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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Skeptics Gather to Discuss Why Global Warming Isn’t Such a Big Worry

More than 600 self-professed climate skeptics are meeting in a Times Square hotel this week to challenge what has become a broad scientific and political consensus: that without big changes in energy choices, humans will dangerously heat up the planet.

The three-day International Conference on Climate Change — organized by the Heartland Institute, a nonprofit group seeking deregulation and unfettered markets — brings together political figures, conservative campaigners, scientists, an Apollo astronaut and the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus.

Organizers say the discussions, which began Sunday, are intended to counter the Obama administration and Democratic lawmakers, who have vowed to tackle global warming with legislation requiring cuts in the greenhouse gases that scientists have linked to rising temperatures.

But two years after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded with near certainty that most of the recent warming was a result of human influences, global warming’s skeptics are showing signs of internal rifts and weakening support.

The meeting participants hold a wide range of views of climate science. Some concede that humans probably contribute to global warming but they argue that the shift in temperatures poses no urgent risk. Others attribute the warming, along with cooler temperatures in recent years, to solar changes or ocean cycles.

But large corporations like Exxon Mobil, which in the past financed the Heartland Institute and other groups that challenged the climate consensus, have reduced support. Many such companies no longer dispute that the greenhouse gases produced by burning fossil fuels pose risks.

From 1998 to 2006, Exxon Mobil, for example, contributed more than $600,000 to Heartland, according to annual reports of charitable contributions from the company and company foundations.

Alan T. Jeffers, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said by e-mail that the company had ended support “to several public policy research groups whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion about how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.”

Joseph L. Bast, the president of the Heartland Institute, said that Exxon and other companies were just shifting their stance to improve their image. The Heartland meeting, he said, was the last bastion of intellectual honesty on the climate issue.

“Major corporations are painting themselves green around global warming,” Mr. Bast said, adding that the companies have shifted their lobbying and public relations efforts toward trying to shape climate legislation in their favor. He said that contributions, over all, had continued to rise.

But Kert Davies, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace, who is attending the Heartland event, said that the experts giving talks were “a shrinking collection of extremists” and that they were “left talking to themselves.”

Organizers expected to top the attendance of about 500 at the first Heartland conference, held last year. They also point to the speaker’s roster, which included Mr. Klaus and Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, Apollo astronaut and former senator.

A centerpiece of the 2008 meeting was the release of a report, “Nature, Not Human Activity, Rules the Planet.” The document was expressly designed as a challenge to the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This year, the meeting will focus on a more nuanced question: “Global warming: Was it ever a crisis?”

Most of the talks at the meeting will challenge climate orthodoxy. But some presenters, including prominent figures who have been vocal in their criticism in the past, say they will also call on their colleagues to synchronize the arguments they are using against plans to curb greenhouse gases.

In a keynote talk Sunday night, Richard S. Lindzen, a professor at M.I.T. and a longtime skeptic of the mainstream consensus that global warming poses a danger, first delivered a biting attack on what he called the “climate alarm movement.”

There is no solid scientific evidence to back up the models used by climate scientists who warn of dire consequences if warming continues, he said. But Dr. Lindzen also criticized widely publicized assertions by other skeptics that variations in the sun were driving temperature changes in recent decades. To attribute short-term variation in temperatures to a single cause, whether human-generated gases or something else, is erroneous, he said.

Speaking of the sun’s slight variability, he said, “Acting as though this is the alternative” to blaming greenhouse gases “is asking for trouble.”

S. Fred Singer, a physicist often referred to by critics and supporters alike as the dean of climate contrarians, said that he would be running public and private sessions on Monday aimed at focusing participants on which skeptical arguments were supported by science and which were not.

“As a physicist, I am concerned that some skeptics (a very few) are ignoring the physical basis,” Dr. Singer said in an e-mail message.

“There is one who denies that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which goes against actual data,” Dr. Singer said, adding that other skeptics wrongly contend that “humans are not responsible for the measured increase in atmospheric CO2.”

There are notable absences from the conference this year. Russell Seitz, a physicist from Cambridge, Mass., gave a talk at last year’s meeting. But Dr. Seitz, who has lambasted environmental campaigners as distorting climate science, now warns that the skeptics are in danger of doing the same thing.

The most strident advocates on either side of the global warming debate, he said, are “equally oblivious to the data they seek to discount or dramatize.”

John H. Christy, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Alabama who has long publicly questioned projections of dangerous global warming, most recently at a House committee hearing last month, said he had skipped both Heartland conferences to avoid the potential for “guilt by association.”

Many participants said that any division or dissent was minor and that the global recession and a series of years with cooler temperatures would help them in combating changes in energy policy in Washington.

“The only place where this alleged climate catastrophe is happening is in the virtual world of computer models, not in the real world,” said Marc Morano, a speaker at the meeting and a spokesman on environmental issues for Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma.

But several climate scientists who are seeking to curb greenhouse gases strongly criticized the meeting. Stephen H. Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University and an author of many reports by the intergovernmental climate panel, said, after reviewing the text of presentations for the Heartland meeting, that they were efforts to “bamboozle the innocent.”

Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations office running the meetings leading to a new global climate treaty, to be signed in December in Copenhagen, said, “I don’t believe that what the skeptics say should provide any excuse to delay further” action against global warming.

But he added: “Skeptics are good. It’s important to give people the confidence that the issue is being called into question.”


Copyright 2009, New York Times

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