Global Warming Is Good for You!

Cheap heating bills! Great gardens! Thriving civilizations! In energy-crazed Houston, friends of greenhouse gases abound

"Patrick Michaels is a legitimate climatologist, and if you go much past Michaels, you're dealing with econ majors or people who teach electronics or brick building or something like that," Rampton says. "If they can't get a scientist, then they'll go for people who are respected in other fields."

But when asked about claims by others that he discounts that there is global warming, Michaels starts screaming, "I didn't say that! Did I ever say that? Did I ever say that?" Why, Michaels asks, won't someone do an article about how groups distort what scientists are saying to push their agendas? He concedes there is climate change, but thinks it's no big deal.

Researchers say that even if there is a practicing scientist who disputes global warming, that is a far cry from widespread disagreement. Science does not prove, so much as disprove, things. Someone proposes a hypothesis, everyone takes their shot at it, and if it's still standing, a consensus emerges.

Alley says scientific disagreement over global warming is going away.
Alley says scientific disagreement over global warming is going away.
Rampton says special interest groups distort findings.
Rampton says special interest groups distort findings.

For a public that looks to science for absolutes, it can be unsettling to learn that science is filled with uncertainties. Newton's law of gravity, for instance, has discrepancies that could be explained only later by Einstein's more precise theory of relativity. Since every theory is subjected to rigorous objections, it's easy for others to latch onto past criticisms. As the saying goes, figures don't lie, but liars can figure.

Dr. Mahlon Kennicutt knows personally about this kind of spin. The Texas A&M professor and chief chemist of the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group has done work on greenhouse gases, the Antarctic environment and oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico. He published a scientific paper that showed oil was seeping up from lower depths into higher reservoirs, and relatively quickly in geologic time. It's not surprising that there was also some suggestion that oil is being generated to this day, in a process that still takes millions of years.

However, the findings spawned a media circus. "Oil Fields' Free Refill," Newsday cried, and Bruce Bartlett used the study in a National Review editorial that declared "the world will never run out." Even Rush Limbaugh touted the research as evidence of an unlimited oil supply.

"That's about as far from the truth as can be," Kennicutt says. "They are finite resources. They always will be." He says scientists have no control over the spin that's put on their research. "I'm not picking on Rush Limbaugh, but I mean, he didn't call me. He just picked up something on the wire and put their spin on it."

"I think it's because Rush yells louder," says Dr. Richard Alley, a professor in the Geosciences Department of Penn State who recently made national headlines for his work on rapid climate change. A story buried in the back pages of a newspaper tends to be a little boring and gets lost, he says, then someone yells "Free oil!" and people hear it. "Sometimes the easiest one gets through, and Rush is a whole lot easier than a good article on what exactly was learned," he says.

Kennicutt was asked by the Houston Press to review some of Westbrook's scientific papers in industrial newsletters as well as an opinion piece published in the Houston Chronicle. "I noticed that Michael T. Halbouty is the co-author on some of these papers," Kennicutt says. Halbouty is a prominent wildcatter and CEO of Michael T. Halbouty Energy Company. The Chronicle's bio listed him simply as a "Houston-based geoscientist and engineer." (Westbrook says that's the reference Halbouty preferred.)

For the most part, though, Kennicutt found the studies Westbrook drew from to be the same used by any climatologist. Westbrook's criticisms were the same raised by prominent scientists in the past, but have since been addressed. "Like any body of evidence, there are certain parts of it that are open to criticism, and if your intent is to indict the entire idea, well, you find the more questionable pieces of data that people have used, and that's where you start to attack," Kennicutt says.

He does take issue with the idea that there's not yet enough information to know if we are experiencing global warming. "Well, that's a never-ending argument. How do you counter that?"

Bottom line, he says, is that the Westbrook materials he reviewed are political documents. "They refer to scientific documents, but these are…people taking a position based on their view of the world, and certainly, I'm sure on the industry side there's a belief that they haven't been raping and pillaging their environment."

He says that a decade or so ago, he also didn't think the science was there to prove global warming. Today Kennicutt can't name a single scientist who asserts that carbon dioxide and temperature are not rising, at least in part because of fossil fuels. "The jump then is what does that increase cause?"

All people can do, he says, is be careful about what they read on the Internet and in editorials, and look at the background of the people making the claims. "If all the yeses for climate change are scientists, and all the noes for climate change are oil company executives, I would put that into your thinking when you try to come up with conclusions of your own." He agrees, though, that people don't often know whether those making these kinds of claims are scientists.

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