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As it turns out, Westbrook himself later backs off the claim of global warming that he issued in an initial interview days earlier.
"I think most scientists would agree the planet is warming," Westbrook now says. "The big area of dispute would be how much is that natural and how much is anthropogenic."
So, do scientists believe carbon dioxide is increasing?
"I think most would be willing to concede there is some."
Is the burning of fossil fuels responsible?
"I think so. I think most scientists would think that there is no question that fuel is being burned and that carbon dioxide is being released. The tricky part is, is it accumulated in the ocean first, or is it accumulated in the biosphere first?"
He also concedes that there is a consensus that carbon dioxide contributes to the higher temperatures. "But you know what the dominant warming gas is? Water vapor."
Westbrook explains his change of opinion by saying he's willing to give serious researchers the benefit of the doubt. His editorials certainly don't give this impression of ambiguity. One argues that saying society is causing the planet to heat is the "most outrageous" claim made in a previous essay by a proponent of warming. His Chronicle piece says we have not proved that "fuel-based carbon dioxide is guilty."
He says he does point out his wavering on the issue in his lectures. Westbrook then tries to steer the conversation to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that seeks international cooperation in regulating carbon dioxide emissions. The plan is endorsed by most industrialized nations but opposed by the Bush administration. At the outer extremes, some conspiracy theorists view the proposal as an opening for eventual United Nations controls over the United States.
"I don't have to prove there's nothing to this [global warming] problem," he says. "I just have to prove there's nothing to the Kyoto treaty."
It's a Good Thing?
Global warming could be great, Westbrook says. He talks of saving on heating bills. "That can be quite significant." What's more important, carbon dioxide is the raw material for plant photosynthesis, "just like crude oil is the raw material for making gasoline."
Most crop yields have increased over the last 20 years or so, as well as forests, he says. Furthermore, he notes that humans thrived during a period of global warming in the early Middle Ages. Yet during the Little Ice Age from 1300 to 1900, people had a much rougher time.
Westbrook cites support for the idea by the response to the 1998 Oregon Petition and an accompanying official-looking scientific paper called "Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide."
The paper claims that the release of more carbon dioxide from fossil fuels "will help to maintain and improve the health, longevity, prosperity and productivity of all people." It concludes that "we are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals as a result of CO2 increase. Our children will enjoy an Earth with far more plant and animal life as that with which we are now blessed. This is a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution."
The paper, however, has never been published or submitted for peer review. It is the product of a desktop operation from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, a facility that lists six faculty members. The institute is located in Cave Junction, Colorado, and it also markets the book Nuclear War Survival Skills, homeschooling kits and the "pro-science, pro-technology, pro-free enterprise" monthly newsletter Access to Energy. The founder, biochemist Arthur Robinson, has a facility near Siskiyou National Forest, where he is trying to develop a way to retard aging through the use of "molecular clocks."
"He's even more of a maverick than I am," Westbrook admits.
Westbrook tells of the nearly 20,000 signatures of scientists supporting the Oregon Petition, although that has been sharply challenged by others. The petition was first mailed to thousands of scientists; people who didn't respond with signature cards can still sign up on the Internet.
"Some of the signers of the petition are PR people or meteorologists, economists, people with no background in the field at all, and no scientific credentials whatsoever," Rampton says. Trust Us, We're Experts!, which Rampton co-authored with John Stauber, said the petition screening process was so lax that the names of Michael J. Fox and John Grisham made their way onto the list. The Omaha World-Herald also reported that Geraldine Halliwell, better known as Ginger Spice, made the list as a biology expert.
Last October, Scientific American attempted to test the petition's veracity by doing a random sampling of 30 of 1,400 names on the list claiming to hold Ph.D.'s. Nearly a third of the sample said they either did not remember signing the petition or would not sign it again. Of those still willing to sign, only one was an active climate researcher. Ten others could not be reached for comment.
Westbrook says he canceled his subscription to Scientific American because of its pro-warming slant.
"The skinny version is that for people who live in fairly cold places who own air conditioners and bulldozers [to build sea walls], the first little bit of warming might actually do some good," says Penn State's Alley. "And for people living in hot places without bulldozers, any warming is bad." (Westbrook discounts this, claiming most of the warming occurs at night and in winter.)