The Center of the Warm
Monday morning, 9:30. Robert Balling's office phone rings. Again.
"Hey," he says into the receiver. "How's it going? Yeah, I saw. Looks pretty bad. ... I don't know, maybe ... I gotta go. Okay, bye."
Balling, 43 years old, solidly built with a healthy, Arizona golf tan, rolls his eyes as he replaces the receiver.
"Everybody's got an opinion," he says. "Everybody thinks they know what's up."
It's been a busy couple of weeks for Balling, director of Arizona State University's climatology lab. First, he was given unflattering mention in December's Harper's magazine, which called him and other greenhouse skeptics "extraordinarily adept at draining the [global warming] issue of all sense of crisis."
Then the New York Times reported that the Earth's average temperature in 1995 climbed to a record high, according to a statement issued by the British Meteorological Office and the University of East Anglia. The report stirred up suspicions anew about global warming, Balling's area of expertise.
The British data showed that the average temperature around the globe in 1995 was 58.7 degrees Fahrenheit, beating the old record, set in 1990, by .12 degree Fahrenheit.
Such a small increase may not seem like much, but increases in average temperatures are likely to cause an increase in the number of extreme weather events. For example, an average global increase of only about a quarter of a degree Fahrenheit, which humans have seen between the beginning of the industrial revolution and the present, leads to an increase of more than 40 percent in the number of July days with temperatures higher than 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
Reporters from all over were calling to ask Balling what he thought of the British data.
"We've seen an increase in the mean ground temperatures," he says. "But there's no definitive proof that that's caused by an increase in greenhouse gases, and certainly no proof that the increase in those gases is caused by human activity."
So goes Balling's line, a nondenial denial of global warming and the role of humans in creating it. As a skeptic of the apocalyptic scenarios spun by many scientists, Balling has become something of a poster boy for the Rush Limbaugh set. His 1992 book The Heated Debate: Greenhouse Predictions Versus Climate Reality, which raised questions about the validity of methods other scientists were using to make their gloomy assumptions, drew raves from the right side of the American political spectrum.
It seems to be getting harder and harder, however, to remain skeptical about global warming and its effects. In September, for the first time, the leading international panel of climatologists issued a statement saying that a period of climatic instability has begun, and it may cause "widespread economic, social and environmental dislocation over the next century."
The continued buildup of greenhouse gases in the environment, the 2,500-member panel said, could cause droughts, the spread of tropical diseases outward from the tropics, ever more violent hurricanes and tornadoes, and rising ocean levels that may submerge barrier islands and other coastal areas.
Balling harrumphs at all of the above, without ever exactly saying that none of it could happen. Despite his notoriety, and that his methods, if not his conclusions, are respected by others in his field, he is the first to acknowledge being in the extreme minority of climatic scientists. His views are summarily rejected by many of the world's leading authorities on the issue.
The reasons for his reluctance to accept conventional greenhouse wisdom are esoteric and complex, matters of degrees of precision in everything from land and ocean temperature measurements to satellite data and computer modeling techniques. Considerably less arcane are his explanations of the social, economic and professional pressures that have framed--and will continue to frame--scientific and political debate on the topic.
Polls from the 1980s through today show that most Americans believe there is a threat from mankind-induced climatic change. But studies also show that much of what the public thinks it knows is incorrect.
Balling says two things are essential to understanding climate change. First, if significant global warming occurs, it will be mostly because of an increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Second, one of the biggest sources of carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere is the combustion of fossil fuels, mostly coal and oil.
Large numbers of even relatively well-educated people seem to lack a clear understanding of these facts. They are sure they see signs of global warming--but they are confused about the causes and the potential impacts.
Many people mix the issue of global warming with that of depletion of the ozone layer; they assume that climate change will cause skin cancer and that they personally can help stop it by giving up aerosols. Fewer mention conserving energy as a solution, since they don't tightly link the problem with fossil fuels.
Why hasn't science, a language of absolutes, been able to furnish people with right and wrong answers?
The short answer, Balling says, is that the scientific question is extremely complicated. The long answer involves politics. And the press.
Sticking with science for a minute: There's a lot that scientists don't know about the interactions of atmosphere, oceans and land, and how those interactions affect climate. Here are the very basics that, Balling says, people must understand to make sense of the conflicting headlines about global warming.
No one disputes the existence of the greenhouse effect, which makes life possible on Earth. Without natural greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, the planet would be 140 degrees Fahrenheit colder than it is, because these gases trap heat that otherwise would be reflected from the Earth's surface into space.
According to the conventional wisdom, human activity--mostly the burning of petroleum and coal--is greatly accelerating the buildup of such gases. Measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere show that it has increased by almost 30 percent since the pre-industrial 1700s.
Most atmospheric scientists believe it's no coincidence that during the past century, Earth has warmed by about 1 degree Fahrenheit. But our climate is enormously variable. Even the strongest believer in the threat of greenhouse warming can't say--absolutely, for sure--that the warming so far has been caused by anything human beings did.
This often-lost distinction between what scientists mean when they say "global warming"--which can be natural--and what they mean when they say "greenhouse warming"--with the implication that it'scaused by human additions to the world's supply of greenhouse gases--contributes to the confusion ofheadline writers and readers everywhere.
That confusion aside, there is genuine scientific controversy.
In Balling's view, this controversy pits "doomsayers," or those with an especially gloomy view of the post-greenhouse future, against the "contrarians," who think the problems caused by greenhouse warming (if any) are likely to be much less severe.
The controversy revolves around three questions:
If greenhouse gases keep building up at their present rate, how much is Earth likely to warm--and when?
Balling and other scientists have attempted to answer this question using ever more sophisticated computer models, plugging in what they think they know about the atmosphere and the oceans. The models mathematically project what will happen to the average global temperature when the level of carbon dioxide reaches double its pre-industrial levels, as it's likely to do early in the next century.
Balling doesn't trust the models. ("Not for a second," he says.) But based on such models, half a dozen prestigious national and international panels have set about trying to find a scientific consensus, which hasn't changed much from panel to panel during the past 15 years.
The most authoritative and respected effort, involving hundreds of experts under the auspices of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In its1990 report, the IPCC concluded that by the time carbon dioxide concentrations double, there could be a warming of about 3to 8degrees. The IPCC was also the source of an even more pessimistic September 1995 report.
At the upper end of that range, Earth would be hotter than at any time in the past threemillion to four million years. The IPCC settled on 4.5 degrees as the most probable increase. The huge range of possible temperature hikes, however, is a measure of how crude the models are--and one reason Balling says he doesn't trust them. Still, even those who disparage the models and denigrate the IPCC process as "science by vote" agree that Earth is likely to get warmer.
If greenhouse warming occurs, what are the probable consequences?
More heat in the atmosphere, scientists agree, could cause a chain reaction on oceans and clouds, influencing the frequency and severity of storms and raising sea levels by a few feet as glaciers melt and warming waters expand.
More controversial are doomsday scenarios based on the possibility that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might melt, raising sea levels 20 feet. A panel of the National Academy of Sciences, considering this possibility, noted in 1991 that there is no reason to believe it is "imminent," but also said that there is no reason to believe it is "precluded," either. There is even more controversy, and fewer facts known, about the consequences of climate change on agriculture, economies and ecologies.
Have scientists seen real evidence of greenhouse warming yet?
That depends on whom you ask.
In the tropical Pacific, the periodic current of warm water called El Nio, blamed for the past few years of punishing storms on the West Coast and violent winters in the East, hung around much longer than usual last year and figures to do the same again.
The population of phytoplankton, a basic food for ocean life, is dwindling off southern California as the warmer ocean ceases to circulate nutrients in the usual way.
The weather in Louisiana has been so warm--five years without a killing frost--that there has been an explosion in the population of Cajun cockroaches and termites.
All of these events, scientists on both sides of the argument say, are consistent with what you might expect from greenhouse warming. But none of them--singly or taken together--constitutes proof that man's activities are overheating the world.
Another often-tossed-about statistic: The decade of the 1980s was the warmest on record, and 1995 the hottest single year, according to temperature readings dating back to the late 19th century. (Balling hastens to point out that temperature records, like almost everything else in this debate, are disputed.)
There was a pause in the apparent global warming trend, starting with the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption. Because volcanoes kick out millions of tons of microscopic soot and dust particles--which scatter back some of the sun's radiation--they can have a cooling effect on the climate. Global warmers say this may be what caused the last couple of years to be cooler. Now, the heat seems to be back on--but things haven't warmed up as much as computer models suggested.
The National Academy of Sciences pretty much said it all in 1991: "Current scientific understanding of greenhouse warming is both incomplete and uncertain."
"You're damn right it is," Balling says, cackling, "despite everything everybody thinks they know."
The uncertainty of existing science is only one of the reasons the public has gotten such scrambled messages on global warming.
A few years ago, several prominent climatologists were invited to brief congressional members and staff on global climate change. After listening to details on the perils of warming, New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley asked: "But where are the rabbits?"
Bradley's quip gave the scientists a political lesson: Without a threat to something cuddly, or at least something immediately affecting constituents, it will be extremely difficult to persuade the public that climate change is a significant issue, worth spending significant amounts of money on.
That political reality, Balling and other skeptics say, has led environmentalists to overhype the threat of global warming.
Many environmentalists who were concerned about the issue early on found the threat of warming hard to sell. Michael Oppenheimer of the Environmental Defense Fund, whose training in atmospheric physics alerted him to the potential for climate change, found that, in the early 1980s, the mechanics of global warming were too complicated, and its threat too far in the future, to attract attention from other environmental groups.
In the summer of 1988, however, after a devastating Midwestern drought, a prominent climate modeler named James Hansen told Congress he was "99 percent certain" he saw global warming.
Other scientists, Balling among them, thought Hansen was placing scientific caution aside to make a point. But it was the kind of definitive, dramatic statement that politicians and reporters want. Hansen's testimony created the issue politically in this country.
Among the hundreds of articles and books that followed, Oppenheimer's Dead Heat: The Race Against the Greenhouse Effect, published in 1990, put the possible doomsday consequences of global warming in perhaps the most extreme form.
The possible scenarios mentioned in Oppenheimer's book include not just blistering heat waves, but ravaging hurricanes, blizzards, thunderstorms, bitter cold spells, drenching rains, political upheaval, food riots and swarms of refugees.
Further into the book, Oppenheimer describes the political reality of the issue and provides what Balling says is a blueprint for the doomsday hype: "What is needed is a knockout punch--warming must be understood to threaten the continuation of life on Earth or no one will pay attention until things get out of hand."
Though Balling is wont to blame extreme environmentalist rhetoric as a cause of public confusion about global warming, he admits that interests on the contrarian side of the controversy also have distorted debate.
There has been an orchestrated campaign by the oil and coal industries, he says, to represent uncertainties in global warming theories as huge flaws, and to turn every scientific discussion of the issue into a controversy.
He makes that admission from an odd position: He has supported his own research with hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil-fuel interests.
Industry has treated benevolently the handful of scientists--including Balling--who loudly disagree with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its estimates. These scientists are suspicious of the IPCC's "internationalist" motives; they charge that attempts to find consensus are really intended to marginalize those who are on the fringes of opinion.
Those fringes, though, have been a profitable place for Balling--and for Arizona State University. It's not easy to get a crystal-clear picture of how much money is spent by fossil-fuel concerns to muddy the waters of the global warming debate, but it clearly is in the millions of dollars each year.
In testimony he gave at a 1993 hearing before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, Balling detailed some of his financial connections to industry groups.
One group, Cyprus Minerals Company, seems to have developed an especially close relationship with Balling, giving him and ASU at least $70,000 between 1989 and 1991. Cyprus Minerals also holds major financial ties to the antienvironmental group People for the West!. Other concerns that have contributed heavily to Balling include the British Coal Corporation and the German Coal Mining Association.
Balling's book The Heated Debate was published by the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative policy group founded to oppose environmental regulation. The institute also translated Balling's book into Arabic and helped distribute it in the Middle East.
Balling says that as the head of ASU's climatology office, he has a responsibility to bring in enough money to keep the program afloat. Asked about his ties to coal and other interests during the 1993 Minnesota hearing, Balling testified that when a researcher in his position hears about research money available in his field, he "would be crazy not to run out and make some attempt" to get money from that source.
Balling insists that his science is solid, no matter who pays for it. And even his harshest scientific critics find fault with his conclusions, not his methods.
Ultimately, however, the questions Balling's critics raise have little to do with his research; the critics are more concerned with what he and other contrarians do with the research. Even if his science is good, they say, Balling remains one of a tiny handful of skeptics with close ties to industry--and industry money.
The real problem, critics say, is that industry takes results from the bits and pieces of Balling's (and others') research and uses them to craft anti-global warming arguments. Those arguments are then systematically amplified to cloud public and political thinking on the issue.
Documents from one such industry public relations effort, launched under the aegis of a group called Information Council on the Environment, provide a good playbook on how this kind of project works.
The council was founded in 1991 and folded not long afterward, when its ambitions and methods were leaked to the media. Program documents show that its goals included changing perceptions so global warming was seen "as theory rather than fact." One strategy for reaching that goal was the use of "scientific voices" to lend credibility to the group's argument.
Also telling were the group's regional and demographic strategies. The council went after readers and listeners in markets that derive the majority of their electricity from the burning of coal--and markets that were home to members of key congressional committees.
What kinds of people did the council hope to reach? According to ICE documents, people who would be the most "receptive to messages describing the motivations and vested interests of people [who make] pronouncements on global warming--for example the statement that 'some members of the media scare the public about global warming to increase their audience and their influence.'"
The documents go on to detail what kinds of people those are most likely to be: "...older, less educated males from larger households who are not typically active information seekers and are not likely to be 'green' consumers."
Another possible target segment the strategy papers list is "younger, lower-income women" who are "more receptive than other audience segments to factual statements about global warming."
Such efforts are becoming more common as industry works to avoid the passage of any kind of a tax on the carbon content of fuels. Although there seems to be little political support for a carbon tax these days, coal and other fossil-fuel interests are not complacent--and are spending as much money as ever on the efforts of scientists like Balling, and on public relations campaigns hyping those findings.
Dealing with uncertainties like dust in the atmosphere, or the relative merits of computer models, or cloud formation, Balling says, is confusing enough. But nothing holds a candle, he says, to the confusion the average scientist feels once he or she tries to get a message out. In order to make global warming an issue, both sides must deal with the media.
One thing neither side argues with is the fickleness of the news cycle: Last week, as the East Coast was hammered by the biggest winter storm in memory, the phone in Balling's office rang off the hook. The callers were mostly reporters: Did Balling think the storm might have anything to do with--gasp!--global warming?
Science emphasizes details, Balling says. Journalism emphasizes big pictures. Researchers fear other academics will accuse them of hypemongering if they leave out all the disclaimers and qualifiers. While the scientist is trying to explain that climate is longer-term than weather, that no single weather happening can be pinned to global warming and that it's not yet possible with certainty to detect greenhouse warming versus natural climate shifts, the reporter is looking for a good quote.
When dealing with journalists, Balling says, without a little doomsday, nobody cares.
By the same token, scientists can alter theirstories to call attention to themselves. Balling, as well as other contrarians, has a reputation as a bit of a self-aggrandizer. It certainly is clear that he likes press attention.
Though accusations of outright deceit and media manipulation are rare (possibly because none of the pots wants to call kettles black), sometimes it is the scientists--on both sides--who, while not exactly saying anything that isn't true, present their findings in such a way as to get maximum coverage.
And Balling says that even when scientists are shooting as straight as they can, and reporters understand and respect the limitations of science, there is often confusion about how science works. Depending on the spin, different studies--even by the same researcher--can appear to say almost anything.
What people on all sides of the debate do, Balling says, is make value and political judgments. Looking at the range of temperature change produced in climate models, environmentalists choose the most dramatic numbers. Economic pragmatists choose the lowest numbers. Moderates choose numbers in the middle. Each group interprets the same information differently.
At the very bottom of greenhouse confusion, Balling says, lies a problem more fundamental than scientific complexity, political manipulation or press oversimplification. It is the false expectation that science can always provide a final answer.
It's easy to forget that uncertainty and argument are always part of the scientific process. Even the most basic question--Have we detected greenhouse warming?--is a loaded one.
"What do you mean by detection?" Balling says. "There will be a gradual accumulation of evidence leading us to the opinion that it's very unlikely that human causes exclusively could have produced the changes we see." Balling is choosing his words very carefully now.
"My feeling is, it's indisputable that greenhouse gases have increased. Some of that increase, though not all, was caused by human activity." He says it's possible that changes in greenhouse gases will entail temperature changes. But using models to predict what those changes will be 50 or 100 years in the future is difficult--and risky.
After sorting through the confusion, then, the level of concern people afford greenhouse warming may turn out not to be a matter of science.
"It comes down to politics," Balling says. And talking to him at length makes it impossible not to wonder how his scientific attitudes may be affected by his personal and political attitudes. He voices concerns about how proposed remedies for global warming might profit developing countries at the expense of the United States. On the flip side, he wonders what a dramatic reduction in carbon-fuel use would do to nations that are not as far along in their development as is the U.S.
Whether one decides global warming is a serious or relatively minor threat also depends, at least in part, on values and personality: Is it arrogant to think that humans can throw off the atmospheric balance of the planet, putting ourselves and other species in jeopardy? Are we overestimating our own importance? How can we balance those suspicions against our knowledge that we may already have set off irreversible, undetected consequences?
In answer to those questions, scientists can offer probabilities, Balling says, but that's all.
And, he offers with a smile, learning the answer to one question sometimes raises five or six more.
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