Roger Revelle – the backstory of the daddy of Atmospheric CO2 monitoring

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Roger Revelle – the backstory of the father of Atmospheric CO2 monitoring

By Andy May

Roger Revelle was an outstanding and famous oceanographer. He met Al Gore in the late 1960s when Gore was a student in one of his classes at Harvard University. Revelle wasn't sure what impact human carbon dioxide emissions could have on the climate, but he showed that all of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans would not be absorbed by the oceans. For an interesting discussion of Revelle's work in this area, see this post on "The Discovery of Global Warming" by Spencer Weart (Weart, 2007). The original paper published by Roger Revelle and Hans Suess in 1957 on CO2 absorption in the oceans is entitled: "Carbon dioxide exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean and the question of an increase in atmospheric CO2 in recent decades" (Revelle & Suess, 1957). This meant that human carbon dioxide emissions were building up in the atmosphere and atmospheric CO2 levels were rising, which likely caused the earth's surface to warm at an unknown rate. This is not an alarming conclusion, as Revelle well knew, but Al Gore turned it into one.

One of Revelle's good friends was Dr. S. Fred Singer. Singer was a professor of environmental science at the University of Virginia, and both Revelle and Singer were scientific advisors at the US Department of the Interior. They first met in 1957 and were more than professional colleagues, they were personal friends (Singer, 2003). Unfortunately, Revelle passed away in July 1991 and Singer passed away in April 2020, so we'll be referring to them and their friendship in the past tense. Both were leading earth scientists and at the top of their fields it was natural that they would become friends. They also shared an interest in climate change and decided to write an article together towards the end of Revelle's life.

The article was published in Cosmos and is entitled “What to do against the warming of the greenhouse? Look before you jump ”(Singer, Revelle & Starr, 1991). Singer and Revelle had already written a first draft of the article when they invited the third author, Chauncey Starr, to help them complete it. Starr was an expert in energy research and policy. He holds the National Medal for Technology and Innovation and was director of the Electrical Energy Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. As leading scientists, Starr, Singer, and Revelle understood how uncertain the potential dangers of global warming were and they didn't want the government to run away half-excited, they wrote:

“We can summarize our conclusions in one simple message: The scientific basis for greenhouse warming is too uncertain to warrant drastic measures at this time. There is little risk of delaying policy responses to this centuries-old problem, as scientific understanding is expected to improve significantly over the next decade. "(Singer, Revelle & Starr, 1991)

Ten years later, CO2 emissions were still increasing, but the world was starting to cool, as shown in Figure 1. This raises significant doubts about the notion that human emissions somehow control global warming, as another factor, presumably natural, is strong enough to reverse the general warming trend for ten years. Revelle was right to encourage the government to wait another ten years. Just a year before their paper was published, the IPCC reported that previous warming was in the range of "natural variability" and that the finding of human impact on the climate was "unlikely for a decade or more". (IPCC, 1990, p. XII).

Figure 1. In 1990 and 1991, the IPCC and Roger Revelle and colleagues said it was too early to do anything about possible man-made climate change. They thought we would know more in 10 years. The plot is smoothed using a 5 year average to reduce the impact of the events in El Nino and La Nina. This makes the longer-term trends easier to see.

While Revelle wasn't sure if warming was an issue. Al Gore, who had little scientific training, did not suffer from such doubts. He was certain that burning fossil fuels caused carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to rise to "dangerous" levels, and believed that this was a problem for civilization with rising sea levels and extreme weather. There was no evidence to support these assumptions, but Al Gore didn't need any evidence, he could always rely on climate models, and he did. Revelle mistrusted the models.

Al Gore and Climate Change

In 1992, after Singer, Revelle, and Starr published their Cosmos article, their testimony caused some problems for Al Gore, who was running for vice president at the time. Gore had just published The Earth in the Balance (Gore, 1992), in which Revelle attributed the discovery that human carbon dioxide emissions heat the earth and that this could be very dangerous. However, in the newspaper of Singer, Revelle and Starr it says:

“Drastic, steep – and especially unilateral – steps to delay the alleged greenhouse impact can cost jobs and prosperity, and increase the human cost of global poverty, without being effective. Strict economic controls (of CO2 emissions) would now be economically devastating, especially for developing countries … "(Singer, Revelle & Starr, 1991)

You also quote Yale economist and Nobel Prize winner William Nordhaus, who wrote:

"… Those who advocate strong measures to slow down greenhouse warming have come to their conclusion without a cost and benefit analysis being discernible …" (Nordhaus W., 1990)

Nordhaus had examined both the costs of reducing CO2 and the benefits. His analysis shows that there is little to be gained economically from reducing emissions (Nordhaus W., 2007, p. 236). While Nordhaus supports a “carbon tax”, he admits that “the rate and extent of warming are highly uncertain”. Compare this to how Al Gore characterizes Roger Revelle's view in his book:

“Professor Revelle explained that higher levels of CO2 would create the so-called greenhouse effect, which would make the earth warmer. The implications of his words were startling; We've only looked at information for eight years, but if this trend continues, human civilization would force profound and disruptive change in the entire global climate. “(Gore, 1992, p. 5) italics added.

The differences between what Nordhaus and Revelle say and what Al Gore says are stark. All three believe that human CO2 emissions could warm the earth. But Gore naively assumes this is a bad thing. Revelle and Nordhaus acknowledge that it could be, but they recognize that we don't know. In addition, they understand that the destruction of our fossil fuel based economy may not mitigate warming and cause more harm than good. To quote Bertrand Russell:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves and wiser people are always so full of doubt." Bertrand Russell

For a scientist like Roger Revelle, the uncertainty was obvious. Politicians like Al Gore and most of the news media don't create uncertainty, everything has to be black and white and are false dichotomies as they think. Note that Al Gore presumably wrote "would force" if Revelle clearly wrote "could force". The difference between a politician with an agenda and a scientist who understands uncertainty.

The inconsistency between Revelle's true views and the way they are presented in Gore's book was noted by Gregg Easterbrook, a Newsweek editor, who wrote about it in the July 6, 1992 New Republic issue (Easterbrook, 1992) wrote. This article angered Al Gore and his followers. Walter Munk and Edward Frieman published a brief note in Oceanography in 1992 objecting to Easterbrook's article, claiming the late Revelle was concerned about global warming, but likely unwilling to take any "drastic" action at the time ( Munk & Frieman, 1992). . Revelle's views were clear and well-known, nothing in Munk and Frieman's article contradicts what Singer said or what Revelle said or wrote. The following is from a letter Revelle sent to Senator Tim Wirth, a Gore ally and a member of the Clinton / Gore administration, in July 1988:

“We should be careful not to raise too much alarm until the rate and extent of warming become clearer. It is not yet apparent that this summer's hot weather and drought are the result of global climate change, or simply an example of the uncertainties in climate variability. My own feeling is that we'd better wait another 10 years before making confident predictions. “Written by Roger Revelle, as reported by (Booker, 2013, p. 59).

Unlike Senators Al Gore and Tim Wirth, Revelle understood and did not trust computer models of global warming. He discussed this very problem with Singer and Singer convinced Revelle that the models were getting better (Singer, Revelle & Starr, 1991). However, regardless of the accuracy of the models, Revelle was not convinced that global warming was a problem, and he knew that the natural rate of warming and the additional amount expected from human greenhouse gas emissions were unknown. As shown in Figure 1, his caution was advised, just ten years later it was found that warming was slowing. The following reflects Revelle's own views taken from the Look Before You Leap article:

“The models for calculating the future climate are not yet good enough, because the processes for balancing the climate are not sufficiently understood and are probably not good enough until we gain more understanding through observations and experiments. As a result, we cannot be sure whether the next century will bring negligible warming or significant warming. Even if there is global warming and the associated climate change, it is questionable whether the consequences are good or bad. Probably some places on the planet would benefit, others would suffer. "(Singer, Revelle & Starr, 1991)

Revelle's views were clear and well-documented, but Al Gore and his supporters were humiliated by Easterbrook's articles and follow-up articles by George Will and others. Dr. Justin Lancaster was Revelle's PhD student and teaching assistant at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1981 until Revelle's sudden death in July 1991. He was also an Al Gore supporter. Lancaster claimed Revelle was persuaded by Singer to include his name in the Cosmos article. He also claimed that Revelle "was very embarrassed that his name was connected". Lancaster went on to claim that Singer's actions were "unethical" and specifically designed to undermine Senator Al Gore's position on global warming policy. Lancaster molested Singer in 1992, accusing him of putting Revelle's name on the item because of his objections, and urging Singer to have it removed. He even asked the editor of a volume that was supposed to contain the article (Geyer, 1993) to remove it.

Professor Singer, the Cosmos editor of Look Before You Leap and editor (CRC Press) of Richard Geyer's book, challenged these claims and allegations. Then Singer sued Lancaster for defamation with the help of the Washington Center for Individual Rights. D. C. Professor Singer and the Center won the lawsuit and forced Lancaster to apologize.

The discovery process during the lawsuit revealed that Lancaster worked closely with Al Gore and his staff. In fact, after the Easterbrook article appeared, Al Gore called Lancaster personally to ask about Revelle's mental standing in the months leading up to his death in July 1991. Revelle's friends and family remember that, up to the point when he Was sharp, was sharp and was active died of a sudden heart attack. However, this did not prevent Al Gore and Lancaster from claiming that Revelle had senility or dementia, and this is why the account in Gore's book was so different from what Revelle wrote elsewhere, including the article "Look Before You Jump." ". Even Lancaster wrote in a draft letter to Al Gore that Revelle was "mentally sharp to the end" and "not casual about his integrity" (Singer, 2003).

During the discovery process, Singer and his attorneys determined that Lancaster knew everything in the "Look Before You Jump" article was true, and that Revelle agreed to everything in it. The article even contained much of the material Revelle presented at an AAAS (American Academy for Advancement of Science) meeting in 1990. See Fred Singer's Deposition (Jones, 1993) for more details.

Roger Revelle's daughter, Carolyn Revelle Hufbaurer, wrote that Revelle was concerned about global warming (Hufbauer, 1992). But his concern subsided later in life and he knew that if there was a problem, the problem wasn't urgent. He thought that more study was needed before anything was done. He was in favor of modest changes like more nuclear power and the replacement of coal and oil with natural gas, but little other than a carbon tax. As usual, the news media and politicians have no sense of the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the scientific debate on man-made climate change. When Revelle argued against "drastic" measures, he meant measures that cost trillions of dollars and would cripple the fossil fuel industry and the developing world. Until his death, he believed that extreme measures were premature. He clearly believed that we should look before we jump.

Al Gore tried to get Ted Koppel to spoil Singer on his TV show and it failed spectacularly. He asked Koppel to investigate the "anti-environmental movement" and, in particular, "to expose the fact" that Singer and other skeptical scientists received financial support from the coal industry and the crazy Lyndon LaRouche organization. Instead of fulfilling Al Gore's bidding, Ted Koppel said the following on his Nightline television show on February 24, 1994:

“It is somewhat ironic that Vice President Gore, one of the most scientifically adept men sitting in the White House this century, is resorting to political means to achieve what should ultimately be resolved on a purely scientific basis. The measure of good science is neither the scientist's politics nor the people with whom the scientist is associated. It is the immersion of hypotheses in the acid of truth. That's the hard way, but it's the only way that works. "Ted Koppel as reported in (Singer, 2003)

Calling Gore "scientifically educated" is controversial, but Koppel got the rest right. He has integrity that journalism lacks today, plus he understands the scientific process. Trying to use belts to tare Singer brought a lot of well-deserved criticism to Gore.

In light of this, it is not surprising that only two months later, on April 29, 1994, Lancaster agreed to an apology. Lancaster's withdrawal was specific:

“I withdraw all oral or written statements as unjustified and have found that Professor Revelle was not a true and voluntary co-author of the Cosmos article, or that he otherwise questions or defamed the behavior or motives of Professor Singer in relation to the Cosmos article (including, but not limited to, drafting, editing, publishing, republishing and distributing it). I agree not to make such statements in the future. … I apologize to Professor Singer "(Singer, 2003)

In his affidavit, Lancaster admitted that he had lied about Singer. Lancaster then withdrew its court-ordered revocation and reiterated its indictment (Lancaster, 2006). He admits that he lied under oath in a courtroom and in writing, and then tells us that he didn't lie. He admits that Professor Revelle was a true co-author of the paper, then he says, "Revelle didn't write it" and "Revelle can't be an author." What some people are willing to do to their reputation in the name of catastrophic climate change is hard to believe. He withdrew his revocation despite documentary evidence in Revelle's own handwriting and numerous testimonials from others who Revelle had contributed to the article.

Some of Revelle's other papers, letters, and presentations have a nearly identical language to the paper. For example, compare the quote from his letter to Senator Tim Wirth above with the first page of the paper "Look before you Leap". The paper says we have to wait because "scientific understanding will improve significantly over the next decade" (Singer, Revelle & Starr, 1991). In the letter to Wirth quoted above, he says “10 years”, but the meaning is the same. He and many other climate researchers did not feel that we knew enough to do anything significant in the early 1990s. He was right about that. Warming was negative from 2002 to 2010, as shown in Figure 1.

The issue was raised in the televised Vice Presidential Debate earlier this year. Gore's response was to protest that Revelle's views had been taken out of context in the article. We can clearly see that it was Al Gore's book that took Revelle's comments out of context.

This contribution has been summarized and modified from my new book "Politics and Climate Change: A Story".

The bibliography can be downloaded here.

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