Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John A. ColemanMarch 21, 2012

I have to deliver a lecture next week in Minnesota on Catholic social thought on the environment ( a topic dear to me). Checking the weather reports for that area, I have noticed a high unseasonal warmth. But I know, of course, that climate is not weather. We can have overall global warming or cooling yet find, during a warming or cooling period, unseasonal opposite effects in some parts of the globe. Clearly, getting clear on climatology takes some careful parsing of data.

I turned to the excellent book by Michael Mann, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Columbia University Press, 2012) for some illumination about the conflicting claims about global warming. Mann is a renowned climatologist at Pennsylvania State University. He is the one who coined the famous metaphor about global warming, the hockey stick. Using proxy data to chart temperature fluxes across a thousand year period, Mann likened the recent, late twentieth century rise in global temperature to a hockey stick, with a rough equivalent handle which showed mainly stability, giving rise, then, to a sharp rise in termperature like the blade of the hockey stick. By proxy data, Mann points to evidence from tree rings, ice bores, lake and ocean sediment and coral reefs to find indications of temperature over time.

Mann knows well that these proxy data must cover the entire globe. For, it is perfectly possible for parts of the globe to be heating while others have cooler than usual weather, for a net stability. He has also very carefully followed the data about solar intensity and volcano eruptions ( the latter lead to short term cooling in temperature). In point of fact, given the trajectory of these last two items, the earth's temperature should be cooling now rather than heating up. The decade of the 1990's, as it turns out, however, was the warmest decade in six centuries. Climate skeptics vigorously attacked the image of the hockey stick rise in temperature as a  "fluke" in statistical reasoning rather than any indication of true data.

Reading Mann's book, I was puzzled that anyone would really be in denial about climate change. In truth, one might be skeptical about one or other policy proposal to deal with global warming( e.g., carbon tax versus cap and trade schemes; varying forms of alternative non-fossil fuel energy etc.; resort to nucclear power). But denial that global warming is, in fact, occurring and brings with it possible catastrophic consequences in species depletion, sea level rises etc. seems totally unwarranted. Why then is there so much of it ? It turns out that there are strong vested interests ( fossil fuel companies and their lobbies; anyone who is a libertarian against any increase in governmental regulations) who want to deny the scientific evidence. As Mann notes, skepticism ( something science should engage in, precisely in order to clarify data and get the facts right) is not the same as denialism.

As Mann notes: "As both the climate wars and the hockey stick battle continued, it was increasingly unclear that any amount of evidence or additional work would satisfy the critics. After all, the attacks against the hockey stick fundamentally, as we have seen, were not really about the work itself. They were part and parcel--forgive the pun-- of a proxy war against the science and its icons being fought by, or at least often funded by, powerful vested interests who found the scientific evidence for climate change inconvenient for political, financial or philosophical reasons." Of course, ignoring the scientific evidence of global warming will be more than just inconvenient for future generations. Ignoring the evidence could have catastrophic implications.

Denialists tend to make the following six points: (1) CO2 is not actually increasing. (But we can confidently measure the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere from the start of the Industrial Revolution from 280 parts per million to the present 392p.p.m.!); ( 2) Even if CO2 is increasing, the increase has no impact on the climate since there is no convincing evidence of warming ( Despite three of the years in the past decade being the warmest in centuries; despite glacier melting; despite droughts and extreme weather storms!); (3) Even if there is warming, it is due to natural causes. Mann rather carefully sifts through possible natural causes of climate shifts ( El Nino and La Nina effects, volcano activity, solar intensity). They can not explain the climate rise. In fact, they should be yielding a slight global cooling but are not! (4) Even if the warming cannot be explained by natural causes, the human impact is small and the impact of continued green house gas emisions will be minor. (Not if the sea level rises predicted occur. We are on present course to increase--if we go on the pattern we are going-- to 450ppm of CO2 by the mid twenty-first century which almost all climatologists see as a potential tipping point with quite serious ecological consequences; (5) Even if the current and projected future human effects on earth's climate are not negligible, the changes are generally going to be good for us. This reminds me of remarks friends from Cleveland, experiencing an unseasonably warm winter, made: " If this is global warming, I want more of it." Some areas ( Canada, Russia) will benefit from global warming with longer growing seasons for wheat etc. But calculations are that global warming will be a global net loss for Africa, the South West of the United States, many parts of Latin America and Australia and, overall, globally a net loss; ( 6) Whether or not the changes are going to be good for us, humans are very adept at adapting to changes; besides, it is too late to do anying about it and/or a technological fix is bound to come along when we really need it. Actually, we really need it now! Some of the projected tipping points leave little room for any easy technological fix!

What I found most interesting in Mann's book was the concerted effort by climate deniers (such as the Hearland Institute; the George Marshall Institue; foundations financed by the Koch brothers; Exxon-Mobil, The Scaife Foundation--almost all through fossil fuel money) to orchestrate media campaigns ( even harsh political near persecution of climate scientists) sowing doubt. These manufacturers of doubt ( acting much similar to those who poked fun at the evidence of health harm from tobacco had done earlier) seem to be following advice given by Frank Lutz to Republicans in 2002 that the science of global warming might undermine their programs if they did not sow systematic doubt about the scientific uncertainty of global warming.

Mann is illuminating about the so-called' climate gate' scandal' when hacked e-mails from the server of the Center for Climate Research at the University of East Anglia were made public (often in a distorting edited fashion). They came out right before the UN meeting on climate in Copenhagen. Two terms, in particular, were lifted up: 'Trick' which the climate deniers claimed meant a devious trick but from the whole content of the e-mail meant "a clever and helpful heuristic device for dealing with proxy data on temperature." A second canard had to do with a phrase, "hide the deline." Again, the deniers saw something devious in the phrase when, in point of fact, it really meant : be careful about accounting for tree ring data from higher latitutdes after 1960 because the influence of other forms of pollution might suggest, actually temperature deline. Hide or do not put too much value on data known to be faulty on other grounds.

Mann has been subjected to almost systematic probing by various Republican led congressional investigations (and one by Ken Cuccinelli, the Attorney General of Virginia) demanding time-consuming and extensive provision of e-mails, research papers etc. The plot line seems to be: pick off the leading scientists, harass them, that way others will be deterred. But the tactic has backfired and prominent scientific groups and editorials in The Washington Post and The New York Times began to compare the actions of Representative Darrel Issa and Senators Inhofe and Vitter or Cuccinelli as a kind of McCarthyism against science. As Mann argues it: "The scientific community and those seeking to communicate its message are greatly outmatched by a massive disinformation campagn funded by powerful vested interests driven by a single goal. That gloal is to thwart efforts to regulate carbon emissions-- a necessary step if we are to stabilize gas concentration below dangerous levels."

John A. Coleman, S.J.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Gillian King
12 years 2 months ago
I am enormously relieved that governing officials are getting on with the business of recognising the risks that are already emerging from climate change. California requires insurance companies to identify how they are accounting for the risks. NY is raising the pumps in its sewer system to account for rising sea levels, the Navy is trialling biodiesel. This list of intelligent initiatives goes on and on.

Every national science institute on the planet agrees with the mainstream science. Govt policy should be based on mainstream science, not on the fringe views of a handful of contrarians, many of whom have been shown to be wrong in the past about things like nicotine and cancer, CFCs and the ozone layer.

Those who insist on debating 'do we have a problem' are sitting on the sidelines while others do the heavy lifting on fixing the problem that thousands of scientists have identified.

> rising sea levels
> melting ice sheets
> thawing permafrost
> rising surface temps
> rising ocean temps
> increasing ocean acidification

Multiple strands of data all point the same way. Let's get on with making intelligent responses.
JR Cosgrove
12 years 2 months ago

It is very difficult to get a true fix on global warming, how much is happening, what is causing it, what to do about it.

There is a large skepticism out there that AGW is nothing more than a power grab by the left and political activity tends to back that up.  At Copenhagen, many countries came with the expectations that they would receive large cash payments from the Western World democracies starting soon after the congress.  The hard case for carbon taxes is another example as many believe this is nothing more than a grab for large amounts of money but will have little effect on world CO2 levels.  

After the Climategate scandal and it was a scandal as many of the emails indicated very unprofessional behavior, I watched a debate sponsored by MIT.  There were 5-6 people on the panel.  The only one to question AGW was Richard Lindzen who is is a very respected atmospheric scientist.  The others supported AGW but during the one sided debate the only one to use data to support his point of view was Lindzen.  The others just used rhetorical arguments and no science.  That alone was an eye opener.  MIT could not field anyone who would go against Lindzen with science.

So if in fact there is AGW then the worse enemies for making the case are those who support it and the tactics they have taken, especially political and the suppression of opposing points of view.  We are told the science is settled but when has that ever been true.  So I think the climate scientists have better take a different tack, including supporting researh that may contradict their point of view as well as the possible solutions.  If they show an open mind, then maybe they would be taken more seriously by those who have a difficult time judging just what is so.
Stanley Kopacz
12 years 2 months ago
I think Wien's displacement law and Beer's law are where you start.  CO2 is a greenhouse gas, pure and simple, acting as a blanket, increasing the heating effect of the sun.  FLuid dynamics may better predict what will happen where once the heating occurs, but there is no escaping the fact that more energy is being pumped into a nonlinear system, and things can be expected to change AND become more unstable. 

I trust the climatologists have been and are following the evidence.  I think that is all they have ever been doing.  The conspiritorial slander comes from the right wing ideologues and those whose profit making ox would be gored if we started doing what we should be doing.

Some of the people who deny global warming are not stupid, but they are intellectually dishonest.  They scrabble around for any incompleteness in the science (an inevitability) and use it as an excuse to deny the validity of the whole.  I believe that if some new science is discovered that shows humans are not causing global warming (very unlikely) , the first people you hear it from will be the climatologists.  The right wingers et al. are just playing intellectual games to fit their apriori conclusions.  Some people would rather keep their heads in a bushel basket because they don't want to admit that change is necessary.  Some people are just contrarian.  We really don't have time anymore for this.  It was used up over the last 30 years of sleepwalking.  I would hope that we make the necessary changes but I don't think the American people have what it takes or the Chinese, for that matter.  If I inherit my mother's longevity,  I'll at least be able to witness one hell of a disaster movie.  I just have to figure out where the climate will be survivable AND where the scumbag energy companies haven't poisoned the drinking water. Not an easy trick.
Barry Hudock
12 years 2 months ago
Where & when is the Minnesota lecture, Fr. Coleman?
JR Cosgrove
12 years 2 months ago
''Climategate was not a scandal.  Several independent investigations (including one by the National Science Foundation) cleared the authors of the emails of any wrongdoing. ''

From what I read and it quoted from the emails, there was an effort to suppress opposition to the researh by manipulating the peer review process.  To me that should have sent shivers through the science community.

I am not saying that the people being suppressed had valid objections but that there was pressure to not object as opposed pushing for an honest inquiry.  Again, Lindzen who is a respected atmospheric scientist from MIT thinks the whole thing is over blown and the main driver is politics.  Can anyone say ''cap and trade?''  Here is a recent presentation by Lindzen.

Michael Kelly
12 years 2 months ago
John Coleman:
             What counts in regard to the climate change/global warming debate is the accuracy of the presentation and analysis of facts. 
             For analysis and opinion contrary to your article, see – among many excellent articles by scientists -
 “The Truth About Greenhouse Gases - The dubious science of the climate crusaders.”
By William Happer, Professor of Physics, First Things, June/July, 2011.
The entire article is too long and packed with facts to attempt to summarize, but in particular see Professor Happer’s expose` of the hockey stick scandal and the intellectual dishonesty of some global warming alarmists.  (“Alarmists” is pejorative, but justified in reaction to the outrageous characterization of those who reject predictions of catastrophe from climate change as “deniers” – a term borrowed from the correct characterization of the likes of Iran’s Ahmadinejad who deny the occurrence of the Holocaust.)
            See also
“No Need to Panic About Global Warming - There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy.”
Wall Stree Journal, 1/26/12
“Concerned Scientists Reply on Global Warming - The authors of the Jan. 27 Wall Street Journal op-ed, 'No Need to Panic about Global Warming,' respond to their critics.”
Wall Street Journal, 2/21/12
Stanley Kopacz
12 years 2 months ago
For a link disputing Lindzen's misrepresentation, try


At the bottom of the article are links to Lindzen's apology acknowledging his error(?)and a comment on his further mistake.

Problem with real climate.org is, they talk science and not conspiracy theory, which is a much simpler paradigm with which to confuse the masses, parliaments and congresses.  For a good layout of the history of the science try


although we all know what a bunch of hippie whackos the American Institute of Physics is.
Amy Ho-Ohn
12 years 2 months ago
The tree rings, ice bores, lake sediment and coral reefs only demonstrate that temperatures are increasing. The evidence that the phenomenon is anthropogenic rests largely on computer simulations and numerical solution of the Navier-Stokes equations. The NSE are non-linear and notoriously difficult to solve. Even small, simple problems like the evolution and trajectory of a shock wave often can not be solved to a satisfactory degree of precision. The solutions are highly dependent on the initial conditions imposed, and these are frequently not independent of the researcher's personal biases.

I personally am not opposed to carbon taxes or environmental regulation. But I am opposed to the demonization of those who question the theory of anthropogenic global warming. In my estimation, the evidence is not conclusive. A lot of people have told me I think this because I'm just too dumb to "understand the science." But my criterion would be, can you even write down the Navier-Stokes equations? If not, you have nothing interesting to tell me about fluid dynamics.
Amy Ho-Ohn
12 years 2 months ago
@DC-U,SFO (#8), Hi David:

I congratulate you on an excellent choice of field. IMHO, computational fluid dynamics is one of the most interesting subjects in early twenty-first century science: a lot of good, big, interesting problems, you get to use a lot of fun math, computer algorithms, the coolest hardware, almost every problem you work on involves learning a lot of new things you never even realized existed. And it's huge. Between blood substitutes, airplane fuel systems, astronomy,  reactor design, etc., I once estimated about half the people I know spend their working lives solving the Navier-Stokes equations.

I think you're wrong about the role computational models of climate phenomena play in the global warming debate. About ten years ago, I worked on a huge climate simulator which had relocated from one of the national labs to the university where I was a graduate student. It was one of these gigantic legacy codes which had grown and grown for decades until nobody really knew what all was under the hood. But the meteorologists just kept running it and publishing papers based on the output. Those papers were frequently cited as evidence for climate changes.

I had to go inside it pretty far to do what I had been hired to do (long story). And what I found was not very encouraging. The advection routines were antique; they had been designed to run on obsolete computers and made questionable approximations which had become unnecessary. There was a huge piece of code for convection which nobody could explain; nobody even knew the guy who had done it, one person knew somebody who had known him. The "author bias" I am thinking of was that the source term modeled some chemical reactions, but it was pretty clear that the researcher who had written it had been interested in very different problems from the ones the code was then being used to solve. Every few months, somebody would tweak the chemistry and publish another paper about the results, then forget to take the additions out. (Version control was kind of done on the honor system in those days.)

So, I have my doubts.  I don't think for an instant any scientist is deliberating falsifying results; but two decades in the scientific research business have convinced me that confirmation bias (and the pressure to publish) is a much more dangerous hazard to scientific knowledge than malice.
Marie Rehbein
12 years 2 months ago
The rapid melting of glaciers worldwide, including at the poles, seems to confirm the global warming predictions.  It conforms to the correlation between increases in carbon dioxide and increases in global temperature over 125,000 years.  Our current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are far beyond any naturally occurring levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the past.  Apparently, concerns about money - not sharing it, getting more of it - are more important to our world's leaders than the possible impact of this on human habitation of this planet.
JR Cosgrove
12 years 2 months ago
Mr. Kopacz,

I thank you from refraining from the wild vitriol that frequently accompanies your remarks.  I do have a comment about one line that verges on edge of sarcasm.

''although we all know what a bunch of hippie whackos the American Institute of Physics is.''

Though I studied physics in college it was not my real interest so I never pursued it much and preferred math and went on to a Ph.D program in math before deciding I wanted a more interesting life so I joined the Navy to see the world.  But I have been interested in science ever since.  One area that got my attention was the evolution debate which is by the way much more full of vitriol and contention than the climate debate.  Hard to believe but it is true.  What I find interesting about the evolution debate is how the scientific community routinely tries to suppress opposing opinions, manipulates the peer review process to make sure there is conformity while quietly admitting behind closed doors that they do not have a clue.

If you ask one of the hippie whacko biology professors in this country if the science is settled on the cause of evolution, they will say it is settled science but in fact you will not be able to find one biologist, let alone an evolutionary biologist that can support any scientific theory to explain evolution.  But there is tremendous pressure to conform and one will not get tenure or publishing grants if one challenges the conventional wisdom in certain ways.

So I would be more upset with the supposed conformity that exists.  And I did notice that Lindzen apologized for the chart but he did have about 50 other charts in his presentation.  Were they all bogus?  I am not defending Lindzen's analysis since I do not have the knowledge to defend or contradict but what I find is the same pressures and attitudes that exist in evolutionary biology and there it is a sham.  And the immediate link with this information by politicians for a specific way to address the supposed problem has rightly raised suspicion and it should in all right thinking people.
ed gleason
12 years 2 months ago
Today, we have mysterious booms in Wisconsin. One idea to be tested is sensors to zero in on underground collapses caused by high temperatures and a sinking water table. Everyone hears the booms.. a start? 
David Cruz-Uribe
12 years 2 months ago
The first few comments to this post are an excellent illustration of Mann's basic contention:  that the science of climate change has been obscured (especially in popular discourse) by a propaganda and misinformation.  It would talk pages to correct all of the remarks here, but a few comments are in order:

@JR Cosgrove

Climategate was not a scandal.  Several independent investigations (including one by the National Science Foundation) cleared the authors of the emails of any wrongdoing. 

@Michael Kelly

Happer is a brilliant physicist, but his specialty is optics, not climate science.  By way of analogy:  if you are worried about heart problems, you would not consult a podiatrist; conversely, if 10 heart specialists tell you you have heart problems but your podiatrist says not to worry, who would you listen to?  The article in First Things you cite makes no references to the peer-reviewed literature and is a compilation of long discredited arguments.   A similar comment applies to the Op-Ed piece in the WSJ:  most of the signatories do not have expertise in climate science.

@Amy Ho-Ohn

If you are serious, I would be happy to reproduce the Navier-Stokes equations in a subsequent comment; some of my work is in PDEs and I am familiar with them.  My colleague does computational fluid dynamics (blood flow) so from discussions with her I am familiar with the issues involved.   People who do climate modeling are well aware of the instabilities inherent in the N-S equations, and take a great deal of effort to deal with them.  So, unless you have evidence that their results depend on biases in their choice of initial conditions, this is not much of an argument.  Moreover, the evidence that humanity is responsible for global warming does not come from models:  it comes from a careful, empirical analysis of the sources of carbon (overwhelmingly from mankind) and an analysis of where it is going (the various carbon sinks).  Models illustrate what carbon does and what we can expect in the future.
12 years 2 months ago
JR is so predictable. I wonder what else will be politicized, or some other conspiracy from the "left" imagined?
Stephen SCHEWE
12 years 2 months ago
Hi Barry (#3):

A quick web search came up with this:


7:30 pm Tuesday the 27th at St. Johns in Collegeville, lecturing on ''Creation Care and Eco-Justice.''  For those of you unfamiliar with the sponsors of the talk, St. Johns University and the College of St. Benedict, Collegeville is 80 miles northwest of Minneapolis; see http://www.csbsju.edu for directions.

Presumably Fr. Coleman or the editor will make corrections if I'm in error.  I have a conflict that night, but with our current beautiful spring weather (knocks on wood), it would be a great day trip.  If you haven't been to St. Johns, get there early enough in the afternoon to see the Collegeville Bible at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library and to see the beautiful campus.  Evening prayer with the monks is in the Abbey Church at 7:00 pm; I imagine they won't start the talk until prayer is over.

The latest from america

A Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinMay 29, 2024
As a gay priest, I was shocked and saddened by the Holy Father’s use of an offensive slur during a discussion with Italian bishops.
Growth, undeniable tensions and “a deep desire to rebuild and strengthen” the body of Christ have emerged as key themes in the latest synod report for the Catholic Church in the U.S.
“Brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit, Who in the beginning transformed chaos into cosmos, is at work to bring about this transformation in every person,” Pope Francis said in his general audience today.
Pope FrancisMay 29, 2024