A conversation with Prof. Richard Lindzen

lindzen-cato_1  Richard Siegmund Lindzen is an American atmospheric physicist known for his work in the dynamics of the atmosphere, atmospheric tides, and ozone photochemistry. He has published more than 200 scientific papers and books. From 1983 until his retirement in 2013, he was Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a lead author of Chapter 7, “Physical Climate Processes and Feedbacks,” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Third Assessment Report on climate change. He has criticized the scientific consensus about climate change and what he has called “climate alarmism.”

  A short while ago, Prof. Lindzen had a conversation with Mr. Grégoire Canlorbe, who interviewed him on behalf on the French Association des climato-réalistes—the only climate-realist organization in France.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: Your early work dealt with ozone photochemistry, the aerodynamics of the middle atmosphere, the theory of atmospheric tides, and planetary waves. How do you present to the layman the several scientific discoveries you were responsible for in these areas?

  Richard Lindzen: My work is mostly about ‘explaining’ rather than ‘discovering’, and I doubt that my achievements would mean much to laymen. With respect to my early work, I provided the explanation for the Quasi-biennial Oscillation of the tropical stratosphere. This phenomenon refers to the fact that the wind between 16 and about 30 km in the tropics blows from east to west for approximately a year, and then reverses and blows from west to east for about another year.

  I also provided the solution to an old question about tidal oscillations in surface pressure. For tides that are forced by the gravitational force of the moon, it has been known since Newton that the dominant period should be 12 lunar hours. However, at the surface, the pressure oscillates primarily at 12 solar hours though solar forcing is primarily thermal in origin and dominated by 24 hours. The question was why the observed tide was semidiurnal rather than diurnal. I showed that diurnal tides were trapped over much of the earth and suppressed.

  There was also the interesting fact that at the mesopause (ca 85 km) the winter pole is the warmest place and the summer pole is the coldest place. I showed that this was caused by the breaking of small-scale waves from below. The behavior of the atmosphere and oceans provides many interesting puzzles and I always enjoyed these puzzles.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: You have sparked vehement reactions, in highlighting how futile the popular claims on increasing droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, sea level rise, and other extremes. Even modest warming, you say, should not be considered a genuine threat to human health and agriculture. Could you remind us of the data invalidating climate doomsday scenarios?

  Richard Lindzen: I should point out that I don’t personally do much work in these areas, nor do I think that the ‘vehement’ reaction is primarily to my statements concerning extreme events. The time history of such matters as droughts, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and temperature extremes is well recorded by official bodies like NOAA, and display no systematic increase. Indeed, some, like hurricanes, appear to be decreasing. These trends have been documented by R. Pielke, Jr. (https://www.amazon.com/Rightful-Place-Science-Disasters-Climate/dp/0692297510/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1492721355&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=pielke+jr+in+books), and even the IPCC has acknowledged the absence of significant associations with warming.

  I have occasionally noted that theoretically, warmer climates should be characterized by reduced temperature extremes. The attempt to associate present weather extremes and other matters ranging from obesity to the Syrian Civil War, with climate change is frequently hilarious (http://www.numberwatch.co.uk/warmlist.htm). The mostly non-scientist proponents of climate hysteria realize that distant forecasts of remote problems by inadequate models are unlikely to motivate people to shut down modern industrial society. They, therefore, attempt to claim that we are seeing the problems right now. Of course, the warming that has occurred over the past 200 years or so, has been too small to have been a major factor. However, objective reality matters little when it comes to propaganda – where repetition can effectively counter reality.

  The issue of sea level rise is slightly different. The proponents of climate alarm have for almost 40 years recognized that massive sea level rise and coastal flooding provide excellent graphic examples of dangers that people can react to. Such things as a couple of degrees of warming are much less effective in frightening people. Of course, carefully analyzed tide gauge data shows sea-level increasing about 20 cm per century for at least 2 centuries – with no sign of acceleration to the present. The claim that this increase is accelerating is very peculiar. Tide gauges don’t actually measure sea-level. Rather, they measure the difference between land level and sea level. At many stations, the former is much more important. In order to estimate sea level, one has to restrict oneself to tectonically stable sites.

  Since 1979 we have been able to measure sea level itself with satellites. However, the accuracy of such measurements depends critically on such factors as the precise shape of the earth. While the satellites show slightly greater rates of sea level rise, the inaccuracy of the measurement renders the difference uncertain. What the proponents of alarm have done is to accept the tide gauge data until 1979, but assume that the satellite data is correct after that date, and that the difference in rates constitutes ‘acceleration.’ They then assume acceleration will continue leading to large sea level rises by the end of this century. It is hard to imagine that such illogical arguments would be tolerated in other fields.


Prof. Richard Lindzen (in the middle),
and his wife Nadine, in the company of Grégoire Canlorbe,
in Paris in May 2018

  Grégoire Canlorbe: It is commonly admitted that temperature increases follow the rise in atmospheric CO2 levels—and not the other way around. In this regard, fossil fuels emissions are easily believed to be the most plausible origin of contemporary increasing CO2 levels. Do you question this dogma?

  Richard Lindzen: I’m not sure what you are saying. In point of fact, increasing CO2 should cause some warming, but increasing temperature can also increase CO2 (for example CO2 follows temperature during the cycles of glaciation). That said, it is not unreasonable to claim that the observed increases in CO2 over the past two centuries are mostly due to fossil fuel emissions, cement production, and land use changes (i.e., man’s activities).

  The question is can this increase in CO2 produce much in the way of climate change. Increases in CO2 have produced about a 1% perturbation in the earth’s energy budget. This impact was so much smaller before around 1960, that almost no one (including the IPCC) claims the impact was significant before that date. Even a 1% change is no greater than what is normally produced by relatively small changes in cloud cover or ocean circulations which are always carrying heat to and from the surface.

  Observationally, one would have to see changes since 1960 that could not otherwise be expected. According to the IPCC, models find that there is nothing competitive with man-made climate change, but observations contradict this. The warming from 1919-1939 was almost identical to the warming from 1978-1998. Moreover, there was an almost total slowdown of warming since 1998. Both imply that there is something at least as strong as man-made warming going on.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: You have been spearheading the iris hypothesis, according to which increased sea surface temperature in the tropics does result in reduced cirrus clouds and thus more infrared radiation leakage from Earth’s atmosphere. After nearly two decades of polemics, how do you assess your theory?

  Richard Lindzen: I’m not sure what you mean by ‘spearheading.’ In 2000 I published a study of upper level cirrus behavior in the tropics as a function of surface temperature (together with two colleagues at NASA). As you note, we found that the areal coverage of tropical cirrus (which result from the detrainment from deep cumulus clouds) does decrease with temperature, and that this effect was sufficient to more than cancel the commonly assumed water vapor feedback which is essential to predictions of high climate sensitivity.

  There immediately followed a series of papers that criticized our work. Each of these criticisms was easy to dismiss, and we did so in published responses. However, subsequent papers inevitably referred to our paper as ‘discredited,’ and never referred to our responses to the criticism. However, the fact that upper level tropical cirrus shrinks with increasing surface temperature has been confirmed in several subsequent papers. Moreover, since the water vapor feedback is only relevant in the absence of upper level cirrus, one cannot actually separate the iris effect from the water vapor feedback. The combined feedback is more accurately referred to as the long-wave (i.e., infrared) feedback, and direct measurements confirm that this feedback is zero or even negative.

  Interestingly, there is a problem called the ‘Early Faint Sun Paradox’. This refers to the fact that about 2.5 billion years ago, the solar constant was about 30% less than it is today, but the evidence is that the climate was not greatly different from today’s climate. My student, Roberto Rondanelli and I showed that the simplest explanation was the iris effect. In summary, the iris effect still seems eminently viable.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: In the field of the sociology of scientific knowledge, an intriguing claim on your part is that eugenics offers the closest historical parallel to the anthropogenic global warming theory. Could you expand?

  Richard Lindzen: Whether this is the closest parallel, I don’t know. However, there certainly are parallels, and I’ve described these in detail in a paper comparing the two issues with respect to the issue as it unfolded in the United States during the 1920’s and 30’s. ((1996) Science and politics: global warming and eugenics. in Risks, Costs, and Lives Saved, R. Hahn, editor, Oxford University Press, New York, 267pp (Chapter 5, 85-103).)

  Underlying both issues were political aims: control of the energy sector for AGW and immigration for eugenics. In the early 1920’s, it was argued in the US that America was undergoing an epidemic of feeblemindedness due to immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. With respect to AGW, a highly oversimplified description of the greenhouse effect was put forward as the scientific basis; with respect to eugenics, a comparably oversimplified picture of single gene heredity was employed.

  In both examples, numerous prominent individuals endorsed the issue, claiming that the science was obvious, and, in both cases, the scientific community failed to object. The panic over the ‘genetic’ implications of the ‘epidemic of feeble-mindedness’ led to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 that closed America’s doors to many people fleeing the Nazi’s.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: In a mediatized letter you wrote to President Trump, you urged him to withdraw from the UN convention on climate change. Do you think the hype around man-caused climate change has turned out to be a mere propaganda tool to develop the UN into a global government with a Malthusian agenda—as many voices on the Right seem to worry about it?

  Richard Lindzen: Actually, the hype around man-caused climate change serves many agendas – of which global governance is but one. As I pointed out many years ago, almost every interest except that of the general public has figured out how to profit from this issue. The interests, ironically, include the fossil fuel industry.

   Grégoire Canlorbe: French President Emmanuel Macron has steadily pushed for climate change action, anxious to lead the resistance against Trump’s climate-realist policy—as well as his economic nationalism and his foreign policy positions. Do you envision a rollback of the Trump era for the world?

  Richard Lindzen: Once again, I’m not sure what you are asking. The silly support for this issue by people like Macron, Merkel, and Pope Francis has little impact in the US. I suspect that most ordinary people realize that this is a phony issue, and it has been clear in the US that Trump’s lack of concern for this issue has not been a political problem for him.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: The belief in regulating carbon emissions (to prevent global warming) is often thought of as a secular revivification of Paganism. Yet the surviving nations of the classical pagan world are generally those disbelieving in man’s sin towards nature—and escaping this totalitarian religion that is hard ecologism. Neither China nor India substantially endorse climate alarmism, let alone denuclearization and green energy. How do you make sense of this?

  Richard Lindzen: It is probably inaccurate to refer to China and India as Pagan. However, such factors as the breakdown in the prominence of Christianity in the West has provided an opening for other bases for belief and virtue. I have to admit that I don’t think replacing the Ten Commandments with ‘watching one’s carbon footprint’ has much long term potential.

  Grégoire Canlorbe: An ancestral debate focuses on the question to know whether mathematics is just a tool to know the physical reality, or refers to a suprasensible dimension beyond atoms and the void. As a lifelong atmospheric physicist, and a past master in elucidating the flaws of mathematical climate models, what is your feeling on the issue?

  Richard Lindzen: While mathematics is the language of the physical sciences, mathematics is not simply the use of arbitrary algorithms. This is currently pretty much the situation with climate modeling. Algorithms are used, but they do not represent valid solutions of underlying equations. The models lack the resolution to deal with fundamental aspects of nature – some of which are insufficiently understood to even know what equations to use.

   Grégoire Canlorbe: Thank you for your time. Is there anything you would like to add?

  Richard Lindzen: There are many things I would like to add, but your readers can easily find them in my publications. (http://www-eaps.mit.edu/faculty/lindzen/PublicationsRSL.html).

  This conversation of Prof. Richard Lindzen with Mr. Grégoire Canlorbe took place in Paris, in May 2018. Grégoire Canlorbe is not only Vice President of the Parti National-Libéral (“National-Liberal Party,” conservative, nationalist, and free-marketist), but a supporter of the Association des Climato-Réalistes, for which he conducted the interview.

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