 2009 article from Science.)

Happer: Global Cooling Is Here

Happer states that there has been a "slight cooling" over the past 10 years. Actually not: see this piece I just wrote for Popular Science.

Happer: But What About English Wine

Happer points out that "the Romans grew grapes in Britain around the year 100." This is one of my favorites. It's what is known as an ignoratio elenchi or red herring. Yes, it's true that grapes were grown in Britain by the Romans. But what does that prove? The English grow grapes and produce wine today. Check this site out.

Happer: Past Climate Change Not Modeled

"The existence of climate variability in the past has long been an embarrassment to those who claim that all climate change is due to man and that man can control it," claims Happer. "The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] IPCC has made no serious attempt to model the natural variations of the Earth's temperature in the past."

This is news to me. In the first place, I don't recall any (real) climate scientist asserting that all climate change is due to man. In fact, climate scientists have been studying and modeling past climate changes for decades, trying to uncover the natural processes that cause climate variability.

For example, in 1976 J. D. Hays and colleagues were able to establish that climate swings from ice ages to warm periods (like today's) are triggered by variations in the Earth's orbit about the sun. The IPCC has an extensive discussion [pdf] about so-called paleoclimate and in fact uses the climate record to test current climate models. Suffice it to say that the sum of all identified natural processes that impact climate have not been able to explain the current warming.

Happer: CO2 Follows Temperature

Another favorite of the NCSCSes is that increases in CO2 concentrations follow rather than lead temperature increases from ice ages to warm periods and vice versa. Another ignoratio elenchi. The variations Happer refers to are not news and are most likely caused by a multi-hundred year feedback between temperatures and greenhouse gases.

Happer chastises climate scientists for not relying on observations. And yet, like so many of his fellow NCSCSes, he appears to have come to own views without the benefit of reading the scientific climate literature let alone making any direct observations. For someone of his considerable stature, chaired professor at Princeton and all that, this is truly disappointing.

Dr. Bill Chameides, a climate scientist, is the dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He blogs regularly at theGreenGrok.com.

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