The Deniers, Part XVII: Unsettled science

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
March 13, 2007

Carl Wunsch, professor of physical oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been wronged. In The Great Global Warming Swindle, a no-holds-barred documentary that aired last week in the United Kingdom and will soon be coming to TV sets in North America, he was cast as a partisan in the climate-change debate. That he is not.

He was also cast as impugning the motives of scientists who employ complex computer models to predict the climate 50 or 100 years into the future. That he also did not do. Neither does he subscribe to the theory, championed in the documentary, that the sun and not carbon dioxide explains climate change.

Director Martin Durkin’s documentary – the rival of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth for brash claims, selective presentations of the facts, and disdain for the opposing side’s views – is destined to raise a storm of controversy in the climate-change debate, with Dr. Wunsch destined to be uncomfortably at its centre.

Yet despite the untoward liberties taken by the documentary producers, there is little at dispute of substance. Here, in detail, is the documentary’s sole misrepresentation of fact involving Dr. Wunsch.

In a discussion about the nature of computer models that attempt to predict Earth’s climate, the narrator introduced his views by saying “there is a danger, according to Prof. Carl Wunsch, that modellers will be less concerned in producing a forecast that is accurate than one that is interesting.”

The narrator, some might well conclude, is hinting at ill-will on the part of the modellers, a conclusion buttressed by statements to this effect from other scientists in the documentary. Dr. Wunsch is understandably upset at being seen to criticize colleagues whom he didn’t intend to criticize, and to criticize climate modelling, which he views as a necessary scientific tool.

Yet from what Dr. Wunsch did say, it is easy to see why Mr. Durkin would think he took computer-model results with a grain of salt. “The models are so complicated you can often adjust them in such a way that they do something very exciting,” he said.

Dr. Wunsch may not have pointed to conscious wrongdoing on the part of scientists, but he certainly made it abundantly clear that scientists, being human, are susceptible to human frailties: “You see, it’s a problem. If I run a complicated model and I do something to it like melt a lot of ice into the ocean and nothing happens, it’s not likely to get printed. But if I run the same model and I adjust it in such a way that something dramatic happens to the ocean circulation, like the heat transport turns off, it will be published. People will say, ‘This is very exciting.’ It will even get picked up by the media. So there is a bias, there is a very powerful bias within the media and within the science community itself toward results which are dramatizable.”

This segment of the documentary, I believe from my interview with Dr. Wunsch, is the only explicit portrayal of him that could in any way be considered egregious. The rest of Dr. Wunsch’s complaints lie more with optics: He didn’t like to be seen in the company of scientists who are aggressive participants in the climate-change debate, as if he shared their views, and he didn’t like the in-your-face title of the documentary, with its use of the word “swindle” and the accusation that the public has been lied to by those issuing dire warnings of global change.

Yet even here, the difference between the director and the professor is more style than substance. There is precious little of a factual nature in the documentary that Dr. Wunsch would object to.

The big “lie” to which the documentary refers – the only lie that it explicitly claims – is that the science is settled on global warming. “Campaigners say the time for debate is over. Any criticism, no matter how scientifically rigorous, is illegitimate, even worse, dangerous,” the narrator states at the beginning of the documentary, in setting out his theme. “Everywhere you are told that manmade climate change is proved beyond doubt. But you are being told lies.” The film then establishes that the science is not settled “beyond doubt” by filming a series of commentators, among them prominent academics who had been participants in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Whether these academics are right or not in their beliefs about the role of C02 and the perils of global warming, they prove Mr. Durkin’s point: The science is not settled.

Dr. Wunsch’s on-film persona does not make this point directly – he more does this indirectly, by explaining, for example, that the temperature of the oceans today can reflect events hundreds or thousands of years ago, rather than any recent climate change. But off-screen Dr. Wunsch – and this will surprise him – fits the alarmists’ stereotype of the global-warming denier. From Mr. Durkin’s perspective, he and Dr. Wunsch are fellow travellers in their view of the claims of alarmists. Dr. Wunsch, for example, does not accept that the science is settled, anything but. And when he speaks of limiting C02 production, he does so dispassionately and with balance, and with no pretense of having all the answers.

“Also muddled is what we should do about it. Should we be limiting C02 by 10%?” he asked me rhetorically. “It seems like a good idea, quite apart from the climate, because fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource.” But don’t push Dr. Wunsch into advocating some crash program to stop global warming, even though he believes some precautions are called for.

Likening the dilemma facing government to that of a homeowner who must decide how much insurance he needs to protect against threats such as faulty wiring, he says at some point the insurance becomes a bad investment. Better to accept the risk, or to rewire the house, than to overpay for insurance that may never be needed. And better to stop making any potential problem worse, such as by the government’s “crazy public policy to subsidize Florida developments” along the coastline through cut-rate insurance premiums, which only encourage people to live in low-lying, disaster-prone areas.

Most of all, Dr. Wunsch is repulsed by the nature of the debate. “The science isn’t mature to the point where anyone can say with any confidence that the Greenland ice sheet will melt,” he says. “Both extremes have reduced the debate to a cartoon war, like a Batman movie.” He does not spare the camp that Mr. Durkin attacks, decrying the “hysterical” claims of alarmists, such as their warnings that global warming might shut down the Gulf Stream or propel Britain into a new ice age – these “are either scientifically impossible or so unlikely as to threaten our credibility as a scientific discipline if we proclaim their reality,” he says.

His overriding complaint, in the end, is that he didn’t bargain for a starring role in a Batman movie. If it’s any consolation to him, many of his co-stars are scientists of the highest calibre, and they share his disgust for the politicized debate that they are engaged in. They mainly differ from him in that they blame the UN’s panel on climate change for the disrepute that has come to science, where he blames the filmmaker who too aggressively amplifies their frustrations.
Carl Wunsch is Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physical Oceanography, Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving his doctorate in geophysics from MIT in 1966, he joined the faculty at the institute, becoming head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences from 1977 to 1981. His many honours include the Henry Stommel Research Prize and the Bowie Medal from the American Geophysical Union. He is also a foreign member of the Royal Society.

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