The Skeptic

Celebrated and shunned, CSU's Bill Gray is taking heat in the global-warming debate.

"One of his students said that Lindzen is only half as smart as he thinks he is, but that still makes him twice as smart as anybody else," Gray says. "I respect him tremendously for the stand he's taken, but we can't work together as scientists."

Gray contends that the computer models haven't received the scrutiny they deserve and seem to be designed to concur with each other rather than real meteorological processes. But scientists who run the models say that argument was more valid a decade ago, when the technology was much less sophisticated and the processes being studied less understood than they are today. The latest generation of supercomputers have greatly improved spatial resolution, allowing for more detailed studies of regional climate. They're also better able to re-create actual climate changes over the past century, allowing for greater analysis of global trends and more intricate scenarios of future developments.

"We now routinely try to simulate twentieth-century climate," says Jerry Meehl, an NCAR senior scientist involved in computer-modeling projects that often draw on networks of computers around the globe. "To do that, we usually start the model sometime in the late 1800s and put in factors that we know affected the climate -- greenhouse gases, ozone, sulfate aerosols, solar variability, volcanic eruptions and so on. The results help us understand what we observed the climate doing, and that gives us some confidence that we can trust what they have to say about the future."

William Gray believes his criticism of global-warming 
research has cost him funding.
Anthony Camera
William Gray believes his criticism of global-warming research has cost him funding.

Meehl says the models have helped explain one of the great climate mysteries of the twentieth century. The earth warmed significantly in the first five decades of the century, then cooled until the mid-1970s. The industrialized world was pumping out increasing levels of greenhouse gases during the latter period, so why wasn't the temperature increasing? The answer, researchers concluded, was that increased industrial pollution after World War II blocked solar radiation, lowering temperatures and prompting some short-lived speculation about a coming "ice age."

"In the 1970s, North American and Western European countries started cleaning up their emissions," Meehl explains. "That reduced the load of the aerosols while the greenhouse gases were relentlessly increasing, and it's been warming ever since."

Meehl acknowledges that there are still multiple sources of uncertainty in any climate projections: "Nobody knows what's going to happen in the next hundred years in terms of population growth, energy usage or economic development in various countries. You get a range of possible future climates based on whatever assumptions you make. But we're in a fortunate position of having a lot of models to look at."

Clouds are still a tough problem, but the data is getting better, thanks to improved satellite coverage. And despite some variations in results, several major modeling projects indicate a positive feedback loop involving water vapor. Even if all greenhouse-gas emissions were magically stabilized at year 2000 levels, NCAR's models show another half-degree Centigrade of global warming over the next century, simply because of the processes already at work. "We're already committed to a certain amount of climate change based on what we've already done," Meehl says.

But Gray rejects the models, and believes he's paid a price for knocking the computer crowd. In recent years, he's struggled to keep his forecasting program going. Although the National Science Foundation still kicks in some funds, he figures he's put in $100,000 of his own money over the years, including a $45,000 stopgap payment a couple of years ago. And he's been turned down repeatedly in his quest for research monies from other sources.

"I have had problems keeping my shop going, particularly since the Clinton administration came in," he says. "I never got a NOAA grant after that. I must have been turned down thirteen times. These guys were getting money to run these big models, and they were bending their objectivity to get the money. You've got to go along with the crowd."

Gray says he isn't talking about his friends at NCAR in particular. ("I like Jerry Meehl," he adds. "I just don't believe him.") But his resentment over the funding issue is palpable. Lindzen made a strikingly similar argument in a recent Wall Street Journal column: "Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear, their work derided, and themselves libeled as industry stooges, scientific hacks or worse."

But other scientists familiar with the grant process scoff at such charges. Some accuse the Bush administration of trying to downplay global warming, a charge echoed in Gore's movie.

Georgia Tech's Webster says he's been part of the anonymous peer review on several of Gray's NSF proposals. Each time, he says, he recommended funding for Gray's hurricane research but turned down the global-warming research component because he believed it wasn't up to standards. "I have helped Bill get funding over the years," he says. "This year, I was asked to review his proposal, and I had to recuse myself because of the ad hominem attacks he's been making."

NCAR's Holland points out that his own research isn't dependent on academic grants at all. "I would be getting exactly the same funding if I was saying nothing about tropical cyclones and climate change," he says. "Getting support for research goes through a well-established peer review. Bill's not losing out to the American modeling people; there's still plenty of funding for good observational work. The lack of funding for Bill's research is related to the quality of his research."

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