The Skeptic

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

Gray was dropped from a similar panel with Webster and Emanuel this spring -- because, Webster says, he couldn't get Gray "to promise to be a gentleman" and stick to the science. "I certainly wasn't going to stand in public and let Bill berate me," he notes.

Eight years ago, Holland, Webster and Gray were among an impressive list of co-authors of a scientific paper that suggested global warming could have a modest effect on hurricane intensity. Since that time, they've parted company -- Holland and Webster seeing an ever-more-significant role for warming, Gray denying that it plays much of a role at all.

"I don't think there's much argument now about global warming itself," Webster says. "The records, the models and the theory all point in the same direction. It's a matter of degree."

Gray's scathing criticism of others' research has put more pressure on him to come up with a plausible alternative explanation of the climate's warming signals. This has proved to be a daunting task. Gray thinks the answer lies with the Atlantic Thermohaline Circulation (THC), which he describes as a kind of "hydrologic thermostat" that conveys deep, cold-saline water and warmer, less salty currents around the globe. As the circulation surges or weakens, he contends, the earth goes through periods of cooling and warming.

"Overall, the globe has warmed over the past 120 years," he says. "That's due, in my view, to a multi-century slowing of the thermohaline. We're coming out of a little ice age, and overall, the thermohaline has been slowing. But that doesn't mean it doesn't speed up for thirty or forty years."

Gray claims that the THC is getting stronger, and that within a few years the earth will begin to cool again. Most studies of changes in the ocean climate are mere snapshots, he adds; they don't take a long enough view of the data to detect the THC at work. Yet his own writings on the subject seem more intuitive than empirical. They express a kind of peculiar faith that natural ocean processes are too mighty to be changed by man -- or fixed by him.

Gray's ideas about the THC and its role in global warming have been blasted on RealClimate.org, a lively website run by climate scientists who often duel with the skeptics. "It is all seat-of-the-pants stuff of a sort that was common in the early days of climate studies," the site notes, "but which is difficult to evaluate when viewed as a scientific hypothesis."

Preoccupied with his forecasting, Gray acknowledges that he hasn't devoted the time to researching the THC that it deserves. "I'm not satisfied that I understand the thing," he says.

Now that he's retired, he's yearning to dive into climate data going back to the 1940s that NOAA is in the process of re-analyzing to detect new global patterns. He plans to write a book on tropical storms and some "long articles" on global-warming issues.

"I am inundated with data," he says. "I am studying this in a serious way. I wish I was twenty years younger and had this to look forward to."

CU's Pielke believes the hurricane controversy is too complex to find a speedy resolution. "I think hurricanes will be a focus of debate for years and maybe even decades," he says. "If dealing with climate policy depends on resolving the debate to the satisfaction of all the scientists, then we're in trouble."


On the wall of Gray's office, there's a photograph of the hurricane-chaser posing with one of his all-time heroes, novelist Michael Crichton, whose potboiling bestseller State of Fear revolves around a radical environmental group's evil conspiracy to exploit fears about global warming. "The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus," Crichton has written. "Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had."

The picture was taken last fall, when Gray was in Washington to testify before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The hearings featured a parade of skeptics invited by the committee's chair, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who's declared that global warming "might be the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Given the company he keeps, it would be easy to lump Gray in with the "so-called skeptics" Al Gore routinely disparages, suggesting that all doubts about global warming can be traced back to the interests of the fossil-fuel giants. But there's nothing feigned about Gray's skepticism, and no apparent political agenda. He says he's been a "flaming liberal" most of his life; he voted twice for Clinton-Gore even as the administration was cutting his funds. And his views on the environment wouldn't sound out of place at a Sierra Club meeting.

"Certainly, burning fossil fuels has led to tremendous problems," he says. "We should be putting money into alternate energy sources and making more efficient use of our fuels. But we should be doing that for its own sake. Don't fly this under a false flag, that we're doing it to stop global warming. If it's a little cooler in fifteen or twenty years, and it becomes evident the warming of the last hundred years is primarily due to ocean circulation changes, then we'll look back on this and say, ŒHow can you trust science?'"

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