A climate scientist in the “reality-based community” finds science advisor Marburger talk “scary”

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In his critical review on the RealClimate site of a December 11 talk by White House science advisor John Marburger, Prof. Ray Pierrehumbert sees political slant continuing to trump climate science.

RealClimate is a highly valuable site written by climate scientists and devoted to explanation and good-quality discussion of key current scientific issues. As a straight science site, RealClimate doesn’t usually deal directly with the governmental accountability issues we focus on all the time with Climate Science Watch. But they made an exception in covering Marburger’s lecture at the big American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco this week. We hope RealClimate doesn’t mind our taking the liberty of reprinting below the relevant passage from their December 11 post. 

Raymond Pierrehumbert is the Louis Block Professor in Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, having earlier served on the atmospheric science faculties of MIT and Princeton. He was a lead author of the IPCC Third Assessment Report, and a co-author of the National Research Council study on abrupt climate change.

RealClimate, December 11

Live (almost) from AGU–Dispatch #1
by Ray Pierrehumbert

…Mark Fahnestock and collaborators presented additional evidence of the responsiveness of the Greenland ice sheet to climate change around the margins….The coasts of Greenland have experienced dramatic warming, with satellite data showing the sea having warmed by 4C over the past 15 years. Winter freezing along the coast has shown a dramatic decrease (noticed even by the local Inuit, who in places can no longer traverse certain fjords on dogsled in winter). The dramatic decline in winter freezing shows up in satellite-based sea ice extent maps. If the sea ice goes, can Greenland be far behind? Altogether, things are beginning to look very grim in Greenland ­- a sentiment expressed by many of the presenters.

Now, that was some of the interesting science, fascinating if scary. Another presentation given today was scary in quite a different way, and altogether aggravating. John Marburger, President Bush’s Science Advisor, gave the Union Agency Lecture. His lecture was called “Reflections on the Science and Policy of Energy and Climate Change.” The good news, I suppose, is that he at least stated that he accepted the established physical connection between CO2 increase and warming ­ the inhibition of infrared emission by CO2, amplified by water vapor feedback. That’s about the only good thing I can say about the lecture. It was basically an hour long apology for the White House global warming policy. And don’t get me wrong ­- by “apology” I do not mean that he was expressing regret for the dismal performance of the White House in this sphere.

While acknowledging the correctness of the basic physics, Marburger implied that it was impossible to make useful predictions of climate damages, because of difficulties models have with forecasting regional climate change and things like response of El Nino to warming. Over and over, he castigated the community for being reluctant to do research on adaptation, and over and over stated that adaptation was cheaper than mitigation (reducing CO2 emissions). He stated that it was going to be basically impossible to reduce emissions significantly anyway, since the technologies didn’t exist to do that (I guess he never read Pacala and Socolow’s paper on the wedge concept). His basic answer to everything was that nobody would (or should) do anything until carbon free energy became cheaper than current means of producing energy by burning fossil fuels. There was no recognition that things like carbon taxes might be necessary to put the cost of harms due to climate change into the market. These damages were basically ignored in his world view ­ except insofar as he said they should be handled by adaptation. “Anthropogenic Climate Change is not the only source of risk to vulnerable populations” He mentioned the need for clean water ­ the favorite example for everybody who wants to ignore climate change.

He had lots of praise for fossil fuels “Fossil fuels have made modern economies possible.” and echoed the Bush administration line by saying the goal should be to reduce carbon intensity (carbon per $ of GDP) not carbon emissions. Sorry, Dr. Marburger, but infrared radiative transfer doesn’t give a fig about GDP. It’s the emissions that count, and they somehow have to be brought down.

It will be no surprise that Marburger hewed to the line that only voluntary carbon reductions should be sought. He referred to “aspirational goals” as the basis for global carbon policy. More remarkably, he put the blame on Congress when somebody asked why no mandatory carbon caps had been put into place ­ conveniently ignoring that Congress is within a few votes of passing such a cap, but is laboring under a Presidential veto threat. Even more remarkably, in response to a question about White House censorship and re-writing of documents touching on climate change science, he defended these as “Legitimate attempts to improve the communication of science,” and to “correct some fine points that got glossed over.” He baldly stated, “I have not found any evidence of any attempt to censor science.”

Perhaps somebody should ask Jim Hansen for a second opinion on that. I’m sure our readers can provide Dr. Marburger with additional examples, if he needs a reminder.

Now, I know I am dangerously straying away from the central orbit of RealClimate, and risking touching on politics when I comment on Marburger’s speech. As a major speech presented at a national scientific meeting, I think what was said is probably of interest to our readers, or at least those of us who inhabit the reality-based community. What is going on in the White House very much affects the climate in which science is conducted,and the way scientific results are (or are not) translated into policy.

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