The Why Files The Why Files --

Politics vs science: round 2


Why Files talks with Reid Bryson.
Reid Bryson helped found the field of climatology with pioneering studies documenting how climate changed over the centuries. He was long associated with the idea that, based on climatic history, another ice age was coming, and he has long questioned the conventional wisdom about global warming: that the globe is warming due to human activity.

Bryson founded what is now the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1977, he co-authored a pioneering book on the two-way interaction between humans and weather (see "Climates of Hunger ..." in the bibliography). He was long-time founding director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at UW-Madison, and remains active in climate research.

Dark haired man leans over two students working at computers
University of Wisconsin-Madison atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor Jonathan Martin helps students in a meteorology computer lab. Photo: Jeff Miller, Courtesy UW-Madison

On Oct. 17, the Why Files spoke with Bryson about global warming, politics and science.

The Why Files: In your opinion, is global warming occurring?

Reid Bryson: I'm not skeptical about global warming. It's occurring. The question is, what is the human hand in this? Back in 1968, I gave a talk at the AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science] suggesting that people could change the climate a little bit, and I was laughed off the platform. Now some of those same people say the human influence is the only thing that can change the climate. That's simply nonsense. We know that the climate has been warming at least since the early 1800s. Why was this happening before all that carbon dioxide was released during the industrial revolution? Until they answer that, they can't say why the current warming is going on. They say in the last 50 years, temperature and carbon dioxide are correlated. Okay, but how much causality does correlation show? Nothing.

WF: Back in 1968, why did you say people could affect climate?

RB: I said, "Let's look at contrails [left by jet planes]. They are making clouds, and everybody says clouds are important in weather and climate. Do they put enough clouds to make a difference?" I'm sitting in my office right now, looking south, and I can almost always see a bank of contrails from planes going west from Chicago.

A wispy contrail left behind by a jet streaks across the sky at dusk Jet contrails are one of many ways that people affect climate. Photo: NOAA

WF: We have seen frightening graphs with CO2 and average temperature rising hand in hand. What do you make of that?

RB: It's all hype, those graphs that show CO2 not changing [until recently], then going up. Most of that rise is projected, not measured. How good are the models they are using? They stink. If you can't model today, you sure as hell can't model 50 years from now, and they can't model today. [Climate modelers started as meteorologists] and they tried to model climate as if it was weather. Climate is not average weather, it's a boundary condition problem. For climate, you have to know the incoming radiation, the reflected radiation from Earth's surface, how much ice is there, what is the topography, things like that. Weather evolves from one day to the next, it's an initial state problem.

WF: Many people say global warming is the worst current example of politicizing science.

RB: In my opinion, the one thing the Administration is doing right is not doing anything about global warming. Unless we know in detail the mechanics of global warming, should we risk the economy of the whole country? Suppose we want to go to nuclear power, what is the cost of that? You don't have to convince me there is a human hand in climate, I am the guy who said it first. You have to convince me you understand it well enough to know what else is going on. If you say the warming that happened before the industrial revolution is "natural variation," we are natural scientists, and that's a copout. What exactly do you mean?

Adding it up: Is science more political than ever?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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