By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
When Christopher Monckton, who served as a special adviser to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, ponders the current political push to curb greenhouse gases linked to climate change, he thinks of King Canute.
According to Monckton, Canute -- the Viking who ruled England along with much of Scandinavia nearly a thousand years ago -- took his courtiers to the ocean's edge one day, set down his throne and ordered the tide not to come in. The tide, of course, came in, and the king got his feet wet.
The lesson? The king taught his advisers "humility," Monckton said, by showing them that even he, a king, could not control nature. In the same way, he argued, modern-day politicians should not fool themselves into thinking that humanity is having a big impact on climate.
Monckton, along with other high-profile global warming skeptics such as University of Virginia professor emeritus S. Fred Singer and Virginia state climatologist Patrick J. Michaels, are gathered in New York this week for a conference aimed at challenging the idea that a scientific consensus exists on climate change. Sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank funded by energy and health-care corporations as well as conservative foundations and individuals, the 2 1/2 -day session poses a stark contrast to the near-unanimous chorus of concern expressed by top U.S. politicians and most of the scientific mainstream.
Both the Republicans and Democrats are poised to nominate presidential candidates this year who back a mandatory federal cap on greenhouse gases. After years of voicing doubt, President Bush has said repeatedly that he is convinced that humans are contributing to Earth's warming and that the nation needs to break its dependency on fossil fuels.
Not so, say the skeptics. While the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared a Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore last year, this cadre of critics has formed a counter-group called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC), which issued a report yesterday arguing that recent climate change stems from natural causes. (While the IPCC enlisted several hundred scientists from more than 100 countries to work over five years to produce its series of reports, the NIPCC document is the work of 23 authors from 15 nations, some of them not scientists.)
"We reached the opposite conclusion," said Singer, who edited the report. Singer added that his group surveyed the same peer-reviewed studies the IPCC did, as well as other papers and some more recent scientific articles. The effect of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, he said, is "not a cause for concern, at least not yet. If the evidence changes, I'll change my opinion, okay?"
Singer welcomed the chance to address a friendly audience for a change -- "This is a very nice, warm atmosphere," he observed -- and Heartland Institute President Joseph L. Bast said he believes skeptics are now on the verge of overturning the idea that humans are driving climate change.
"Yeah, I think we're at a tipping point that's going in exactly the opposite direction," Bast said. "That point of view has had its moment. That moment has passed."
The meeting represented a sort of global warming doppelganger conference, where everything was reversed. State and local leaders seeking to reduce carbon emissions gather at IPCC meetings to swap ideas; the skeptics' conference attracted lawmakers from at least seven states who are opposed to binding emissions cuts. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) made the trek to the United Nations climate change conference last year at Bali; Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who proclaims global warming a "hoax," sent an aide to New York to discuss how many scientists have started contacting the senator to voice their doubts about climate change.
While international climate conferences can be tense and a bit gloomy at times, the organizers of the Heartland gathering tried to keep things light, hosting a comedian who mocked Gore and screening films with titles such as "Apocalypse No!" and "An Inconvenient Truth or Convenient Fiction?" Some moments of levity were unintentional. Ralph Reed -- a prominent GOP consultant until becoming ensnared in the scandal surrounding his former business partner, lobbyist Jack Abramoff -- roamed the halls while an environmental advocate tracked his movements.
Several climate scientists and environmental advocates poked fun at the meeting. Frank O'Donnell, who heads the watchdog group Clean Air Watch, said the conference "looks like the climate equivalent of Custer's last stand. They seem to have tried to find every last skeptic on Earth and put them in one hotel off Broadway."
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said he was not surprised that roughly 500 participants had gathered at the meeting. "I'm sure that the flat Earth society had a few final meetings before they broke up."
And Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer said that with the media and many politicians now ignoring the climate skeptics, "they have to get together to talk to each other, because nobody else is talking to them."
On a more serious note, Oppenheimer questioned why the conference attendees were not addressing the genuinely muddier aspects of climate science, such as what level of sea rise the world faces and whether methane released from the tundra would exacerbate warming in the years to come.
"There are huge uncertainties that are still attributed to this problem," he said. He added that he welcomes conferences on unsettled questions such as the rate of ice-sheet melt, but "the core of the science on climate change is settled, and nothing these people do is going to change that."