The Father of Global Warming Skepticism: An Interview with S Fred Singer

Jan 03, 2011 |  Ashley Thorne

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The Father of Global Warming Skepticism: An Interview with S Fred Singer

Jan 03, 2011 | 

Ashley Thorne

S. Fred Singer is a man you should know about. He is a genius in the literal sense and a key figure in one of the biggest policy debates of our day. A pioneer in rocket science, weather satellites, and air traffic control; an expert in oil economics and the Earth’s atmosphere; and the author of numerous scholarly books, Dr. Singer is a distinguished and respected scientist. He is professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia, and he was the founding Dean of the School of Environmental and Planetary Sciences at the University of Miami (1964-1967) and the Director of the Center for Atmospheric and Space Physics University of Maryland (1953-1962).

In addition, he is the founder and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project (SEPP), an organization that, among other things, seeks to promote scientific integrity in research on global warming. The National Association of Scholars, as we have stated before, takes no position on global warming. Our interest in it is to promote a full debate of this controversial subject so that both sides are heard. We recently learned of SEPP and wanted to know more about the organization and its leadership. Dr. Singer graciously agreed to an interview; below are his answers to our questions. 

At his request, we are also publishing his review of Rachel White Scheuering’s book, Shapers of the Great Debate on Conservation, which includes a profile of Dr. Singer that he says is “dominated by false information.” The Wikipedia page for Dr. Singer relies heavily on Scheuering’s book. 

If you happen to be in Southern California this Wednesday, January 5, you can hear directly from Dr. Singer when he speaks at the American Freedom Alliance Literary Cafe (see flyer). 

NAS: You have held distinguished positions in many government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency. But Rachel White Scheuering calls you a free-market environmentalist in Shapers of the Great Debate on Conservation: A Biographical Dictionary. She writes, “Free-market environmentalists like Singer adhere to the philosophy that market principles and incentives are enough to spur the conservation of resources and the protection of environmental quality.” Do you believe the government has any role to play in environmental policy-making? 

Singer: First of all, Scheuering is not a reliable source. She claims to have interviewed me but in fact never did. I attach a review I did of her book and urge you to print it. It corrects many misstatements about my career.  

With respect to your question, I do see a role for government in setting ambient quality standards for air and water and then leaving it up to the states to implement these in the best possible way. One can use nuisance suits (torts) to settle disputes between two parties, but when there are a multiplicity of sources this becomes infeasible. That is why we have emission standards for automobiles, for example.  

NAS:  Five years before Sputnik was launched, you had designed the MOUSE, the Minimal Orbital Unmanned Satellite, Earth. According to Wikipedia, you were “one of the first scientists to urge the launching of earth satellites for scientific observation.” And “the Baltimore News Post reported in 1957 that had [your] arguments about the need for satellites been heeded, the U.S. could have beaten Russia by launching the first earth satellite.” You are familiar with skepticism to your ideas. Many times you’ve made predictions that went unheeded but turned out to be right. Why do you think you’ve faced so much incredulity?

Singer: The U.S. satellite program got caught up in interagency and interservice disputes. The U.S. Army could have launched a satellite as early as 1955 if Project Orbiter had been allowed to proceed. However, President Eisenhower insisted that a U.S. satellite cannot use a military rocket system for civilian satellites. In addition, the U.S. Navy had a preferred system, called Vanguard, based on the development of the Viking rocket. Their first attempt to launch a grapefruit-sized satellite failed. The Army was then able to launch Explorer 1 in 1958, using boosters developed by Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, AL. Interestingly, the U.S. Air Force tried to steal their thunder in a project called Far Side, for which I supplied the basic design and also a cosmic-ray instrumentation package. Far Side was not a satellite but a four-stage rocket launched from a balloon (to overcome air resistance). It was designed to reach an altitude of 4000 miles in vertical flight. However, the launch attempts, which were rushed through just days after Sputnik, failed and therefore the radiation belts were not discovered until a year later by Explorer 1.

NAS:  You founded the Science & Environmental Policy Project (SEPP) in 1990 to “clarify the diverse problems facing the planet and, where necessary, arrive at effective, cost-conscious solutions.” Today, confronting the politicization of climate science is SEPP’s signature issue; was it the reason you established SEPP in the first place? How did you know there was a need for such an organization? What were the scientific controversies at the time?

Singer: Initially, SEPP dealt with a variety of environmental issues, including radon, asbestos, acid rain, and ozone depletion. Even though my background was mainly in atmospheric physics, SEPP involvement in the climate issue came about only slowly during the 1990s. For example, I had organized a symposium on “Global Effects of Environmental Pollultion” as early as 1968 and published a book by that title. In 1988, while still chief scientist of the Department of Transportation, I became concerned about the hype concerning global warming and published a lengthy op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. In 1995, after attending the IPCC meetings in Madrid and then in Rome, I drafted the Leipzig Declaration. In 1997, I published Hot Talk, Cold Science, and its second edition in 1999. I am currently completing the third edition. Since then I have been quite active in both scientific publications and popular ones. In 2007, I published (with Dennis Avery) the book Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years; quite unexpectedly it turned out to be a New York Times bestseller. In 2008, I published a summary report of the NIPCC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change*), and the full report (with Craig Idso) in 2009. Most recently, in December 2010, I submitted three scientific papers for publication.

NAS:  I’d like to clarify a few of your basic scientific views. First, do you dispute the basic idea that a planet’s atmospheric temperature is directly related to the composition of gases in the atmosphere?

Singer: Of course not. We all accept the fact that the greenhouse effects of atmospheric CO2 and water vapor (primarily) produce tolerable temperatures for the planet Earth. The global warming controversy, however, refers to effects of incremental additions of CO2.

NAS:  Do you dispute the claims that increases of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere are raising global temperatures? Do you dispute the idea that emissions of CO2 from human activities are a significant cause of global warming?

Singer: The basic answer to both questions is yes. It is based on the evidence that the observations do not show the characteristic “fingerprints” that one would expect from a global warming produced by greenhouse gases. This conclusion derives directly from IPCC data. We have published it in 2004 and in 2007 in peer-reviewed journals; it forms the centerpiece of the 2008 NIPCC summary report (published by the Heartland Institute).

NAS:  If global warming is occurring, is it bad for life on Earth?

Singer: My reading of the work of leading economists is that a modest warming would increase GNP and raise the standard of living of much of the world’s population. Conversely, expending huge sums to “combat climate change” would slow economic growth, diminish standards of living, and increase poverty—in addition to being completely ineffective and wasting resources.

NAS:  Let’s talk about your organization’s relationship with the IPCC. SEPP made headlines in 1996 when it discovered that significant deletions and alterations had been made to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Specifically, a chapter dealing with the detection and attribution of causes of global warming had been tampered with after the unpublished draft was approved. SEPP spoke out about this corruption in the Wall Street Journal, sparking an explosive debate. When you first got involved in the IPCC scandal, did global warming controversy differ in tone from that of today? In 1996, were scientists and political leaders more open to “climate change skepticism”?

Singer: The Wall Street Journal article was written and published by the late Dr. Frederick Seitz, then the chairman of SEPP. [Seitz was reckoned to be one of the most distinguished American physicists of the 20th century: a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, of the American Physical Society, of the Rockefeller University, and holder of the National Medal of Science.]

I would say that both scientists and political leaders have become more accepting of “climate change skepticism” – possibly because of the revelations of the e-mails of Climategate. The public also has developed much skepticism about the causes of global warming and even its existence.

NAS:  In your opinion what factors have led to the closed-mindedness (toward “climate change skepticism”) we see today?

Singer: Such closed-mindedness exists among scientists who have made a major career investment, among politicians who have made major prestige commitments, and of course among many industries and groups that stand to benefit financially from the lavish subsidies provided by governments.

NAS:  Was SEPP’s response to the IPCC report alteration the first significant instance that the anthropogenic climate change theory met a challenge by scientists?

Singer: I would say that our intervention in 1996 threw doubt on the evidence backing the IPCC conclusion. However, my 1997 book, Hot Talk, Cold Science (published by the Independent Insitute), clearly showed the disparity between surface and atmospheric trends, which was contrary to the theory supporting global warming. 

NAS:  In your correspondence with Undersecretary of State Timothy Wirth and IPCC Chairman Bert Bolin, you asserted that conclusions of the IPCC had been deliberately distorted for political and ideological purposes. What purposes were these? Why would policy makers feel the need to misuse scientific data about climate change?

Singer: These distortions led to the 1996 IPCC conclusion that “the balance of evidence” supported anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and provided the scientific basis for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But both Wirth and Bolin, much earlier, had argued for the need to control emissions of CO2 and reduce the use of fossil fuel energy.

NAS:  This year (2010) the IPCC was again confronted by evidence that its signature report presented supposition from non-scientific sources as though it were established science. What is it about the IPCC that makes it so vulnerable to mischief like this?

Singer: I want to make a clear distinction between the revelations of various errors in the IPCC volume-2 (Impacts of Climate Change) and the revelations of Climategate, which likely pertain to the “evidence” of IPCC volume-1 on the cause of climate change. I consider the former to be due to sloppiness and also to eagerness by certain lead authors to paint climate change as a destructive factor—whereas the latter is much more fundamental, but as yet unresolved—until we find out just how the temperature data were mishandled by the principals involved in Climategate.

NAS:  What issues other than climate change is SEPP currently dealing with?

Singer: I recently had a chance to write about ozone depletion and about the health effects of second-hand tobacco smoke (SHS). These writings simply reaffirm conclusions reached about 20 years ago.

NAS:  What is your take on Climategate?

Singer: Climategate demonstrates the hubris of a small group of climate scientists, mainly British and US, who have managed to control the production of data sets of surface temperatures. We do not know as yet just how they manipulated the raw data to produce a warming trend that supposedly agreed with greenhouse models. But we have enough additional evidence to show that they are incorrect and that the reported warming is largely illusionary. 

In addition to the manipulation of the data, we have learned that the same group engaged in unethical behavior by witholding their data-analysis procedures from scrutiny, by destroying culpatory evidence such as e-mails, by keeping dissenters from publishing contrary opinions in scientific journals, by manipulating the refereeing process, and bullying journal editors. These matters are very unpleasant and reflect on science generally; they also implicate the editors of certain prestigious journals who have played along with this group. 

NAS:  Does the Leipzig Declaration (established by SEPP) represent the main body of dissenters from orthodox global warming theory?

Singer: By no means. There exist now many documents signed by some hundreds of climate scientists expressing disagreement with the IPCC conclusions(see, for example, “More Than 1000 International Scientists Dissent Over Man-Made Global Warming Claims). In addition, there is also the Oregon Petition signed by more than 31,000 general scientists and engineers.  

NAS:  Do you think you’ve been successful in persuading the public that “there does not exist today a general scientific consensus about the importance of greenhouse warming from rising levels of carbon dioxide”? How do you measure success?

Singer: Yes, we have been successful. Twenty years ago, Al Gore claimed existence of only a couple of dissenters. Fifteen years ago, there was general agreement among politicians that the “science is settled.” Just a few years ago, in the 2004 Science magazine, Professor Naomi Oreskes proclaimed loudly that she could not find any dissenting views in nearly 1,000 scientific abstracts. Sloppy scholarship caused her to overlook 11,000 others, forcing her to publish a quiet correction. Even though 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences signed a letter in Science recently, affirming belief in AGW, only a handful of these have any demonstrated expertise in climate science. On the other hand, the number of skeptical qualified scientists has been growing steadily; I would guess it is about 40% now.

NAS:  Do you ever wish you could go back to more uncontroversial scientific research?

Singer: As a matter of fact, I have gone back to geophysical research topics that have nothing to do with climate science. They include the origin of the Moon, the origin of the Martian moons, and most recently the super-rotation of the earth’s core, its cause and consequences. All of these topics are still controversial, but at least they have no policy significance whatsoever.

NAS:  Why do promoters of and dissenters from global warming theory tend to divide along political lines? Isn’t it a question of science, not politics?

Singer: This is an interesting question that should really be addressed to a sociologist. Professor Dan Sarewitz has written an important article about this phenomenon and asked my opinion. I ventured that it might have to do with the fact that if global warming were real and dangerous, it would require government intervention of some sort—which is favored by certain politcally oriented people.

NAS:  You are the co-author of Climate Change Reconsidered, an 880-page, 5.5 pound book, full of scientific data about climate change, referencing thousands of articles in scientific peer-reviewed journals. How has the book been received?

Singer: Very few have actually read the book completely, I would guess; but it continues to impress people who are looking for something to rival the IPCC report.

NAS:  Do you have a close friend or former colleague who disagrees with you about global warming? Like Richard Lindzen and Kerry Emanuel?

Singer: Dick Lindzen and other skeptics disagree with me on many things and we discuss them constantly. I have not had a chance to talk to Kerry.

NAS:  Going forward, what would you like to see happen in regard to public opinion and policy on climate change?

Singer: I would like to see the public look upon global warming as just another scientific controversy and oppose any public policies until the major issues are settled, such as the cause. If mostly natural, as NIPCC concludes, then the public policies currently discussed are pointless, hugely expensive, and wasteful of resources that could better be applied to real societal problems.

NAS:  You have said, “Believe it or not, there are people in the world who believe we have gone too far in economic growth.” What do you say to these people to convince them otherwise?

Singer: Until we do away with poverty, we will need economic growth. While we may never do away with income inequality, we should at least provide a decent standard of living for the world’s population.

NAS:  At NAS, we have been paying attention to the rise of the “sustainability” movement on college campuses. Is this something you’ve been following? How is it distinct from the climate change movement?

Singer: “Sustainability” is mainly an ill-defined slogan. For sure, it does not apply to fossil fuels, which are used up when producing energy. It is often conflated with conservation, which to me means “not wasting resources.” Interestingly, nuclear energy is essentially sustainable—in the sense that it will supply energy for many thousands of years and probably beyond. 

NAS:  In your ideal university, what does scientific inquiry look like? Should instruction be based on the classic disciplinary model?

Singer: I am a believer in teaching classic disciplines (like physics); an interdisciplinary curriculum which excludes classic disciplines is a fad that may soon pass.

*Editor’s note: Dr. Singer established the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) in 2004 “to examine the same climate data used by the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” (NIPCC summary report [2008] "Nature - Not Human Activity - Rules the Climate,” Preface)


Book Review: Shapers of the Great Debate on Conservation by Rachel White Scheuering

S. Fred Singer

Scheuering’s discussion of me in this book is totally dominated by the false information from the book The Heat is On by Ross Gelbspan. All throughout, Scheurering asserts that I receive funding from oil and coal interests (p.xxiv). On page xiv she claims to have conducted an interview with me or obtained information directly from me, but she never did.

The chapter on me occupies pages 115-127. Her major reference appears to be Gelbspan, since she refers throughout to funding from major oil companies (p 116)—which, of course, is untrue. I’d like to set the record straight.

Early History: This discussion is basically correct but incomplete. The following should be used:

Singer left school at the age of 13 and apprenticed in an optical machine shop. He left Austria at the age of 14 for Holland and thence to Northumberland, England where he worked as an optician. A year later, after the evacuation of Dunkirk and during the London Blitz, he left England to join his parents who had emigrated to Ohio.

He was admitted to Ohio State U at age 16 and received his degree in Electrical Engineering two years later, in March 1943.  He continued as a grad student/instructor in physics at Princeton University, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in August 1944, after receiving an A.M. degree.  He later served on the faculties of the University of Maryland, Miami, and Virginia.

Professional Career Highlights:

**After WW-II, I joined APL-JHU and participated in the earliest high-altitude research, using captured German V-2 rockets.  I studied the primary cosmic radiation, upper-atmosphere ozone, and electric currents flowing in the ionosphere.

**After publishing pioneering studies on the scientific uses of instrumented earth satellites [see “Geophysical Research with Artificial Earth Satellites,” pp. 302-367 in Advances in Geophysics, vol. 3, Ed. H.E. Landsberg, Academic Press, New York, 1956], I was appointed, in 1962, as the first director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service (now NESDIS/NOAA).

**As deputy assistant secretary of the Interior (1967-1970), I was in charge of the Estuarine Pollution Study, which provided the basis for the Coastal Zone Management Act.  I served briefly as deputy assistant administrator of the EPA (1970-71).

**As chief scientist for the Department of Transportation (1987-89), I was concerned mainly with air traffic safety and the design of the new air traffic control system. I was also responsible for the civilian applications of GPS.

**The confusion about the funding from oil companies may have to do with the fact that in the 1970s and early 80s I served as a consultant on rocket and satellite technology, energy, atmospheric research for numerous corporations and agencies. In particular, I consulted for several oil companies on oil economics.  Based on my monograph on Future Price of World Oil, I became known as the developer of a mathematical model for projecting future oil prices.  I was not involved in any climate studies until about 1990, by which time I was no longer an oil consultant.

In the 1970s and 80s, I wrote extensively on energy matters for the Wall Street Journal, discussing the limitations on OPEC for raising prices, and arguing that an actual oil embargo against the United States is not possible.

I did not agree with Nixon’s price controls on oil, blaming them for many of our energy problems and the long lines at gas stations.  I disagreed strongly with the program of President Carter to achieve oil independence by producing synthetic oil from coal.  I have also disagreed with subsequent schemes for energy independence—for example with President George W. Bush’s hydrogen economy.  My book, Free-Market Energy discusses the steps that need to be taken to achieve low-cost, reliable energy in order to further economic growth and prosperity.

Ozone Depletion

Contrary to Scheuering and many other commentators, I never doubted that chlorine in the stratosphere would destroy ozone, including also chlorine from CFCs.  However, until 1988, all published observational data [by Zander] showed no increase in chlorine compounds in the stratosphere.  This indicated that the human contribution was not important, and this fact formed the basis for my writings on ozone depletion.  In 1988, however, new data [by Curtis Rinsland] did show a secular increase in chlorine concentration and I changed my position.  Note, however, that this took place a year after the 1987 Montreal Protocol was passed.  In other words, the Montreal Protocol was based on hype and fear rather than on actual science.  All of this is fully discussed in an article I wrote which was printed in Science magazine.

Global Warming

All of my quotes cited by Scheuering are still correct today and supported by hard evidence.  I have consistently expressed doubt about any appreciable greenhouse warming and based this primarily on  observations from weather satellites.  The latest satellite results show no warming trend between 1979 and 1997. After 1998, there was a jump in temperature, which must have been caused by something other than the steady increase of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  In other words, all of the data we have today (Dec. 2010) support the view that the effects of increasing GHGs have been minimal.  The reason for this may be the presence of negative climate feedbacks that have acted to reduce the warming effects of increasing GHGs.  On the other hand, observed changes in temperature since 1940 have been discontinuous and likely caused by ocean-atmosphere oscillations or variations in solar activity.

It is clear that Scheuering has no understanding of the science behind global warming.  It is also clear that she accepts the misinformation in Gelbspan’s book and has never bothered to verify with me.

Scientific Achievements

Scheuering briefly mentions but does not discuss the significance of my major scientific publications dealing with the earth’s magnetosphere, geomagnetically trapped radiation, the age of meteorites, the origin of the moon, etc.  Instead, she dwells on minutiae.

* * *

Here is an abstract of my current work:
Seminar (Rockefeller Univ, Sept 22, 2010): The Super-Rotation of the Earth's Core: How the Moon maintains life on Earth

Abstract: The hypothesis put forward identifies lunar tidal forcing as the cause of the observed super-rotation and thereby as the agent maintaining the geomagnetic field. In turn, the existence of a magnetosphere has protected the earth's atmosphere and oceans from erosion by the solar wind – and thereby made possible the development of terrestrial life. While this chain of events may appear speculative, it does not violate any physical laws and also helps to explain many puzzling features of the terrestrial planets; for example, planetary magnetic fields; the origin of the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos; and the origin of the Moon.

Image: "S Fred Singer 2011" by Hans Erren // CC BY-SA

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