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This Earth Day just relax, the planet is fine: An interview with Richard Lindzen


Editor's note: This is an interview between Linda Frum and Richard Lindzen at M.I.T, April 21, 2007. It deserves publishing on every Earth Day.

This Earth Day, Professor Richard Lindzen, an atmospheric physicist and the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT, wants you to calm down. The Earth, he says, is in good shape. "Forests are returning in Europe and the United States. Air quality has improved. Water quality has improved. We grow more food on less land. We've done a reasonably good job in much of the world in conquering hunger. And yet we're acting as though: "How can we stand any more of this?"

A leading critic on the theory of man-made global warming, Professor Lindzen has developed a reputation as America's anti-doom-and-gloom scientist. And he's not, he says, as lonely as you might think.

Q) You don't dispute that the globe is warming?

A) It has never been an issue of whether the Earth is warming -- because it's always warming or cooling. The issue is: What are the magnitudes involved? It's a big difference if it's warming a degree or two or 10, or if it's warming a few tenths of a degree.

Q) And it's inconclusive how much it's warming?

A) Sure it's inconclusive. It's a very hard thing to analyze because you have to average huge fluctuations over the whole Earth, and 70% of the Earth is oceans where you don't have weather stations. So you get different groups analyzing this. And they're pretty close. One group gets over the last century a warming of about .55 degrees centigrade. Another group says it's .75 degrees.

Q) Is there any scenario in which global warming could be beneficial for the planet?

A) Of course. Canada looks like it will benefit considerably if it were to happen. And it might very well happen -- but it won't be due to man.

Q) You charge that the hysteria that's been created around global warming is an enormous financial scam. It's all about money?

A) Well, how shall I put it? It's not all about money, but boy, there's a lot of money floating in it. I mean, emissions trading is going to be a multi-trillion dollar market. Emissions alone would keep small countries in business.

Q) Are you suggesting that scientists manipulate their findings to get in on the gravy train?

A) You have to differentiate the interests of different groups. In the scientific community, your interest is for your field to be recognized so that it will have priority in government funding.

Q) So you are not accusing your scientific colleagues of corruption?

A) No, I'm accusing them of behaving the way scientists always behave. In other words, some years ago, when Richard Nixon declared war on cancer, almost all the biological sciences then became cancer research. I mean, I don't call that corruption, I'm saying you orient your research so that it has a better chance to get resources.

Q) And it helps if your findings suggest something catastrophic is about to happen?

A) In this case it certainly has helped. First of all, the funding increased so greatly that it exceeded the capacity of the existing field to absorb it. You'll notice that Working Group 2 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came up with lots of scary things, but everything was always preceded by could, might, may, all these qualifiers. And the reason it was is those studies start out assuming there's a lot of warming. They assume all the science is in, and then they say, 'Well, how will this impact my field of insect-borne diseases, or agriculture, or health?' So they are almost, by definition, going to generate catastrophic scenarios, but they will never be based on anything other than the hypothesis that this will already happen.

Q) I read that you bet one of your colleagues that the Earth will actually be colder 20 years from now?

A) I haven't bet on it, but I figure the odds are about 50-50. If you look at the temperature record for the globe over the last six years, it's gone no place. That's usually the way it behaves before it goes down. In fact, I suspect that's why you have this tsunami of exposure the last two years, with Gore's movie and so on. I think that this issue has been around long enough to generate a lot of agendas, and looking at the temperature records there must be a fear that if they don't get the agendas covered now, they may never get them.

Q) Did you watch Al Gore get his Academy Award?

A) No! Bad enough I watched his movie.

Q) He would appear to have the support of the majority of your scientific colleagues.

A) Not really. This is an issue that has hundreds of aspects. The very thought that a large number of scientists all agree on everything is inconceivable. Among my colleagues, I would say, almost no one thinks that Gore's movie is reasonable. But there will be differences. Some believe it is possible that warming could be a serious problem. Others think it's very unlikely. People are all over the place.

Q) Some suggest that Roger Revelle, Gore's scientific mentor, would not have agreed with the movie?

A) Well, he's dead.

Q) Yes. So that makes it harder for him to speak out.

A) It's a horrible story. Before he died, Roger Revelle co-authored a popular paper saying, 'We know too little to take any action based on global warming. If we take any action it should be an action that we can justify completely without global warming.' And Gore's staffers tried to have his name posthumously removed from that paper claiming he had been senile. And one of the other authors took it to court and won. It's funny how little coverage that got.

Q) How cynical do you think Gore is?

A) It's hard for me to tell. I think he's either cynical or crazy. But he has certainly cashed in on something. And 'cash in' is the word. The movie has cleared $50-million. He charges $100,000-$150,000 a lecture. He's co-founder of Global Investment Management, which invests in solar and wind and so on. So he is literally shilling for his own companies. And he's on the on the board of Lehman Brothers who want to be the primary brokerage for emission permits.

Q) That sounds more cynical, less crazy.

A) I think his aim is not to be president. It's to be a billionaire.

Q) What do you find to be the attitude among your MIT undergraduates on global warming?

A) I find that they realize they don't know enough to reach judgments. They all realize that Gore's book was a sham. They appreciate that Michael Crichton at least included references.

Q) That's encouraging. Because I find the indoctrination at schools to be pretty relentless. On a recent Grade 7 test my daughter was asked something to the effect of, "How are you going to educate your parents about global warming?"

A) I know. It's straight out of Hitlerjugend.

Q) Having said that, are there any behaviours we should be changing, as a society, in order to protect our planet?

A) Yes. We should learn math and physics so we don't get fooled by this idiocy.