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William O'Keefe
CEO, George C. Marshall Institute

William O'Keefe

William O'Keefe is CEO at the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank that promotes better use of science in public policy. He is a former COO at the American Petroleum Institute. ALL POSTS

Climate science still not clear

Q: Some of the most dire impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, are several decades away, and even the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic is years away. How should we factor these threats into our decision making today? Should we be seriously worried about them, or not?

The outlook for climate legislation this year is not bright for a number of reasons. Hence, it would be useful and instructive to reassess the basis for the current set of policy proposals, which are based on a climate catastrophe later this century and which if implemented would severely constrain fossil energy use and impose large costs on the economy. Before those consequences are imposed on society, the reason for them should be validated, not asserted.

The predictions of dire environmental impacts from climate change, including those that pertain to arctic sea ice, are based on the output of complex computer models. Those models, for the most part, are based on assumptions and hypotheses, not established scientific facts. Over the past several decades, model predicted temperature increases have over stated actual increases and none predicted the lack of warming since 1998.

While the models are complex, the results they produce are essentially driven by the assumption that increases in greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, will lead to larger increases in temperature as a result of a positive feedback effect. According to the IPPC, the level of scientific understanding of many important warming variables is quite low. In its last report, it listed nine climate drivers but concluded that only two were well understood. Without a better understanding of clouds, water vapor, oceans, aerosols, and solar effects, and natural variability, these models offer a poor foundation for policies that would have a dramatic impact on our economy as well as the global economy.

A better understanding of what climate science actually tells us about human impacts and the contribution of natural factors would allow policy makers to develop actions that reduced the growth in emissions without penalizing economic growth and to develop the suite of technologies that will be needed if it turns out that human activities are having a greater impact than I believe they are. We have the time to get it right and reverse the rush to judgment mentality that has dominated the debate so far.

Trying to put together an integrated policy covering the 21st century is a futile and foolish undertaking. No one possesses the knowledge needed to adequately understand the technological, economic, and demographic changes that will take place 50 or more years from now. We would be much better off focusing on things that we can know reasonably well and on maintaining sufficient flexibility to respond intelligently to the inevitable surprises and unintended consequences. Adapting policies to realities as they unfold is far better than reacting to images whether or not they conform to reality

Apocalyptic rhetoric about the distant future when our ability to know all of the things that will shape cannot withstand close scrutiny and at best is a sign of hubris.

Editor's Note: William O'Keefe posted additional comments responding to some of the comments posted here.

By William O'Keefe  |  January 5, 2010; 8:45 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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1998 is the warmest year on record. The decade from 2000-2009 is the warmest decade on record. Just because we haven't had a record year like we did in '98 does NOT mean there was no significant warming since then. This is the sort of "spin" on the science that the industry that O'Keefe represents, loves to use to confuse people. Let's face it; we are going to have a future without fossil fuels. It's up to us if we want to start moving into such an economy now, or wait until current coastal areas are gone, malaria becomes common in higher latitudes, glacier-fed rivers dry up, and energy prices in general are unaffordable for all but the very wealthy.

Posted by: PrairieDog60 | January 10, 2010 10:11 AM
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I tend to believe in global warming but am very worried that the Administration, read EPA, trying to control CO2 will throw out the baby with the bath water. How about thinking out of the box? Remember 9/11 and what some businesses did afterwards? Answer: they moved out of NYC. I think reasonable incentives to move people and businesses away from coastal areas plus moderate CO2 controls is the best way to go. I do not believe in draconian controls which will just drive us into future recessions if not depressions.

Posted by: linus12 | January 10, 2010 8:37 AM
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One need only notice Mr. O'Keefe's association with the American Petroleum Institute to know approximately what he will say! "Party line"

Posted by: AnnDe | January 10, 2010 1:57 AM
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I'm sorry but I'm just not convinced the science is there. I think we should DEFINITELY cut down on the use of fossil fuels for sustainability reasons if nothing else, but I'm still just not convinced that the science is there to support that what we are doing is seriously affecting the climate of the planet. The planet was here before we were, and it will be here long after we've left. I also do not like the idea of stunting or preventing the growth of countries like China or India (or the whole continent of Africa) for the cause of "saving the planet" when we in the Western world have exploited the Earth's resources since at least the Industrial Revolution. It sounds a bit like a kid who wants to play football, has the cash to buy a ball, brings the ball to the game, teaches everyone to play and lets everyone play (as long as he wins) but when the other kids get better and learn, he grabs the ball, takes it home and says no one else will ever be able to play. Same with nuclear power and nuclear weapons, actually. If you let the genie out of the bottle, you can't just grab it back.

Posted by: indy474 | January 10, 2010 1:41 AM
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Is Mr. O'Keefe serious when he writes about "the lack of warming since 1998?" Nearly every major national meteorological research agency in the world has reported that the decade from 2000-2009 was warmer than the previous. Do any thinking people out there believe O'Keefe's nonsense? Or are those who uncritically accept his wistful prattle as truth simply refusing to think and merely are parroting what they want to be true. Wake up.

Posted by: bobernst | January 9, 2010 11:18 PM
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The primary problem with Mr. O'Keefe's argument is that we won't have proof of catastrophic global warming effects until they happen, at which time it will be too late to avert them.

The generally upward trend in temperature over recent decades has had a number of interruptions (cooling for a few years). 1998 was warm but the 1999 and 1997 were cool. Taking 3 year averages, the upward trend continued from 2000 to 2004 and remained above the 1997-1999 average since then. See NOAA's NCDC web site for the data.

Global models do not assume that CO2-induced warming will be amplified, as Mr. O'Keefe asserts, they show this amplification as a result of other assumptions about climate physics. The assumptions which lead to this amplification have a fair amount of support from observations. Perhaps over the next decades, the amplification will be less, perhaps more than the models show...

Posted by: klinger1 | January 9, 2010 9:57 PM
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The US and world has not the political will to put into place real carbon-reducing policies that could work in time.

New technology may help- if all the money that paid for these fancy conferences went to a science fund for energy or perhaps carbon scrubbing, then I'd think leaders were serious.

In the meantime I have to ask: how many lives would be saved by putting the money used for conferences and slideshows into food for starving people, malarial medication, and desalinization projects?

No, those lives aren't trendy and green enough to save, I guess.

Posted by: ihatelogins | January 9, 2010 7:00 PM
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I've been impressed by the views of Dr Harold Wanless, chair of geological sciences in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. He's spent a career looking at the interaction of rising sea level and hurricanes at the southern tip of Florida. His concerns with IPPC are that they provide a sort of plausible minimum for future sea level rise. The IPPC was unwilling to make predictions about the effects of ice cap melting or collapse.

In his view, the IPPC scenario is bad for Miami and Fort Lauderdale, not to mention the Keys and Florida Bay, where rising sea level has dramatically affected the coast since 1930. If plausible loss of ice from Greenland and/or Antarctica occurs, Miami and Ft. Lauderdale might be largely abandoned by the end of the century. The urban area is built on permeable sand and limestone, and cannot be protected by levees.

Miami-Dade County has a public panel assessing sea level rise. Planning for the future raises legitimate questions about new construction whose useful life may curtailed by rising sea level, including proposed new reactors for the Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | January 9, 2010 6:02 PM
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jmpa1

I skip over posts in all caps - too hard to read.

If you have something to say, you don't have to shout.


Posted by: amelia45 | January 9, 2010 3:33 PM
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The central failure of O'Keefe's argument comes down his focus on the models, as opposed to the underlying issues of CO2 levels, their ties to human activity, and our understanding of the basic role of CO2 in an atmosphere. This represents either ignorance or cynicism on his part. I suspect the latter only because this approach is used very frequently by opponents of other well-accepted scientific theories where the underlying facts are not on their side (evolution is a good example of this).

Posted by: cometboy | January 9, 2010 2:59 PM
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To those above, to help me better understand both sides, please be more specific as to where Mr. O'Keefe is wrong. Other than stating he "carries the water for US Business." After all, "US Business" is me and the rest of us, all individuals. So I ask, what facts are twisted, what is "out of context."

thank you

Posted by: Rugman1 | January 9, 2010 10:56 AM
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Mr O'Keefe appears to be carrying water for US business interests, ie - the National Chamber of Commerce. To some, his words might appear calm and sane, like those of a good pitch man, a salesman - this is a sales job and full of outright lies, twisted facts, facts out of context and misleading assumptions. Mr O'Keefe is the former Chief Operating Officer of the American Petroleum Institute. What do you suppose the purpose of the American Petroleum Institute is ? Could it be promoting the use of carbon polluting fossil fuels? I gather someone had to spew this nonsense, but that's all it is. The cost of doing business includes the cost of doing it clean. The cost of fixing the continuing use of petro fuels grows with every day. We are way late to the 'wake up party'. The way forward is to invest heavily in clean sustainable energy technologies. If some huge oil companies can't sell the last billion barrels of oil, too bad. Real wealth is made by not trashing the environment for a quick buck. Real wealth is made when the world is a better place from the process. Farmers growing food, builders making homes, teachers teaching. Activities that move us forwards, not backwards. I can't dump my trash in your yard, you can't dump filth in my air and water. Fair is fair.

Posted by: right_as_rain | January 9, 2010 9:31 AM
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This is NOT an example of "the better use of science in the public interest" as the Marshal Institute claims as it's goal.

Mr. O'Keefe steps out of the scientific realm, and even the realm of credibility, when he used the pat denier phrase "the lack of warming since 1998." That's simply not the case, as any bona fide statistician will tell you from the data.

The trend line in global warming continues, 1998 was simply a very warm year due to a strong el Nino. 2005 was warmer than 1998, and the past ten years are the warmest decade ever recorded.


Mr. O'Keefe's statement: "the results they produce are essentially driven by the assumption that increases in greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide..." is misleading to the lay public. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, the 'ASSUMPTION' that an increase in CO2 will increase the heat retained by the planet is pretty much a slam dunk that relies on proven physics, and is increasingly clear from the temperature v. CO2 records.

While there are other climate "drivers" (forcings) none explain the observed increase in temperatures, and several are even acting to mask the signal due to green house gas emissions. Changes to those other drivers are reasonably well understood (very well understood in some cases) and none are foreseen to counteract the effects of GHG emissions.

Posted by: pclement1 | January 9, 2010 5:22 AM
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I've noticed a consistent pattern among scientists those who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid of the environmental cult--they are in command of the facts. Bravo!

Posted by: vanhook99 | January 6, 2010 3:51 AM
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COPENHAGEN GLOBAL WARMING CONFERENCE WILL TRY TO DICTATE ENVIRONMENT POLICIES AROUND THE WORLD. BUT ANY PRACTICAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN? WE WILL SEE. WHILE POLICIES ARE IN WEELS ACTIONS MUST BE TAKEN THAT MEAN SOMETHING TO GLOBAL WARMING. FOR EXAMPLE, HOW MANY CARS ARE THERE AROUND THE WORLD? IN A MATTER OF WEEKS, WE CAN BUILD A FILTER ADAPTED TO THE EXHAUST TUBE, WHICH CAN TAKE UP CO2. . SO TIME IS UP, GLOBAL WARMING IS THERE. SOLAR ENERGY, ANTIMATTER ENERGY, EOLIC ENERGY, MUST REPLACE AT THE SAME TIME OIL COMBUSTION ENERGY. HOWEVER WE CANNOT FORGET EASILY WHAT AUTOMOBILE MEANT TO MANKIND. IT MEANT FREEDOM AND INDEPENDENCE, WE MUSTN’T CHANGE THAT SO FAST, WE BETTER START BUILDING ELECTRICAL OR SOLAR CARS, BEFORE GLOBAL TRANSPORTATION TAKES OVER. SO EVERY CHIMNEY, EVERY EXHAUST TUBE, EVERY INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE, MUST BE TRANSFORMED, AND IT CAN BE DONE IN A MATTER OF WEEKS. LET`S LEAVE PAPER WORK TO POLITICIANS, AND START BUILDING FILTERS. IT`S TIME FOR CHINA AND USA TO LEAD THE WORLD THROUGT THIS CRISIS, WORKING AS A TEAM, IT IS NOT AN ESSUE OF COMPETENCE, AND IT IS A MATTER OF SURVIVAL. IT IS TIME TO LISTEN AND JOIN FORCES TO BUILD THE FUTURE, PRESERVE POLAR BEARS, AND THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF THE CHANGE WE DO NOT FEAR THE FUTURE; WE ARE AFRAID OF SITTING THERE AND DO NOTHING. WE HAVE CIENCE, AND THE KNOW HOW, LETS WORK AS A TEAM, WE MUST NOT THINK IN SHORT TERMS, WE MUST SEE THE FUTURE, OUR LEGACY TO FUTURE GENERATIONS, AND THE FUTURE STARTS BULDING A NEW INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC ORDER, WHICH IS NOT BASED ON SPECULATION, BUT IN PROVIDING FOOD AND GOODS FOR HUMANE RACE. AND CONQUER THE OUTER SPACE AND NEW PLANETS LEARNING FROM OUR ERRORS. AND RESCUE THIS WORLD. THAT IS WHAT THE MAYAS MENT, NOT THE END OF THE WORLD.
MANUEL PUGA

Posted by: jmpa1 | January 5, 2010 11:04 PM
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COPENHAGEN GLOBAL WARMING CONFERENCE WILL TRY TO DICTATE ENVIRONMENT POLICIES AROUND THE WORLD. BUT ANY PRACTICAL ACTION WILL BE TAKEN? WE WILL SEE. WHILE POLICIES ARE IN WEELS ACTIONS MUST BE TAKEN THAT MEAN SOMETHING TO GLOBAL WARMING. FOR EXAMPLE, HOW MANY CARS ARE THERE AROUND THE WORLD? IN A MATTER OF WEEKS, WE CAN BUILD A FILTER ADAPTED TO THE EXHAUST TUBE, WHICH CAN TAKE UP CO2. . SO TIME IS UP, GLOBAL WARMING IS THERE. SOLAR ENERGY, ANTIMATTER ENERGY, EOLIC ENERGY, MUST REPLACE AT THE SAME TIME OIL COMBUSTION ENERGY. HOWEVER WE CANNOT FORGET EASILY WHAT AUTOMOBILE MEANT TO MANKIND. IT MEANT FREEDOM AND INDEPENDENCE, WE MUSTN’T CHANGE THAT SO FAST, WE BETTER START BUILDING ELECTRICAL OR SOLAR CARS, BEFORE GLOBAL TRANSPORTATION TAKES OVER. SO EVERY CHIMNEY, EVERY EXHAUST TUBE, EVERY INTERNAL COMBUSTION ENGINE, MUST BE TRANSFORMED, AND IT CAN BE DONE IN A MATTER OF WEEKS. LET`S LEAVE PAPER WORK TO POLITICIANS, AND START BUILDING FILTERS. IT`S TIME FOR CHINA AND USA TO LEAD THE WORLD THROUGT THIS CRISIS, WORKING AS A TEAM, IT IS NOT AN ESSUE OF COMPETENCE, AND IT IS A MATTER OF SURVIVAL. IT IS TIME TO LISTEN AND JOIN FORCES TO BUILD THE FUTURE, PRESERVE POLAR BEARS, AND THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT. WE ARE NOT AFRAID OF THE CHANGE WE DO NOT FEAR THE FUTURE; WE ARE AFRAID OF SITTING THERE AND DO NOTHING. WE HAVE CIENCE, AND THE KNOW HOW, LETS WORK AS A TEAM, WE MUST NOT THINK IN SHORT TERMS, WE MUST SEE THE FUTURE, OUR LEGACY TO FUTURE GENERATIONS, AND THE FUTURE STARTS BULDING A NEW INTERNATIONAL ECONOMIC ORDER, WHICH IS NOT BASED ON SPECULATION, BUT IN PROVIDING FOOD AND GOODS FOR HUMANE RACE. AND CONQUER THE OUTER SPACE AND NEW PLANETS LEARNING FROM OUR ERRORS. AND RESCUE THIS WORLD. THAT IS WHAT THE MAYAS MENT, NOT THE END OF THE WORLD.
MANUEL PUGA

Posted by: jmpa1 | January 5, 2010 11:04 PM
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