Why I’m an global warming skeptic

| March 24, 2008

[UPDATED 03/27/08 — some additions and a few corrections]

Of course, I’m talking specifically about “anthropogenic [human-caused] global warming” (AGW), the cause célèbre of the Environmental Left.

Here’s the short answer: because I have a degree in computer science, I’ve done professional work in simulations and modeling, and I’ve had classes in numerical analysis (not to mention logic and reasoning). Also, I’ve been tracking this issue for roughly 30 years (and, I could argue, for over 40 years). Oh, and I was one of the world’s leading experts on Y2K.

The long answer — and it really is a long answer — is after the jump.

Disclaimer up front: if I seem to talk a bit too much about myself or my own talents or qualifications, it’s because I’m personally offended by the trend in both the media and among the Left to label “global warming deniers” as somehow being anti-science, anti-intellectual, and generally ignorant.

I Started Out as a Child

I have been a science geek from young childhood. While I was still in elementary school, my parents bought me (via subscription) the Time-Life Science and Nature Libraries, which I read (and read repeatedly). All that reading paid off when in the summer of 1967, I signed up for a summer school class in Oceanography at the high school (Grossmont) where I would be starting 9th grade in the fall. The class was taught by a visiting professor of micropaleontology (Dr. Thompson), who was a great, if challenging and frequently sarcastic, teacher. The class members themselves ranged from incoming freshman (like myself) to outgoing seniors. Much to my surprise, by about half way through the summer term I found myself one of the top 2-3 students in the class (out of 20-30 students).

We all had to do a major project towards the end of the class, including an oral presentation of our project. My choice, believe it or not, was how sea levels would change (and what the resulting impact on continental coastlines would be) were the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps to melt. I don’t think I got more than a minute or so into my presentation when Dr. Thompson immediately challenged me to come up with any mechanism that would cause such extensive melting in anything but a geological time scale. When I tried to suggest a few — including a sharp warming of global climate — he challenged me to to do the math to figure out how much the temperature would have to increase, and for how long, to melt the amount of ice and snow I was talking about. I tried to continue by suggesting that we simply stipulate some mechanism could exist, so I could get on to describing the effects — and Dr. Thompson said, in effect, “If you don’t have a plausible mechanism, then your results are irrelevant nonsense.” I stumbled through for a few more minutes, then sat down, a bit shell-shocked.

I continued to be a math and science geek all through high school, my principal interests being space and oceanography. I followed the space program, both manned and unmanned, very closely. It was during the 60s that the Soviet probes to Venus discovered that Venus was (a) very hot (like, “melting point of lead” hot) and (b) had an atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide (CO2). The immediate speculation was that the CO2 in the atmosphere caused a “greenhouse effect” that accounted for the high temperatures — and that something like that could happen here (“runaway greenhouse effect”) if CO2 continued to build up in the earth’s atmosphere — ignoring, of course, the relative concentrations of CO2 in the two atmospheres (96.5% for Venus, 0.04% for Earth, a 2500-fold difference).

I was a National Merit Finalist and went to Brigham Young University in 1971 on a full scholarship, majoring in microbiology, since BYU didn’t have an oceanography major. (I had originally planned to major in astrophysics — in fact, that’s what it says under my senior photo in my high school yearbook — but had subsequently read an article in Physics Today or a similar publication about all the astrophysics PhDs driving cabs and tending bars.) However, I had been briefly exposed to computers in high school and had a more extensive exposure during my freshman year at BYU. After my freshman year, I spent two years doing missionary work in Central America; during that time, I decided to change my major to computer science when I got back. I did so and took to it like a fish to water.

This was now the same timeframe as the Club of Rome, a group that used computer modeling (“System Dynamics”) to predict near-term massive shortages in vital resources. They popularized their finding a book, The Limits to Growth, which was in many respects the An Inconvenient Truth of its era. (I still have my original copy, the 2nd edition published in 1974.)

For my technical writing class (English 316), I wrote a brief paper critiquing the Club of Rome’s “World3” model. I identified three World3 assumptions that I considered flawed:

  • that “most growth and consumption curves will continue to rise at an exponential rate until collapse occurs”, while ignoring that “as prices rise [for a given resource], efforts will be made to find effective substitutes for and better applications of the expensive resource”;
  • that “the figures that [the Club of Rome] obtained for reserves of resources were accurate”, while ignoring that “most known reserves don’t extend beyond 20 or 30 years simply because it is not economically rewarding to develop a resource that won’t be needed for several decades” and that “reports such as the one issued by the U.S. Bureau of Mines have in the past been consistently inaccurate in their predictions”;
  • and that “once a resource has been transformed into industrial output (machinery, goods, energy), it cannot be recovered or recycled.”

Needless to say, virtually all of the predictions and trends identified by the Club of Rome — as eventually was true with all the major’environmental disaster’ book written back in the 60s and 70s (e.g., The Population Bomb, The Coming Dark Age, The Closing Circle, The End of Affluence, Small is Beautiful — I read them all back when they came out, still have my original copies) — turned out to be wrong.

After graduating from BYU in 1978 (with “Highest Honors” and “University Scholar” designations), I worked first at General Dynamics (including work on cruise missile and large space structure simulations) for a year. I then went to work for Link Simulations, one of three major contractors (along with Ford and IBM) on the Space Shuttle flight simulators at NASA/Johnson Space Center. I then went over the Lunar and Planetary Institute, where I did more simulation/modeling work (plate tectonics on Venus) among other projects.

At this same time, I started doing graduate work in computer science at University of Houston Clear Lake (an upper-division/graduate campus located near NASA). One class I took was Numerical Methods (taught by Rod Bown). In his opening lecture, Dr. Bown pointed out that the problem with computer models and simulations was that they tended to diverge from reality very quickly, due to the assumptions, starting conditions, data sets, formula, simplifications and calculations involved, as well as the inherent limitations of the computers themselves. (As my notebook — yes, I still have my notebook — reads, “not always possible to model or predict reality due to lack of precision in computers”.)

History and Politics

On a completely different tangent, I had become keenly interested in history in college (having neglected it pretty shamelessly in high school). And as I read in history, I repeatedly ran across varied references to the periods now known as the “Holocene Climactic Optimum” (9000-5000 BC), the “Medieval Warm Period” (800-1300 AD), and the “Little Ice Age” (starting sometime in the 13th through 17th century AD, ending around 1850 AD). So it seemed pretty clear and uncontroversial to me that the earth’s climate had bumped up and down through human history.

Finally, while I had been (and still am) a registered Democrat since turning 18 in 1971, and while I was a firm believer in the environmental cleanup that started in the 1960s (having grown up in Southern California and experienced 60s-era smog first hand), I was also pretty clear that the Far Left had to a large extent hijacked the environmental movement as a means to an end, viz., “Just put us in charge, give us the power we ask, and we’ll make everything better.” Beyond that, I found that observers such as Julian Simon had a far better prediction track record than the doom-and-gloomers on the Left.

What all this means is that when “global warming” became a growing issue in the media, I was mildly skeptical for several reasons:

  • first, the climate had been warming up since the mid-1800s and — from what I could tell — had not yet returned to the levels of the Holocene and Medieval warm periods;
  • second, the earth’s atmosphere and climate are among the most difficult systems that humanity has ever tried to monitor, forecast and model, and I saw potentially tremendous pitfalls in such an effort;
  • third, the Environmental Left appeared to be using the ’cause’ to pursue its own political agenda — and the more the science was challenged, the more shrill they became (“global warming deniers”, indeed).

Still, the UN IPCC did have the Mann Hockey Stick graph, which did show a dramatic rise in global temperatures in the past century or so, so I figured that it could indeed be a real problem. But I still was skeptical — and it was largely because of my own involvement in Y2K.

Year 2000

Now, back in 1996 I got sucked into the Year 2000 (Y2K) issue. I was heading up a group of 20 or so OSG consultants at Fannie Mae for a major object technology initiative. I coordinated my efforts with Carol Teasley, a Fannie Mae vice-president and perhaps the brightest and most competent person I’ve ever worked for. Around November of 1996, Carol was given Y2K remediation and preparation responsibility for all of Fannie Mae. Misery loves company, as they say, so Carol drafted me into the effort as well.

Let me pause here and assure you that Y2K was not a myth or a scam. It was a real problem; Fannie Mae did not casually spend many millions of dollars over two years to renovate and test its systems to fix a “myth”. The problems were real; they were pervasive in both Fannie’s internally developed systems as well as many of the third-party software and hardware products it used; and if left unrepaired, they would have brought Fannie Mae to a halt. The same was true in many, many other organizations.

That said, Y2K was overblown as a problem, but not deliberately (at least, not by most of us involved). There was definitely a consensus (a favorite word among the AGW proponents) among the best and the brightest working on and dealing with Y2K, but that consensus was wrong. Let me explain why and how.

[NOTE: please forgive the missing graphical elements on some of the WDCY2K web pages linked below; also, the links within the pages themselves don’t necessarily work]

One of the tasks that Fannie Mae tasked me (and Helen Drew, a Fannie Mae employee) with was to organize monthly meetings at Fannie Mae HQ on Wisconsin Avenue in Washingon DC of people from other organizations working on Y2K. Helen and I succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. What we organized became known as the “Washington DC Year 2000 Group” (WDCY2K Group). We had over 2000 members from over 350 different organizations, corporations, and government agencies, and we regularly had 200-400 people attending each monthly meetings. These weren’t TEOTWAWKI surivialists; these were the people actually responsible for fixing Y2K problems in major corporations and in every US Government agency. We had people who regularly flew in from New York, Boston, and Chicago to attend these meetings.

Our typical meetings started with hors d’oeuvres and drinks and a good half-hour or more of mingling; that was one of the key purposes of the group, to get everyone working on this problem talking to each other and sharing ideas. We’d then have either a panel discussion and/or a single speaker, including two talks by Senator Bob Bennett (head of the Senate Y2K Committee) and one by John Koskinen, President Clinton’s Y2K Czar.

Helen did not want to be in the limelight, so I served as President of the WDCY2K Group. I was the one who met, who mingled, who introduced, and who ran the meetings. Because of that visible position, I ended up testifying three times before Congress on Y2K issues; being part of a 3-hour panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that was taped and televised by C-SPAN (and became their single most-requested tape); and also appearing on several news shows, including “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer”. I even wrote a book, which I wanted to title “The Winter of Our Disconnect”, but which Prentice-Hall named The Y2K Survival Guide (sigh).

I also conducted two extensive polls of the WDCY2K membership, using a detailed 0..10 scale of Y2K impacts. The first survey, done in 1998, had a major peak at 5, with subpeaks at 3 and 7. The second survey, done in 1999, overall had three peaks: a major one at 2, a significant one at 4, and a still measurable bump at 8 (though as the results show, that distribution varied quite a bit when broken down by area of impact). And, as I said, these were the folks actually in the trenches, dealing with the problem on a daily basis.

Now, as early as October 1998 (when I wrote my book), I figured that the Y2K impact in the United States would be “anti-climactic” (the actual word I used in the book) because of the work done to date. I figured that the main impact in the US would be economic, not operational, and even that wouldn’t be major. As a result, I was being called a “Pollyanna” by the hardcore Y2Kers (mostly due to my response at length to one of them). And by the time Y2K itself rolled around, I was in the 2 peak of the group, not the 4 or 8 group.

And yet Y2K — both domestically and internationally — was even more underwhelming than I expected or, for that matter, just about anyone else involved in Y2K. I took part of another Y2K panel discussion at CSIS — this one, a Y2K post-mortem — to figure out just what we got wrong. Here are my own thoughts.

Ignoring self-correcting feedback. As a rule, large organizations have a horrible track record with large information technology (IT) projects. This was one of the two major concerns about Y2K problems being fixed correctly and on time. In my opinion, the single most important revelation in corporate America about Y2K was the fact that corporate officers and directors could be personally sued for Y2K failures caused by their companies. The result was that virtually every company above a given size appointed a Y2K director (such as Carol) who had enormous — and unprecedented, particularly in IT circles — power to get things done. The standard joke at the time was, “What’s the difference between a Y2K director and a terrorist? You can negotiate with the terrorist.” By and large, they did an outstanding job getting things fixed, far better than any of us could or would have figured. Ironically, as Y2K wound down, many of them wondered what they would do next, since it meant going back to the usual political crap and lack of resources.

Relying upon erroneous information. As anyone really involved in Y2K what we got most wrong, and you’re likely to get the answer: embedded systems. An embedded system is what’s in your car, your phone, your thermostat, your TV, your DVR, your plane, and just about any other device, vehicle, or plant that has one or more microprocessors in it. Any type of processing or manufacturing facility is heavily populated by embedded processors. And what we were told — by folks who claimed to know, who should have known — was that about 15% of all embedded systems had potential Y2K problems. And, of course, since embedded systems are, well, embedded, they were going to be difficult to fix or replace. Well, I don’t know what the actual Y2K sensitivity and failure rate of embedded systems was, but the impact was minimal at most.

Overestimating the international impact. This was almost as big an error as the embedded systems issue. I spoke with people at the State Department who were absolutely stunned after the fact that Y2K appeared to have as little impact internationally as it did. The US was clearly the leader in Y2K remediation — we spent $110 billion domestically on Y2K repairs — and no one else was making that kind of expenditure, particularly in developing countries. And yet we didn’t see any major upheavals, at least not that we can identify. (Though I still think that Y2K was one of factors behind the tripling of oil prices — from $10/bbl to over $30/bbl — from early 1999 to early 2000.) In retrospect, I should have had a clue on this one. I spoke at a Middle East Y2K conference in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1998. After giving my presentation on potential social and infrastructure impacts of Y2K failures, I had a senior executive of the Bank of Lebanon come up to me and say, “I don’t see what the concern is; we deal with things like this every day.”

In short, Y2K was a real problem requiring real solutions in a very short time period — but the most informed and involved people working on it were largely wrong about its causes, impacts, and consequences.

The Collapse of Global Warming

My first clue that there were serious problems with anthropogenic global warming was, frankly, the vitriol towards and demonization of those who questioned it. In my experience, that is almost always a sign — especially in scientific circles — that the proponents of a given theory are insecure. I first saw this when Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick challenged both the data sets and the algorithms used by Mann et al. in producing the famous Hockey Stick. While I’m not a climatologist, I do know a lot about data sets, algorithms, and modeling — and what I was hearing was very disturbing. And the reaction to McIntyre and McKitrick was not to welcome open investigation and criticism but to circle the wagons and to start calling anyone who challenges global warming a lacky of the oil companies (curious, since the oil companies themselves seem to be drinking the AGW kool-aid).

Since then, I have continued to track the global warming issue on almost a daily basis, including browsing several blogs dedicated to it (including here, here, here, and here), as well as reading some books and any number of articles on the subject. And the more I dig into it, the less impressed I am with the models, the assumptions, and the data sets used by the AGW proponents, not to mention their rather bad track record on predictions (e.g., in the atmosphere, in the oceans, on the land, and just generally worldwide).

As I said at the start, I fully believe that the climate was warming from 1850 up through about 1998; current indications are that global temperatures have leveled off or even declined slightly for the past decade. I am far less convinced that human production of CO2 and methane form any significant contribution to that warming trend and am even less convinced that — short of shutting down much of civilization and killing off a major portion of the world’s population — we could reduce those emissions sufficiently to have an impact. I’m still in favor of a clean environment, but frankly the US has done a tremendous job of reducing all forms of pollution since my childhood and appears to be ahead of the rest of the world in reducing ‘greenhouse’ emissions. I think the real burden is upon Russia, India, and China to clean up their acts.

I also find the evidence and logic in some of the other theories (most notably the 1500-year solar cycle) to be far more credible that that advanced by AGW proponents. And, of course, the predictions of rising sea levels advance by Gore et al. are simply ludicrous and, in fact, are directly contradicted by the current UN IPCC predictions.

Dr. Thompson would agree. ..bruce webster..

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Category: Climate Change, Environment, Geopolitics, Information Technology, Main, Science, US Politics

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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