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The Climate Debate Twenty Years Later

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“Better climate knowledge about natural versus anthropogenic forcing seems to a decade away.” That was the major takeaway from a major 1999 climate conference in Houston, Texas…

… as noted by Martin Cassidy of the Houston Geological Society, who  authored a conference summary, “Global Climate Change: Panel Agrees: ‘In 10 Years We Will Know‘.”

In fact, one of the conference participants, Gerald North, climatologist at Texas A&M, repeated this a decade after this conference. In his words:

In another decade of research we will have squared away a lot of our uncertainties about forced climate change. As this approaches we can be thinking about what to do if the warming does indeed appear to be caused by humans and to what extent things are changing as result. (North to Seldon B. Graham, Jr. January 6, 2010)

Now for Cassidy’s 1,000-word writeup. As you read this, ask yourself: what is really that different today, 20 years later, science-wise?

On Friday, September 25, 1999, a distinguished panel of eight scientists, all active in research on global climate change, met at the Houston Club under the sponsorship of The Houston Forum to present a reasoned scientific discussion about global climate change. The half-day panel discussion was a welcome relief from the strident cries of special pleaders on either side of the question of global warming.

Ed Powell, Houston Forum leader, turned the meeting over to Dr. David R. Legates to moderate. He stated that the objective of the meeting was to present what is known and the limits of accuracy of the data that we have. During the morning session, four general topics were discussed:

1. The greenhouse effect and related issues

2. Anthropogenic vs. natural climate change

3. The state of atmospheric general circulation modeling

4. Temperature and other weather data

Dr. Richard Kerr, senior scientific writer with Science magazine, led off by pointing out that the greenhouse effect is a physical fact, but how much mankind has affected it is in doubt. That CO2 in air has risen from 310 ppm in 1959 to 360 ppm today is a fact. How much it has affected the climate is an open question. Other greenhouse gases, including methane and water vapor, have a powerful effect.

A primary question is: “If you perturb the climate, how will it change?” or, put another way, “If you kick it, how high will it jump?” It is not simple; there are surprises. One must get accurate, pertinent data to put into models to make accurate predictions. Predictions of warming of 1.5′ C all the way to 4.5′ C have been made if CO2 content of the air doubles. Computer models are improving and including more and more factors, but, as Dr. Richard Lindzen points out, the error bars on input data are still large.

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