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Who's Giving Climate Advice to NASA?
Barry to Bring Sunday Soaking

Andrew Freedman @ 10:00 AM

The now notorious climate change comments that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin gave during an interview with National Public Radio last week closely resembled an argument expressed by MIT professor and climate change contrarian Richard Lindzen in a controversial opinion piece in the April 16 edition of Newsweek magazine.

This raises the disturbing question of who is advising the director of one of the country's leading earth science agencies: the researchers he oversees or a scientist outside of his agency who is on the fringe of the broad scientific consensus on climate change.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Remnants of Barry to Bring Much Needed Rain

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Rain likely, heavy at times. 1 to 1.5 inches possible. Temperatures steady around 70 degrees. East to northeast winds of 10-15mph.
Tonight: Rain diminishing towards midnight, then partly cloudy. Lows 62-66 (suburbs to city)
Monday: Partly sunny with a slight chance of an isolated thunderstorm in the afternoon/evening. Highs in the low 80s.

Griffin has been pilloried for his ill-informed statements that came in response to the softball question of: "Do you have any doubt that this [global warming] is a problem that mankind has to wrestle with?"

Griffin said he is not sure, thereby contradicting both his boss President Bush and his agency's own climate experts. Instead, Griffin said it's "rather arrogant" for us to consider today's climate optimal.

"I guess I would ask which human beings, where and when, are to be accorded the privilege of deciding that this particular climate that we have right here today, right now, is the best climate for all other human beings," Griffin said.

That philosophical statement closely matches Lindzen's "Goldilocks" argument in his recent Newsweek op-ed: "Looking back on the earth's climate history, it's apparent that there's no such thing as an optimal temperature -- a climate at which everything is just right. The current alarm rests on the false assumption not only that we live in a perfect world, temperaturewise, but also that our warming forecasts for the year 2040 are somehow more reliable than the weatherman's forecast for next week."

Both Griffin and Lindzen conveniently gloss over the fact that the whole point of mitigating climate change is to avoid the myriad negative consequences that warming will bring on a global society that has developed and thrived in tune with a remarkably stable climate up until this point.

The arrogance Griffin speaks of actually works the other way. It's arrogant to think that humans are free to irrevocably alter the climate in which society is thriving. Not only is that arrogant, it's also self-destructive.

Scientists have found that past climate fluctuations -- on a smaller scale than what is predicted for the next century -- have had profound negative consequences for human development.

Lindzen is one of the few remaining climate change contrarians who question whether human emissions of greenhouse gases are causing significant climate change and whether the changes that may take place will be harmful. He's on the fringe of the scientific community on this issue, currently listened to mainly by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe.

Michael MacCracken, chief scientist at the Climate Institute, tore into Lindzen's argument (and now by extension into Griffin), in a piece published by the nonprofit group Climate Science Watch.
Ultimately, any discussion of an 'optimal climate' begs the question of 'optimal for whom?' All climates will be optimal for certain species that evolve to take advantage of them. As humans though, we are concerned with what is optimal for us. This is, almost by definition, the climate that has prevailed for the last several centuries. This is not because humans could not live, and perhaps thrive, under a different climate regime, but because our whole civilization with its attendant infrastructure of cities, roads, farms, etc. has evolved to be as well adapted as possible to the current climate.

While Lindzen may be correct that there is not an optimal climate for the Earth (though the bounds of Mars and Venus should make us grateful for the one we have), there is certainly an optimal climate for our civilization as it stands today.
There's a role for experts like Lindzen in the scientific community that values differences in opinion and demands the testing and retesting of a hypothesis. However, in the case of climate change where the scientific consensus is so solid that it's been endorsed by nearly every major scientific body on the planet, Lindzen's op-ed in Newsweek shouldn't be the source of information for the leader of the agency who helps set the earth science research budget.

Griffin should consider putting general interest magazines down and instead pick up the phone and speak with any of the scores of climate scientists who devote their work at NASA to studying the climate change challenge.

If he's going to read a magazine, try starting with the peer-reviewed Science or Nature.

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