Saturday, June 09, 2007
For the obligatory "opposing view" on climate change, the media often turn toMyron Ebell, policy analyst, sound-bite artist, and oil-industry mouthpiece. While mainstream experts see global warming as a major crisis, the hotter it gets, the better Ebell likes it.
by Michael Shnayerson May 2007
Al Gore says global-warming skeptics are a group diminishing almost as rapidly as the mountain glaciers.
Many of the skeptics are curmudgeons: old, bald, and bitter. But not Myron Ebell. Tall, slim, and youthful at 53, his blond hair swept back from a handsome face set off by serious glasses, Ebell is one of that rare breed, an elegant nerd. On television, facing interrogation by moderators who clearly feel he should be tarred and feathered for his views, he stays cool and fires back with withering zingers. In the recent surprise hit movie Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley's novel, actor Aaron Eckhardt played a tobacco lobbyist who jokes about being a merchant of death and gleefully outdebates all comers. Ebell could easily star in the sequel, Thank You for Warming.
Ebell is a public-policy wonk—not, he hastens to clarify, a lobbyist for the energy industry, as many of his fellow skeptics are, or a scientist whose research is underwritten by the energy industry, or a politician who takes contributions from the energy industry. He lives in a suburb of Washington, D.C., where he and his wife are raising four children, ranging in age from an 11-year-old son to a 21-year-old daughter, all of whom, Ebell says proudly, take a skeptical view of global warming. He goes to work at a think tank on Connecticut Avenue called the Competitive Enterprise Institute (C.E.I.), where his office is modest, but not his influence.
Every day, journalists around the world call C.E.I. for its take on the latest global-warming studies, and Ebell, or one of his colleagues who also deal with the press—Marlo Lewis, Iain Murray, and Christopher Horner—happily obliges. The journalists like to air all views—"on the one hand, on the other"—so they plug in Ebell's latest retorts, giving them equal weight with new scientific findings. Gore is right in one sense: almost no scientist doubts that global warming is here, that man-made greenhouse gases are to blame, or that if we don't cut back on those gases fairly soon we'll be in a heap of trouble. But as the "other hand" in all those news stories, Ebell and his quotable cohorts sustain the impression that a scientific debate is still raging. The more studies that confirm global warming, the more ink Ebell gets. Journalist Ross Gelbspan, a longtime skeptic-tracker, says that's how the skeptics operate. With those doubts neatly planted in the press, the public shrugs, politicians push the problem off to another day, and ExxonMobil parries new fossil-fuel regulations, earning more windfall profits in exchange for a pittance to the skeptics and their work.
Like its ideological soulmates, C.E.I. has taken money—a considerable amount—from ExxonMobil. Ebell says that's irrelevant. "We're not beholden to our donors, because we don't say, 'If you give us this money, we'll do this project,'" he explains, tilting back nonchalantly in a C.E.I. conference-room chair. "I can't even quite tell you who supports us on global warming." In fact, Ebell could go to the ExxonMobil Web site and see that in 2005 the oil giant gave C.E.I. $270,000, a not inconsiderable portion of the institute's $3.7 million budget, and that between 1998 and 2005 ExxonMobil gave it more than $2 million. He could also ask one of his colleagues and learn that C.E.I. gets money from the American Petroleum Institute, various pharmaceutical companies (Dow Chemical, Eli Lilly), and William A. Dunn of Dunn Capital Management. But he says he's never done that. Since its founding, 23 years ago, by free marketer Fred Smith as an all-purpose bullhorn against government regulations, C.E.I. has simply tinkered with issues it chooses—from higher mileage standards in cars (bad) to the Endangered Species Act (worse)—trying to affect public policy and hoping donors come along for the ride.
That may be how C.E.I. sees it. To ExxonMobil, though, C.E.I. has been one of the brightest stars in its constellation of climate skeptics. Other oil companies fund global-warming-skeptic think tanks through the American Petroleum Institute, and various coal interests weigh in, too. But, for the skeptics, ExxonMobil is Big Daddy.
From 1998 to 2005, ExxonMobil spent a reported $16 million funding climate studies at some three dozen institutes. The recipients range from the well-known right-wing clearinghouse American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research ($240,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005) to the obscure Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow ($90,000 in 2005), bookends to a Who's Who of skeptics. None of these groups has any standing in mainstream climate science. Their fellows and scholars crank out policy papers that purport to disprove the latest findings about global warming and only rarely publish studies in peer-reviewed technical scientific journals. Instead, the institutes publish the papers themselves or get sympathetic newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Times to run them as op-ed pieces. From there, the papers are taken up by a handful of lawmakers—such as Oklahoma Republican senator James Inhofe and Texas Republican congressman Joe Barton, who deride global warming as an alarmist hoax—and get disseminated on the Internet like viral advertising. It's an all too effective approach.
The stars, as in any constellation, are an eclectic bunch. They include fringe scientists such as David Legates and Patrick Michaels, of the George C. Marshall Institute ($115,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005), a Washington-based public-policy think tank; economists like Kyoto Protocol–basher Margo Thorning, of the American Council for Capital Formation ($360,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005); and historical-climate theorists such as the Battling Idsos—father Sherwood, sons Craig and Keith—of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change ($25,000 from ExxonMobil in 2005), who say high levels of CO2 in the prehistoric era led to lush plant life and better times for all. The skeptics appear on one another's panels, defend one another's work, and give the public the sense that mainstream scientists are nothing more than so many Chicken Littles. The case for global warming has grown all but irrefutable, yet the skeptics have enjoyed enormous influence, for the audience that matters most to them occupies the White House. Eagerly, their papers have been snatched up by the Bush administration as rationales for all manner of public policy, from striking down the Kyoto Protocol to blocking any cap on carbon dioxide emissions.
C.E.I. has become the best known of these global-warming skeptics not just because Ebell is as quotable as he is. Like the hero of Thank You for Smoking, he courts notoriety. He first made the news a few years ago when a Bush White House senior official named Phil Cooney was caught watering down language on global warming in a U.S. government report issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ebell, as an e-mail later showed, advised the once and future oil-industry flack on how to spin the embarrassment. Not long after, Ebell stirred the wrath of the British Parliament by declaring in a BBC radio interview that the U.K.'s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, had made a "ridiculous claim" on global warming despite knowing "nothing about climate science." The House of Commons proposed a motion to censure Ebell. (The motion never passed, Ebell says wistfully.) Last year, C.E.I. ran a public-service commercial on television about carbon dioxide so cheeky it verged on parody. "They call it pollution," ran the tagline about CO2. "We call it life." Ebell was delighted at the howls it provoked.
There is, however, one key difference between Ebell and his doppelgänger in Chris Buckley's novel. The tobacco lobbyist of the novel and upcoming TV series is a cynic: he knows he's blowing smoke. Ebell actually seems to believe what he's saying. Which is remarkable, really, because every one of his arguments, put to scrutiny by a murderer's row of the country's top climate scientists, seems to fall apart.
Like any effective debater, Ebell tends to start by ceding a point or two. It disarms the opposition. "Everyone knows CO2 is a greenhouse gas," he says blithely. "All things being equal, if you add CO2 to the atmosphere, you'll get a little warming."
Actually, that's a revision of what Ebell's fellow contrarians believed in the early 1990s. They used to say that all the CO2 and other greenhouse gases put into the air by man since the start of the industrial age had caused no warming at all. They said this because that was what satellite readings suggested if you read them a certain way and if you decided the satellites were right and all temperature readings taken on the surface of the earth were wrong. Unfortunately for the skeptics, it was the satellite readings that turned out to be wrong. So the skeptics retreated to a view that Ebell still holds. "There has been a little bit of warming," as he puts it, "but it's been very modest and well within the range for natural variability, and whether it's caused by human beings or not, it's nothing to worry about."
This view, too, needs revision, though Ebell isn't surrendering that ground quite yet. Precisely to test the "range for natural variability," climatologist Michael Mann and colleagues charted temperatures going back 1,000 years. They did this by studying the natural records of climate in tree rings, ice cores from glaciers, and coral reefs. The temperature, they found, made modest zigs and zags until the late 19th century—a range of natural variability just as the skeptics claimed. But once the industrial age got under way there was a dramatic rise in global temperatures not seen in the past 1,000 years, concurrent with CO2 concentrations rising from their pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million to their current level of 380 parts per million. Now the climbing lines of the graph shot up like a hockey stick laid on its side. Hence the hockey-stick debate.
Ebell and his fellow skeptics have poured no end of bile on Mann and his hockey stick—because if Mann's findings are true, the skeptics have no case. The graph is global warming proved. The skeptics say the evidence is shaky for the earliest centuries of Mann's 1,000-year period. So the hockey stick, they declare, is wrong.
To settle the debate, the National Academy of Sciences reviewed Mann's hockey-stick data and methodology last year, along with similar studies. The N.A.S. concluded that Mann's evidence for the years from 1600 to the present was very solid indeed. It said the evidence for the years from 1000 to 1600 was necessarily less solid—fewer tree rings and ice cores to go by—but, overall, Mann's evidence did suggest that the 20th century was warmer than any of those six centuries, too.
"Which is exactly what we said in our original report," observes Mann, now a professor at Pennsylvania State University. The headline in Mann's report had noted the "limitations and caveats" of the evidence, given how far back it went. "The principle of caution is what scientists go by," Mann says. Ebell and the skeptics had pounced on those caveats to conclude that Mann didn't know what he was talking about. "It's not surprising coming from C.E.I.," Mann adds. "I've never seen any evidence that they have any interest in being intellectually honest."
"The complaint about the hockey stick has been that the people who did the research didn't know what they were doing," Ebell maintains. "The methodology they used was not adequate to properly evaluate the data that they had." (The n.a.s. specifically rejected that charge in their report.)
In the documentary-film version of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore stands beside an elongated hockey stick—a graph that goes back not just 1,000 years but 650,000 years. The story it tells is the same. Ebell says the Gore chart is not just inaccurate but misleading in a profound way because it implies that CO2 levels have never been higher than they are now. "Everybody knows it's been higher than that," Ebell says of CO2 in the past, "just more than 650,000 years ago, which is when Gore started counting."
It's a canny point. If earth survived prehistoric periods of higher CO2, when man and industry had nothing to do with it, why are we worrying about CO2 now?
"Yeah, CO2 was higher in the early Cretaceous period," Mann explains. "It probably exceeded 1,000 parts per million. And, yes, temperatures were almost certainly higher then, too. But nature produced these changes in greenhouse-gas concentrations—from volcanic activity and plate tectonics that released gases trapped in the solid earth—on timescales of tens of millions of years! Eco-systems and species were thus able to adapt," Mann says. "Now we're talking about dramatic changes in the period of a century or so. There's no evidence that nature knows how to adapt so quickly."
Ebell is unfazed by such seemingly authoritative talk. O.K., he says: if CO2 levels have indeed gone up a third in the last hundred years, as Gore's hockey-stick chart indicates, and global temperature is supposed to follow, why haven't we seen a commensurate rise in temperature?
"That's pure nonsense," Mann says. "As we increase CO2 levels, we are changing the boundary conditions, if you will, too rapidly for the climate to be in equilibrium while we do this. So the climate is always trying to catch up to what we've done." The correlation between CO2 and temperature, he says, has been studied very well in physics and chemistry. "Our best estimates indicate that the increase in CO2 from pre-industrial levels to the present has already produced roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming in global temperatures."
Ebell is ready for that. What if the earth has actually embarked on a natural cooling phase—a new Little Ice Age—and the CO2 we're putting out there is offsetting it? After all, says Ebell, "we just came out of a Little Ice Age in the middle of the 19th century. And the Little Ice Age was a time of great trial for human civilization."
"Another specious argument," Mann says. First, he says, the so-called Little Ice Age wasn't a major event in terms of impact on global temperature: "While Europe cooled, the tropical Pacific was in an unusually warm state. So you can't just broad-brush the global temperature changes in this way. Models and paleoclimate data both suggest that the global cooling during the Little Ice Age was modest, much smaller than the global warming of the past century." The skeptics say that natural changes, such as a slight reduction in solar intensity, made the Little Ice Age happen. Ebell's suggestion is that that could be happening again. Mann observes that there's no evidence of this. Even if solar variations have had some modest effect on climate today, he adds, they would be more than offset by greenhouse-gas warming. Given the huge and growing volume of gases mankind is generating, says Mann, such natural factors would be dwarfed.
As indeed they are. Every year now, with no discernible slowing from "natural variations" such as solar intensity and volcanic activity, global mean temperatures rise. Twenty-one of the 22 hottest years on record have occurred in the last 25 years. The only reason temperatures rise, agrees virtually every climate scientist not funded by ExxonMobil, is the increasing prevalence of man-made greenhouse gases.
As these hot years accumulate, a skeptic of less determination might throw in the towel—after mopping his brow with it—but not Ebell. He says that one of the three official records of those surface temperatures—the one kept by nasa—is "cooked," because the agency's weather stations are often set too close to "urban heat islands," which read disproportionately high, and that other stations fail to cover large rural areas. The other two records show that 2005 wasn't as warm as 1998. That, Ebell says, is more evidence we're at the start of a cooling period.
Unfortunately for this novel theory, 2006 has just been declared the hottest year on record in the United States. "The United States is not the world," Ebell says. "It's a very small part of the world."
A lot of very strange weather appears to be occurring as a result of those rising temperatures. Global warming, scientists say, evaporates moisture from wet land, leading to more precipitation. It sucks up what little moisture resides in dry land, producing more droughts. As global warming accelerates, they say, the climates of both kinds of terrain will grow more extreme.
Ebell says no. "This is crazy," he declares. "Who could possibly believe that? You can't predict regional climate change." He claims that the federally funded U.S. National Assessment of Climate Change proved this. "They had two climate models for the precipitation impact of global warming in the Midwest. One showed the Midwest becoming a desert and the other one showed Kansas becoming as lush as Indiana."
"Those studies are dated and irrelevant," says Kevin Trenberth, one of the country's foremost climate experts. Trenberth heads the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (ncar), in Boulder, Colorado. "They were done in about 1995," he says of the studies. "The state of climate modeling was immature.… As many as 23 models since then have superseded them. These models can now simulate the last hundred years quite well, and thus are useful for broadscale predictions of the future."
Those models, says Trenberth, prove that the global mean temperature has gone up about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in that time, most of that since the 1970s. "Warmer air holds more water," Trenberth explains. "So in the U.S. the overall precipitation since 1900 has gone up, mostly in the last 35 years, by 7 percent. Heavy rainfall has gone up l4 percent, and the heaviest rainfall—the top 1 percent—has gone up by 20 percent. It rains more, and when it rains, it rains harder than it used to, and that certainly applies to the Midwest." Dry areas of the U.S., mainly the Southwest, do become drier as warm air pulls up what little moisture there is in the soil, Trenberth says, and so one sees more droughts. "There's simply no rational reason to doubt that those trends will not continue if global temperatures rise, as they seem set to do."
Mainstream scientists say that, along with a warming atmosphere, our oceans are heating up, too. "I think that's made up," Ebell says. "I understand that the oceans are primarily heated by direct solar radiation. I do not understand how—beyond just the surface—they are heated by the warming up of the atmosphere. It seems to me that the atmosphere would have to warm up significantly above the previous level before that radiation could actually heat up the ocean."
"That's the most preposterous bullshit I've ever heard," exclaims Tom Wigley, another senior scientist at ncar and co-author of a new study on ocean warming. "Perhaps that would be the case if the oceans didn't move. But the ocean is continually moving, horizontally and vertically, and continually mixing heat down to the depths. The top 100 meters has warmed about the same amount as the atmosphere—about one and a half degrees Fahrenheit. The deeper ocean warms much more slowly, but each degree increase in atmospheric temperature does propagate down.… In fact, the amount of warming agrees exceptionally well with what computer models say should have happened." Wigley says the models suggest that the rate of ocean warming in the 21st century will probably be four times greater than in the 20th century.
Ebell has a phrase for such predictions. Computer models for predicting climate, he says, "don't even pass the laugh test."
Wigley is astonished: "Does he think modeling is a hoax? Has he ever tried to talk to people about this?, I wonder. Or is he just having a guess?" Wigley observes that scientists have charted actual weather data from the 20th century, then programmed computer models to see how well the models predict the weather that actually occurred. "There are hundreds of papers," says Wigley, "showing that models do a fantastically good job."
Warming oceans already appear to have stirred tropical hurricanes of greater intensity and duration than in the past, though scientists are wary of suggesting that any particular storm—Katrina, for example—is the direct result of warming. What they do say, Wigley observes, is that, if warming trends continue, ocean storms will definitely grow stronger.
Ebell has a cheerier forecast. "Everybody involved in this debate who knows anything about storms knows that a warmer world will be a more stable planet with less big storms," he says. "There may be more hurricanes … but most of the big storms that kill a lot of people are in the winter, right? Cold kills a lot more people than warmth."
Scientists who do believe the ocean is warming—which is to say, nearly all of them—can already measure the cost to sea life. Researchers at the Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, in Plymouth, England, have found that, as a result of warming, the entire eco-system of the North Sea is in a state of "ecological meltdown."
Ebell disputes that. "If the oceans are warming, or the acidity is changing, that will benefit some species more than others," he says. "Some will take over, others will die out or move on somewhere else. The oceans are changing all the time."
For oceanographers, one worrisome sign lies right offshore: in tropical oceans all over the world, coral reefs are bleaching and dying as the acidity caused by warming, apparently, kills the plankton that sustain them.
Ebell is unconcerned. "My impression of corals," he says, "is that they have successfully adapted in the past to warmer temperatures and to cooler temperatures, and there is a good deal of evidence that they can adapt—that they actually changed their composition based on the temperature and the chemistry of the waters surrounding them over time."
"He is, of course, right and, of course, wrong," replies Dr. Elliott Norse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. "Corals and their relatives have lived on earth for hundreds of millions of years. They've been more and less abundant, if you take the long view. On the other hand, there have been cataclysmic changes that have happened five previous times in the earth's history. The last was 65 million years ago when a celestial body the size of Mt. Everest hit the earth and caused the extinction of dinosaurs and many other species. It was not a nice time to be around, as I'm sure Mr. Ebell would have found in the minutes before he died."
Actually, warming has already affected countless species on land—or so say experts such as James Hansen, the nasa scientist who first sounded the alarm about global warming, two decades ago. Warming temperatures, he says, are forcing animals to migrate north out of their habitats. As they do, they disrupt the chain of life in their eco-systems, putting themselves and other species at risk. They may also run into man-made barriers that kill them, leading ultimately to their extinction.
"I've never seen a good study on that," Ebell counters. "What you see are studies that show that animals are living at higher elevations than they used to, or higher latitudes. Like you find robins now all over Canada."
Most immediately threatened, says Hansen, are animals of the polar climates: they have nowhere colder to go. As their world warms, the icebergs on which many of them live are melting, dooming them to drown. "Polar bears, in effect, will be pushed off the planet," Hansen has written.
"James Hansen was not trained as a climate scientist," Ebell says. "He was trained as an astronomer. He's a physicist. His dissertation was on the atmosphere of Venus, and he has applied what he's learned in physics and in astronomy to become a climate scientist, but you know from him talking about species' going north, he knows nothing about biology. Have you seen Legates's study?"
David Legates is another hard-core skeptic, director of the University of Delaware's Center for Climatic Research, who recently issued a paper declaring that only 2 of the world's 20 polar-bear populations are decreasing. Most of the others are stable; two are growing. What Ebell neglects to mention is that Legates's paper was published by another think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis—whose global- warming-denial research was partially funded in 2005 with a $75,000 contribution from ExxonMobil—not in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
The polar-bear study that was peer-reviewed—predicting that polar bears are moving toward extinction—was the work of more than 300 scientists and experts around the world in a consortium called the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Even the U.S. Department of the Interior has now proposed that polar bears be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because polar sea ice is melting—an extraordinary admission for an administration philosophically aligned with the skeptics. But Ebell is unwilling to concede that polar bears are in any trouble at all.
The assessment team also concluded that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world—with some parts of Alaska warming as much as 10 times as fast. As a consequence, over the past 30 years, areas of ocean that are at least 15 percent ice have decreased annually by nearly 390,000 square miles, an area larger than Norway, Sweden, and Denmark combined. "We're facing unprecedented changes," says Dr. Robert Corell, senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, who chaired the study.
"Corell is not a climate scientist," Ebell says. "He's not an Arctic expert. He's not a glaciologist. He's not any of those things. He is an oceanographer and an engineer."
The whole Arctic assessment, he declares, is cooked data. "If you look at the temperature graph … they show a strong warming trend in the last 34 years.… They cut the data off at 1950. There's a well-known Arctic temperature record that goes back to the early years of the 20th century. The reason they cut it off at 1950 is it was warmer in the Arctic in the 30s and 40s than it is today." The truth, Ebell says, is that "the Arctic warms and cools according to a period of natural cycles of several decades. And we're now in the warm phase; in the 50s and 60s and 70s we were in the cool phase. This is how you cook the data, and this is what these people are all about."
"That's baloney," Corell says. "We did go back further; we have historical records that go back 400,000 years. Parts of the Arctic were probably a little warmer in the 1930s than they are today, but the whole Arctic is warmer today certainly than it's been in the last thousand years—and probably a lot longer than that."
As for his background, Corell notes that, after studying engineering and oceanography, he made his first trip to the Arctic in 1968 and has been in and out of it ever since, taking sediment cores and writing papers, all while heading up the National Science Foundation's climate-study program. "I have never met Ebell," he adds. "He's never contacted me or sent anyone in the assessment any questions."
Corell's team feels that if warming continues at current rates the Arctic polar ice cap will soon start melting completely every summer. Ebell says so what. "The period in which the ice might disappear is a fairly limited one," he says. Besides, he points out, the Arctic polar cap is ice that's floating on water. "So that doesn't have any effect on sea levels at all—just like the ice cubes in your drink, when they melt, they don't change the level."
The same can't be said for the ice sheets over much of Greenland and all of Antarctica: they sit on land. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore explains how the melting of either the Greenland ice sheet or the western arm of the Antarctica ice sheet would increase the level of the world's oceans by as much as 20 feet, inundating low-lying coastal areas from the Maldives to Manhattan. Ebell says that all this is exaggerated or plain wrong. The new alarm about Greenland, he points out, was based on a study of three years of melting. "It's melting slightly faster than it was four years ago, and we get worldwide consternation."
Though he likes to bash scientists for working outside their degreed fields, Ebell, it turns out, isn't a scientist at all. He majored in philosophy at the University of California in San Diego, then studied political theory at the London School of Economics and history at Cambridge. He was, he readily admits, a misfit growing up in rural Oregon on his father's 2,000-acre cattle ranch: a "pointy-headed intellectual" who "loathed the counterculture." He was a misfit in England, too, he discovered: not smart enough to get a fellowship at Cambridge, as Ebell modestly puts it, and not English enough to make do with the modest pay of an English academic. So he returned—with his Albuquerque-born wife, whom he'd met in England—to the U.S., working a succession of public-policy jobs in Washington, carving out conservative positions on property rights, federal lands, and endangered species. In none of those realms did he have any more than his curiosity and convictions.
"I'm not claiming to be a climate authority—the way Jim Hansen is, or Robert Corell," says Ebell. "Every interview I do, when I'm asked about scientific issues, I say I'm not a climate scientist. I'm just giving you the informed layman's perspective.… If science is going to be discussed in the public arena, then shouldn't people other than scientists be allowed to participate? Isn't that what a representative democracy is?"
With evidence of global warming piling ever higher, even the best of the skeptics has a harder time making his case. So Ebell and his colleagues have hit on a new theme. Maybe warming will occur at more than modest rates in the future, he acknowledges.
Some people think that's not so bad.
"People prefer warmer climates," Ebell declares. "They do better in them. People do better in Phoenix than they do in Buffalo. They feel better, they're happier, they're more productive. They live longer."
All predictions of global warming, Ebell observes, suggest that the tropics will stay about the same. The real effects of warming will be in the upper latitudes. "Northern cities like Saskatoon will be more like Calgary, and Bismarck, North Dakota, will be more like Kansas City, and Kansas City will be more like Oklahoma City. Now, is this really bad?"
Yes, it is, says Dr. Paul R. Epstein, of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. "It's not just the warming," he says. Or the storms and other weather extremes. Or the stress put on visible creatures of sea and land. "It's the pests and diseases!"
Epstein has studied the spread of malarial mosquitoes to ever higher mountain altitudes in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. "In the very places where glaciers are retreating and plant communities are migrating upward and temperatures are warming, mosquitoes are circulating." The pattern is consistent from one continent's mountains to the next. "That," Epstein notes, "creates conditions conducive to disease transmission at high altitudes."
Wrong again, says Ebell. "What Paul Epstein publishes is total rubbish," he exclaims. "Temperature is one of the least important factors in the spread of tropical diseases. Malaria didn't used to be called a tropical disease, because it was endemic throughout the world. It's tropical now because it's the rich countries that were able to eradicate it." Actually, that's not true. Malaria was originally called ague or marsh fever because it emanated from warm-weather swamps. Mosquitoes are warm-weather carriers, and the pioneering work done more than a century ago to identify them as carriers, before rich countries had any inkling they were to blame, was done in Algeria, Cuba, and India—all tropical or subtropical climes.
Epstein has another example: bark beetles. Not long ago, vigilant forestry had drastically reduced their prevalence in the U.S. Now because of warmer winters, he says, they've spread back north as far as Alaska. Frost used to kill them off, but now they "overwinter" and produce more generations each year as they go. "They kill the trees, laying eggs inside the bark," Epstein explains. "So we see vast stands of dead trees, and more forest fires."
Ebell says he grew up with bark beetles on his family's ranch. Their recent spread, he says, is simply due to poor forest management, not global warming. "Epstein is a medical doctor, not a scientist," he says. "He's a mountebank."
"What does that even mean?" Epstein says wonderingly. Though the Harvard doctor does know who Ebell is: "He works for that group funded by ExxonMobil, doesn't he?"
Every five to seven years now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), a United Nations–backed consortium of more than 2,500 experts from around the world, issues a voluminous report on global climate—the largest exercise in scientific research ever undertaken. Drafts of the latest report—the fourth—began appearing in February. Its conclusions are devastating. Casting aside the scientific caution of the first three reports, it says global warming is "unequivocal" and largely man-made. It predicts with greater than 90 percent confidence that if carbon dioxide levels rise to double what they were in pre-industrial times, which they'll likely do by the end of the century if fossil-fuel emissions aren't drastically cut, they will push global mean temperatures up between 3.5 and 8 degrees. That would warm the earth to a level not seen in 125,000 years. (That last rise was, of course, a very gradual one, allowing nature to adjust, not a flip-switch jolt in the blink of 350 years.) Already, the warming that's occurred seems likely to increase sea levels 7 to 23 inches by 2100. That's without taking into account the consequences of polar-ice-cap melting, the factor that Al Gore, James Hansen, and others say might cause sea levels to rise by 20 feet or more. The I.P.C.C. scientists say they can't predict the rate of ice-cap melting, and are forbidden, by their United Nations charter, to include speculation. So they just leave that part out. A second part, issued in March, predicts tens of millions of environmental refugees each year from flooding, the rampant spread of tropical diseases (including malaria), and widespread starvation by 2080.
Ebell says the I.P.C.C.'s verdicts are highly misleading. Most of those 2,500 experts work on small, specific bits of one of three 1,000-page reports. Their work isn't alarmist. Only the summaries are. "Who writes the summary for policymakers?," Ebell asks. "The member governments that belong to the I.P.C.C., not the scientists who work on the three 1,000-page case reports."
"Mr. Ebell doesn't understand how the I.P.C.C. works if he claims that the summaries are only the products of the governments," replies Richard H. Moss, senior climate director at the United Nations Foundation, who's a leading member of the I.P.C.C. as well as a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland. "All lead authors do have input into the summary documents, not just to the underlying chapters or specific portions of the summaries related to their expertise. Almost all concur that the evidence is mounting that we have a serious problem on our hands that we must begin to address."
For Ebell, being a contrarian has proved to be a pointy-headed misfit's idea of good fun. Still, with new studies appearing almost weekly confirming global warming, why not come out for doing something—anything—to help slow its onset in the bizarre event that it's as real as thousands of scientists say it is?
Ah, says Ebell with the grin of a debater who's saved his best points for last, because of the risk. "It's a risk-risk analysis," he says. "What is the risk of some of the consequences of global warming happening and having to deal with them compared to the risks of putting the world on an energy-rationing diet?"
The Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations agreement ratified by, as of February 2007, 170 countries to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions but shunned by President Bush, has proved his point already, Ebell says. Many European nations will miss their 2010 targets for reducing fossil-fuel emissions. They're making huge sacrifices—in industry and capital growth—for tiny or nonexistent energy savings. President Bush was right to avoid it, Ebell says: it would cost the U.S. between $100 billion and $400 billion a year by 2050 to offset global warming by seven-hundredths of a degree Celsius. Not by chance was Kyoto's approach voted down 95–0 by the U.S. Senate in 1997—it is a dead end, Ebell says.
As governments fail one by one to curb their greenhouse gases, Ebell suggests, a new generation of leaders will see the Kyoto Protocol for what it is: a loser. "They will want to distance themselves from it because it is a train wreck, and the scientific community will go, 'Oh, well, uh, maybe it wasn't as big a problem as we thought it was!'"
"Ebell may be proved right about Kyoto," says longtime New York Times environment reporter Andrew Revkin. "And because global warming isn't a catastrophe in the traditional definition of the word, its full impact won't be felt tomorrow, or next year, or perhaps even for decades. That makes it easy for Ebell to target some scientists as alarmists. This can perpetuate a false sense of intellectual deadlock. And that masks what is clearly established—that more carbon dioxide will raise temperatures and seas for centuries to come."
The best way to deal with warming, Ebell says, is to do exactly what President Bush is doing: encourage the energy industry to burn more gas, more oil, and more coal. The more energy we burn, the more prosperous the energy industry becomes. The more prosperous it is, the more quickly it replaces its fossil-fuel plants, using new technology that does a better job of trapping greenhouse gases. In 50 years, Ebell says, if global warming has really become the problem alarmists say it will be, the technology to deal with it then will be 50 years better than it is now. So let's wait until then, and tackle it more intelligently, more efficiently—more cheaply—than we can today.
To Harvard's Paul Epstein, that's the skeptics' most reprehensible claim. "Not only have the skeptics and the administration been misleading us about the science but about the economic consequences of trying to deal with this problem," he says. "They've maintained this big lie that we're going to lose if we deal with this now. In truth, Detroit is losing heavily because we're not dealing with this now. We're losing by not moving toward green buildings and hybrid cars and co-generation. Companies that are doing this are saving money."
As nearly every week brings a new alarm about global warming, Ebell stays proudly resolute—rather like George W. Bush rationalizing each new setback in Iraq. Only, with global warming, even the Bush administration is now embracing the latest I.P.C.C. report, in principle at least, and trying to make a case that Bush is now a convert to the reality of the threat. With warming, as with Iraq, alarm is growing among U.S. lawmakers. Recently, West Virginia Democratic senator John D. Rockefeller IV, who has championed the coal industry in his state for 30 years, teamed up with Maine Republican senator Olympia Snowe to write a quietly impassioned letter to ExxonMobil's new chairman and C.E.O., Rex W. Tillerson. The senators asked Tillerson to have ExxonMobil cease and desist from its global-warming-denial campaign. They are, they wrote, "persuaded that the climate change denial strategy carried out by and for ExxonMobil has helped foster the perception that the United States is insensitive to a matter of great urgency for all of mankind, and has thus damaged the stature of our nation internationally." In particular, they wrote, "We fervently hope that reports that ExxonMobil intends to end its funding of the climate change denial campaign of the Competitive Enterprise Institute are true."
Myron Ebell is shocked—shocked—and, of course, delighted. To be singled out among the three dozen ExxonMobil front groups is quite an honor. "Obviously it helps us with our media and general visibility," he acknowledges. In fact, ExxonMobil stopped funding C.E.I. last year. The company has also indicated to the Royal Society, Britain's prestigious academy of science, that it is reviewing the funding of all outside groups, but insists this is an annual process.
The scope of that edict may not be clear until early 2008, when the company publishes its 2007 Worldwide Giving Report. Already, though, Ebell is portraying C.E.I. as "a little flyspeck" up against the awesome clout of the competition. "The major environmental groups in this country have budgets of collectively over $1 billion a year," he says. "Our budget is $3.7 million a year, of which only about a quarter goes to global warming. Add up the other [global-warming denier] groups and maybe you can get to $10 million."
By late January, an eerily warm autumn has given way to an even stranger season. Europe is swept by 100-m.p.h. winds, while the Alps experience their warmest winter in 1,250 years. New Yorkers wear T-shirts and shorts on a 70-degree-Fahrenheit day. A month later, arctic weather descends, and Oswego County, New York, gets 11 feet of snow in a week, as bizarre and record-breaking a stretch of weather as the warm days of the month before. Ebell is unconcerned—still. "I remember a Christmas in the 1980s in Washington, D.C.—it was 78 degrees and I got sunburned," he reminisces. "Records are set all the time."