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Richard Lindzen: A Climate Change Dissenter Who Has Left His Mark On U.S. Policy

Richard Lindzen is 71. His career as professor of meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is winding down. The rumpled, bearded, soft-spoken scientist no longer teaches regular classes and looks forward to a quiet retirement a year from now, perhaps at his second home, in Paris.

“Quiet” is not a word you could apply to his career. In the 1970s, he developed a mathematical analysis that disproved much of the accepted scientific theories about how “tides” in the Earth’s atmosphere move heat around the planet. For that, he won a number of prestigious awards and was invited to become a member of the National Academy of Sciences at the tender age of 37.

In the 1990s, when a group of climate scientists using computer-driven climate models and environmental groups asserted that climate change caused by man-made greenhouse gases would dangerously warm the Earth, Lindzen set out to disprove them. He lost that battle. The message of the computer modelers is now the prevailing wisdom of the National Academy and other distinguished scientific bodies around the world.

But Lindzen hasn’t given up. He became a major force in the political war that raged within the incoming George W. Bush Administration over what to do about global warming. After holding seminars with leading climate scientists, Bush rejected U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Lindzen’s message in these tutorials — that man-caused global warming was real, but would hardly cause any change at all — was the one that Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to favor the most. U.S. climate policy hasn’t been the same since.

“I don’t judge my work on its political influence,” Lindzen shrugged in an interview. “As a scientist, I don’t regard these people [politicians] as the judges of my work.” He pays much more attention to the behavior of his fellow scientists, who have decidedly mixed views about his.

James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, led the push at the White House for the Bush administration to take action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. He still seems scarred by his encounters with Lindzen. He recalls in his latest book, “Storms of My Grandchildren,” that Lindzen “is soft spoken, but has an authoritative air; he never loses his cool and is always in complete control.”

“I expect him to keep asserting that human-made climate change is unimportant on his deathbed,” grumbled Hansen. He wrote that after clashing with Lindzen, he tried to improve his communications skills by reading English novels out loud to his wife. “It improved my vocabulary, but not my tact.”

Scientific duels

Hansen did not respond to a ClimateWire request for an interview about Lindzen. Stefan Rahmstorf, a physicist and oceanographer at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who has also tangled with Lindzen, declined to be interviewed on the subject.

Rahmstorf, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) most recent report in 2007, had plenty to say about Lindzen in dueling academic papers they exchanged in 2005.

Rahmstorf predicted an average global mean surface temperature rise of 3 degrees Celsius, “plus or minus a degree,” by 2100. He noted that this means impacts in terms of sea level rise and soaring temperatures that are unprecedented in the last 100,000 years. “Virtually every climatologist around the world, many who were initially skeptical, agree that it’s a reality. We have to deal with it.”

Lindzen rejected it, arguing that the answer that emerges from most climate models is wrong because they assume the Earth’s clouds and water will amplify the rising heat. According to Lindzen’s calculations, the clouds should have the opposite effect, minimizing the warming effect.

He skewered Rahmstorf in a footnote, arguing that the German scientist was “addicted to the use of words like ‘entirely,’ ‘fact,’ ‘irrefutable,’ etc. Such words are inappropriate to a primitive and immature science — which is what climate science is at present.”

Rahmstorf thrust back with a “personal postscript”: “Can Lindzen seriously believe that a vast conspiracy of thousands of climatologists worldwide is misleading the public for personal gain? All this seems completely out of touch with the world of climate science as I know it and, to be frank, simply ludicrous.”

Richard Goody, 90, who taught meteorology to Lindzen at Harvard, says the critics of his former pupil are “focusing on his propensity to debate. He [Lindzen] loves debating. He absorbs an enormous amount of information, and he loves arguing with you about it. Since he’s so well-informed and so smart, he usually wins. This doesn’t endear you to a lot of people.”

Arguing for natural variability

Goody is quick to add: “But science is not about gentility. It’s about discussing the facts. He’s just doing what he should do.”

Goody doesn’t always agree with Lindzen, but he does share Lindzen’s suspicions about computer-driven climate models.

“This machine turns out a number for something that will happen 100 years in the future. Science doesn’t usually work that way. There’s not much evidence about the behavior of these climate models,” he said.

Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado, specializes in studying the scientific process. He sees the rough-and-tumble of the climate debate as an unstable brew of science and politics. “If we were to view science as a field where a lot of conflicts happen, then Lindzen is an expected part of the scenery. But if science is a community where there is only one acceptable view, then Lindzen stands out.”

Pielke blames environmental groups for making climate a two-sided debate. Scientists like Lindzen who opposed their position “were immediately perceived as threats.” The end result of this, he asserts, is public confusion. “It is a rare scientific topic where the public has it sorted out the way the experts think it ought to be viewed,” he said.

Certainly, no one could accuse Lindzen of being either an environmentalist or a politician.

In a paper he wrote earlier this year, he managed to lash out at his scientific critics, bureaucrats, politicians — including former Vice President Al Gore — and environmental groups before training his rhetoric on the public. “And finally, there are the numerous well-meaning individuals who have allowed propagandists to convince them that in accepting the alarmist view of anthropogenic climate change, they are displaying intelligence and virtue. For them, their psychic welfare is at stake,” he wrote.

The paper gives the essence of his argument, which is that, while man-caused warming certainly exists, by itself it is small. It was roughly 0.7 degree Celsius in the 20th century. If the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles, which many scientists predict that it will by the end of this century, that will increase global mean temperatures by a little more than 1 degree, he thinks.

“A hundred years from now, I don’t really know, but I don’t think it [the climate] will be radically different. The climate is always changing. It’s natural variability,” he said in an interview.

Retiring, but still fighting

Some skeptical scientists have taken contributions from coal companies to support their climate research. Critics have, at times, lumped Lindzen in with them. He says the only time he has received coal money was as a fee for being an expert witness in a legal case involving the Western Fuels Association, a cooperative that promotes the use of coal.

Lindzen is no stranger to fights. He grew up in a rough Irish-Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx. The son of a shoemaker, he rose in the academic world by winning scholarships. Since 1988, when he first challenged climate change orthodoxy, he has shifted from a being a moderate Democrat to a conservative.

Despite his looming retirement, he still gives a few speeches to groups that he favors. One of them is Washington’s Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, where he recently told a cheering audience that his battle is almost won.

“Now we’re seeing a doubling down, a desperate movement among professional [scientific] societies that have committed themselves to the issue,” he said.

Asserting that groups such as the National Academy of Sciences or the American Meteorological Society are wrong about climate projections and proposed government responses doesn’t endear Lindzen to the nation’s science establishment. But he doesn’t stop there. He proposes to cut off most government funding because it rewards what he calls “alarmist” studies about climate change and discourages dissenting views.

“There has to be a return to non-government support of science,” he told the Cato group.

Lindzen’s message still resonates with budget-cutting Republicans in Congress and some in the fossil fuel industry. It has raised Lindzen to most valuable player status among a group of retired weathermen who meet for lunch twice a year in New Hampshire. They have long regarded computer model projections as an invasion of their turf.

“Dick Lindzen is a solid guy. I talk with Dick a lot,” said Fred Ward, a meteorologist and MIT graduate who was known as “Doctor Fred” to his Boston television viewers. He said he and his group reject the conclusions of the American Meteorological Society. “They say the climate is going to hell.”

“So we have this data,” Ward went on. “It goes up and down. In there, there is a small upward [warming] trend. That’s the situation. If we say that, we’re the so-called deniers. We’re not denying anything. We just can’t tell.”

The New York Times, 6 July 2011