Global Warming Is Good for You!
Above all, Gerald T. Westbrook is a man concerned with truth. For hours he works at his computer in the small office of his Memorial-area home, writing his latest scholarly paper or drawing up a lecture. He's the kind of guy who writes everything out in lists, and packs boxes with files of news clippings and interesting tidbits he's come across in his research. His cane, needed after a knee injury, and hair as white as paper add to the professorial image.
He insists he's a firm believer in the scientific method, and a strong proponent for making sure research is dictated by facts, not personal agendas. Westbrook regularly delivers talks to trade associations and seminars to local universities. His scientific papers have appeared in several publications, and he's even had an opinion piece published by the Houston Chronicle.
Westbrook's specialty has spawned a near cottage industry of sorts in the Houston area. In this energy capital of America, eager listeners still abound for the message delivered by Westbrook and at least a handful of colleagues: Global warming threats are just so much foolishness, hatched by environmentalists to fuel the fears of the populace.
He himself boasts no more than a master's degree and a career focused on marketing and economics, rather than doctorates or published research in the field. But in this war for the public's collective mind and soul, credentials don't have to get in the way of a worthy crusade against the common enemy called environmentalists.
Westbrook still considers himself a scientist. "A degree's not everything," he says. "Look at Rush Limbaugh. He's only got, what, one and a half years of junior college? And he's smart as a whip."
In the case of global warming, Westbrook believes environmentalists have subverted the scientific process to manufacture the appearance of a consensus. "You would think with the war on terror and homeland defense, there would be no attention paid to this issue at all," Westbrook says.
An energy economist, he retired as head of the marketing department after 40 years at Dow Chemical. He helps out at his wife's flower shop, Roomful of Flowers, and his TSBV consulting company forecasts the demand of petrochemicals for groups looking to get into a particular market. Westbrook doesn't watch much TV, but when he does it's usually Fox News. He counts the hosts of talk-radio shows among the most influential people in his life. Although he occasionally picks up The New York Times to "find out what the far left is up to," he researches primarily from newsletters and the Internet, explaining that he wants be sure his information is free from taint and political bias. With liberals now firmly in control of the media, universities and entertainment industries, he says, the Web is the only medium where conservatives can get the truth out. Westbrook insists that everything he uses must come from the no-spin zone, sources that tell it like it is, then leave it for him to decide. And he likes his science the same way.
He traces his love of energy to the coal-heated house of his youth. "When you got up in the morning, the furnace was almost out and the place was pretty damn cold," Westbrook recalls. When the family upgraded to natural gas, well, that was different. "Natural gas was wonderful," he beams. You can see it in his eyes: The man loves energy, and he'll tangle with anyone who tries to give petroleum or its by-products a bad name. "Ask yourself," he says, "where would society be today if we did not have plastics?"
Westbrook's interest in science was sparked by a tiny unfenced refinery that made low-octane gasoline, kerosene and the like in his hometown of Saskatchewan. His father used to take him to wander through the distillation towers to look at the furnace. It was about 12 feet high and tapered off into a stack, with fire visible through the air vents. Occasionally excess gases ignited in the flare stack, spouting a giant flame into the sky. This was the '40s, entering the golden age of science fiction, and for the young Westbrook, it must have looked like something far into the future.
"It's almost like space-age exploration, only you do it on the microscale," Westbrook says of petrochemicals. "You look at some of these catalysts or molecules floating around there, and it's almost like you're floating in space."
Westbrook went on to collect a master's degree in chemical engineering at the University of Saskatchewan and another master's in energy economics at the University of Minnesota, both within two years. "This was sort of a salvage job," he says. He originally set out to get a Ph.D. "I just came to the conclusion I did not want the university career," he says. "I was too practical-oriented, too applied-oriented, too much interested in commercial things."
For his thesis he did "paper research," meaning no lab work was involved, and his career has chiefly been in marketing and economics.
He realizes his strong ties to the energy industry may make people skeptical of his conclusions, but Westbrook describes himself as a bit of a maverick who never quite got along with the folks in charge. The oil industry "would never pick me to be their spokesman," he says. He just believes global warming is the latest unfair attack on an industry that has done so much for society.
The "science" disseminated by Westbrook and the hundreds like him across the country seems to be sinking in. Internet chat rooms buzz about the myth of human-induced climate change. That message is repeated time and again through letters to the editor and by the punditry class, insisting warming is nothing more than a half-baked theory, with few believers within the scientific community. Groups like the Citizens for a Sound Economy even object to Texas using high school science textbooks that mention an issue that is "by no means resolved in scientific findings."
Westbrook worries that concerns generated by flimsy data may lead to brash actions that could damage the economy. Even if global warming could be proved true -- a big if, Westbrook will have you know -- all the evidence seems to show that it would be beneficial for mankind. The time has come, he believes, for skeptics to set the record straight.
There are those, however, who are skeptical of the skeptics. Sheldon Rampton, co-editor of PR Watch, a quarterly that keeps tabs on public relations campaigns and industrial front groups, says the debate about whether humans are warming the planet is finished in the scientific community.
The real story, he says, is how self-proclaimed experts have been able to obfuscate well-established scientific fact in the eyes of the public. Call it the myth of the global warming myth. The controversy, Rampton says, is coming not from the researchers themselves but from special interest groups with weak scientific credentials and strong ties to the energy industry. He says their claims are typical of those who practice what environmentalists call lobbying for lethargy.
"In general, the tactic is to create enough controversy and doubt about conclusions of climatologists involving global warming that you can justify inaction by saying we need to study the problem further," Rampton says. "The strategy is not to attempt a full frontal rebuttal of the evidence regarding global warming in the hopes of winning the argument. They just attack to create a sense that there's a controversy there."
The methods used for delay, he says, come down to three tactics first laid out by social scientist Göran Therborn. The Swedish scholar says to argue the following:
A problem doesn't exist.
Even if it exists, it's actually a good thing.
Even if it exists and it's a bad thing, there's nothing we can do about it.
These basic arguments enable pundits to muddle an issue with talking points that are then disseminated by the faithful, Rampton says. He says if you look closely, it becomes obvious that these techniques are being used by the very people who have the most to lose if global warming were proved true.
It Doesn't Exist?
At our first meeting, Westbrook pulls out a sheet of paper that lists what he says are the four false claims made by environmentalists. They state that the earth is warming; that the warming is caused by society's activities, particularly burning fossil fuels; that the warming will devastate the planet; and that society can make the needed changes to avoid a catastrophe.
"There are good arguments against each of them," Westbrook says. "These are still hypotheses."
He presents the names of who he says are prominent scientists who will back up his claims. But two hardly appear to be practicing scientists. Dr. Neil Frank, a former director of the National Hurricane Center, is the weather forecaster for Channel 11. And the only credentials listed on John Daly's Web site are a lifelong study of global warming "since my early days as a ship's officer in the British Merchant Navy."
Two others he cites appear to be active researchers in the field. Dr. Richard Lindzen is Sloan professor of Meteorology at MIT and has published climate research in peer-reviewed journals. Dr. Patrick Michaels of the University of Virginia has formed a niche as the go-to scientist for the skeptical view of the greenhouse debate.
Lindzen has in the past criticized certain computer models used to predict climate change. His credentials earned him a chance last year to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the nature of consensus in the global warming debate. "I hope it will become clear that the designation 'skeptic' simply confuses an issue where popular perceptions are based in significant measure on misuse of language as well as misunderstanding of science," he testified. "Indeed, the identification of some scientists as 'skeptics' permits others to appear 'mainstream' while denying views of so-called 'skeptics' even when these views represent the predominant views of the field."
He said scientists basically agree that global mean temperature and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have both increased over the past century. There is general consensus, Lindzen told senators, that the added carbon dioxide probably caused the temperature increase, and that man, "like the butterfly," has some impact on climate. "Scientists who do not agree with the catastrophe scenarios are assumed to disagree with these basic statements. This is not only untrue, but absurdly stupid," he said.
Patrick Michaels is perhaps the most vocal global warming critic who has unquestioned scientific credentials. He's also a scholar for the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank.
"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.
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.
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.)
Alley says that a certain amount of carbon dioxide goes into the ocean or is absorbed by trees, and some plants might even do slightly better, but that will get you only so far. "You can get a little more carbon into standing plants, but you just can't do that forever because eventually someone's going to eat you."
Are these just skeptics putting the best possible spin on global warming? "There's some of that," he says. "As a reporter, you're required to look at both sides, and science virtually guarantees that you will find both sides." By finding the few counter voices, he says, the public gets the impression there's more controversy than actually exists.
In his experience, however, the articles written about his research tend to be pretty good, but the distortion comes in when the information travels from the science press to the talking heads and Web sites.
At a recent debate between Alley and Michaels at Penn State, Alley says Michaels said he was willing to admit humans were warming the world. Of course, "then he said you were going to love it," Alley laughs, "so it's a long way from here to UN storm troopers at the gas station." (Global warming will be "benign to beneficial," Michaels clarifies. "I choose my words very carefully.") "To have Pat Michaels say, 'Okay, we're warming the world,' to me says that most of the disagreement of human cause of climate change is now going away."
Rampton says you can chart the progress of the debate, pointing to a 1991 campaign in Minnesota by the front group Information Council on the Environment, which received funding from the Western Fuels Association. The ICE group ran ads claiming the climate was actually cooling, and compared belief in the greenhouse effect to adherence to the flat-earth theory. "Now what they're saying is that a warmer climate means more vegetation and it will be good for the earth and good for human health, but they're already moving beyond that, too."
Can Anything Be Done?
After months of harsh criticism from abroad over U.S. opposition to the Kyoto plan, the Environmental Protection Agency finally submitted a U.S. Climate Action Report to the UN in June. The report admits not only that global warming exists but that it is a serious problem. The document warns of more air pollution, public health dangers and damage to ecosystems.
"Adapting to the changing climate is inevitable," the report said. "The question is whether we adapt poorly or well."
A few days later Bush dismissed the report as bureaucratic, but it's the first hint that stage three of Therborn's theory is on the horizon.
Westbrook in general knocks computer modeling as inaccurate, but there's one simulation he's happy to highlight. Dr. Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, he claims, ran a 1998 simulation that assumed full Kyoto compliance by all nations involved. He concluded that the reduction in warming by 2050 would be miniscule -- only about .13 of a degree Fahrenheit. The number of Kyotos required to make a difference, Westbrook says, means "cars go away, the trucks go away. We go back to almost living like the [Native Americans]."
Certainly any solution to address global warming will be less quantifiable and guaranteed to spark some dissent among scientists. Whether the consensus is truly to do nothing is another matter. In the age of spin, it's difficult to know where the consensus lies. As is pointed out time and again, there are vested interests on all sides, and environmental organizations have done their fair share of twisting scientific theories into sky-is-falling scenarios.
"An oil company wants to sell oil, and a scientist wants research funding," Alley says. Scientists have a desire to convince funding sources to invest more money in their research. And the scientific process can be sloppy or subject to bias and politics. "I truly believe science is about as good as humans do," Alley says. "I say, 'Are we impartial? Are we doing it for truth?' Well, we're worried about our jobs, too." But in the end, scientists have to go out and withstand the scrutiny of their peers, who possess divergent interests and biases of their own.
Rampton says that because science ultimately relies on objective reality, the truth eventually will emerge. "After nearly 50 years, the tobacco industry finally admitted smoking causes lung cancer," he says. "By the time they admitted it, the entire health community, the scientific community, had reached that conclusion for decades." In the meantime, he says, hundreds of thousands died because the industry deliberately encouraged confusion on the issue.
In the global warming debate, scientists on the skeptical side tend to be a bit older and many are retired, Westbrook notes. They no longer rely on research grants or regular employment, which means they can focus simply on finding the truth. Or it could mean they're a dying breed. Regardless, he's almost assured of continuing to find an audience willing to have him tell them what they want to hear in Houston.
Westbrook does admit to some political reasons for fearing a global warming consensus. If people demand a solution, that inevitably means government will get involved, possibly even leading to a greater role for the UN. "I'd like to see us constrain ourselves as much as we can," he says.
We ask him hypothetically what solution he would propose if it were shown that global warming is, in fact, a problem. He is silent for a long moment, as if this possibility had never occurred to him. "I have a hard time responding to your question, because I have such strong convictions that it will not be shown," he says. He apparently hasn't let himself think about that possibility. The implications are just too horrifying.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.