By RICHARD MCNIDER And JOHN CHRISTY
Updated Feb. 19, 2014 7:31 p.m. ET
In a Feb. 16 speech in Indonesia, Secretary of State John Kerry assailed climate-change skeptics as members of the "Flat Earth Society" for doubting the reality of catastrophic climate change. He said, "We should not allow a tiny minority of shoddy scientists" and "extreme ideologues to compete with scientific facts."
But who are the Flat Earthers, and who is ignoring the scientific facts? In ancient times, the notion of a flat Earth was the scientific consensus, and it was only a minority who dared question this belief. We are among today's scientists who are skeptical about the so-called consensus on climate change. Does that make us modern-day Flat Earthers, as Mr. Kerry suggests, or are we among those who defy the prevailing wisdom to declare that the world is round?
Most of us who are skeptical about the dangers of climate change actually embrace many of the facts that people like Bill Nye, the ubiquitous TV "science guy," say we ignore. The two fundamental facts are that carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased due to the burning of fossil fuels, and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a greenhouse gas, trapping heat before it can escape into space.
What is not a known fact is by how much the Earth's atmosphere will warm in response to this added carbon dioxide. The warming numbers most commonly advanced are created by climate computer models built almost entirely by scientists who believe in catastrophic global warming. The rate of warming forecast by these models depends on many assumptions and engineering to replicate a complex world in tractable terms, such as how water vapor and clouds will react to the direct heat added by carbon dioxide or the rate of heat uptake, or absorption, by the oceans.
We might forgive these modelers if their forecasts had not been so consistently and spectacularly wrong. From the beginning of climate modeling in the 1980s, these forecasts have, on average, always overstated the degree to which the Earth is warming compared with what we see in the real climate.
For instance, in 1994 we published an article in the journal Nature showing that the actual global temperature trend was "one-quarter of the magnitude of climate model results." As the nearby graph shows, the disparity between the predicted temperature increases and real-world evidence has only grown in the past 20 years.
When the failure of its predictions become clear, the modeling industry always comes back with new models that soften their previous warming forecasts, claiming, for instance, that an unexpected increase in the human use of aerosols had skewed the results. After these changes, the models tended to agree better with the actual numbers that came in—but the forecasts for future temperatures have continued to be too warm.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a speech on climate change in Jakarta on Sunday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The modelers insist that they are unlucky because natural temperature variability is masking the real warming. They might be right, but when a batter goes 0 for 10, he's better off questioning his swing than blaming the umpire.
The models mostly miss warming in the deep atmosphere—from the Earth's surface to 75,000 feet—which is supposed to be one of the real signals of warming caused by carbon dioxide. Here, the consensus ignores the reality of temperature observations of the deep atmosphere collected by satellites and balloons, which have continually shown less than half of the warming shown in the average model forecasts.
The climate-change-consensus community points to such indirect evidence of warming as glaciers melting, coral being bleached, more droughts and stronger storms. Yet observations show that the warming of the deep atmosphere (the fundamental sign of carbon-dioxide-caused climate change, which is supposedly behind these natural phenomena) is not occurring at an alarming rate: Instruments aboard NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association satellites put the Mid-Tropospheric warming rate since late 1978 at about 0.7 degrees Celsius, or 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit, per 100 years. For the same period, the models on average give 2.1 degrees Celsius, or 3.8 degrees Fahrenheit, per 100 years (see graph).
The models also fail to get details of the past climate right. For example, most of the observed warming over land in the past century occurred at night. The same models used to predict future warming models showed day and night warming over the last century at nearly the same rates.
Past models also missed the dramatic recent warming found in observations in the Arctic. With this information as hindsight, the latest, adjusted set of climate models did manage to show more warming in the Arctic. But the tweaking resulted in too-warm predictions—disproved by real-world evidence—for the rest of the planet compared with earlier models.
Shouldn't modelers be more humble and open to saying that perhaps the Arctic warming is due to something we don't understand?
While none of these inconsistencies refutes the fundamental concern about greenhouse-gas-enhanced climate change, it is disturbing that "consensus science" will not acknowledge that such discrepancies are major problems. From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's beginning, that largely self-selected panel of scientists has embraced the notion that consensus on climate change is the necessary path to taking action and reducing man-made carbon emissions around the world. The consensus community uses this to push the view that "the science is settled" and hold up skeptics to ridicule, as John Kerry did on Sunday.
We are reminded of the dangers of consensus science in the past. For example, in the 18th century, more British sailors died of scurvy than died in battle. In this disease, brought on by a lack of vitamin C, the body loses its ability to manufacture collagen, and gums and other tissues bleed and disintegrate. These deaths were especially tragic because many sea captains and some ships' doctors knew, based on observations early in the century, that fresh vegetables and citrus cured scurvy.
Nonetheless, the British Admiralty's onshore Sick and Health Board of scientists and physicians (somewhat akin to the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) dismissed this evidence for more than 50 years because it did not fit their consensus theory that putrefaction (or internal decay) caused scurvy, which they felt could be cured by fresh air, exercise and laxatives.
"Consensus" science that ignores reality can have tragic consequences if cures are ignored or promising research is abandoned. The climate-change consensus is not endangering lives, but the way it imperils economic growth and warps government policy making has made the future considerably bleaker. The recent Obama administration announcement that it would not provide aid for fossil-fuel energy in developing countries, thereby consigning millions of people to energy poverty, is all too reminiscent of the Sick and Health Board denying fresh fruit to dying British sailors.
We should not have a climate-science research program that searches only for ways to confirm prevailing theories, and we should not honor government leaders, such as Secretary Kerry, who attack others for their inconvenient, fact-based views.
Messrs. McNider and Christy are professors of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and fellows of the American Meteorological Society. Mr. Christy was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore. Mr. Christy was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President Al Gore.
Correction: An earlier version of the attached chart on global temperatures transposed the labels for the balloon and satellite lines.