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Leading climate change critic to speak at UVM

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted March 27, 2007

BURLINGTON — Global warming is a natural phenomenon, has little to do with human activity, and there is little we can do to stop it.

That’s the sobering message a leading climate change skeptic will bring to Vermont this week.

Atmospheric physicist S. Fred Singer, who founded the Science and Environmental Policy Project in 1990 and is a professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia, is scheduled to speak Wednesday at the University of Vermont.

Singer promises to provide a different interpretation to the data being collected about the Earth’s temperature; one that shows the Earth is warming, but it has been for hundreds of years and is in the midst of natural cycle, not the result of human-created carbon dioxide emissions.

Climate change in Vermont has been a hot topic in Montpelier this session, as has the state’s energy future. Democratic leaders and the state’s Republican governor have all been trying to score political, and environmental, points in an effort to reduce the state’s “carbon footprint.”

The issue is one that resonates with many Vermonters as well. In September, Vermont hosted the largest ever rally on climate change — a three-day walk from Ripton to Burlington drew more than 1,000 people in Burlington’s Battery Park for a final rally.

Earlier this session, Vermont’s legislative leaders convened regular hearings with top scientists from around the country in the field of climate change and sustainable energy. However, many felt that disparate, or minority, viewpoints on the topic were ignored or marginalized.

It’s with this backdrop that Singer comes to town, and just weeks before UVM hosts its annual Aiken lecture series, named after George Aiken, a former governor and U.S. senator and noted environmentalist. This year’s Aiken lecture topic? Why climate change of course.

To be clear, Singer does believe the world is warming. However, he doesn’t believe human-created CO2 is the leading cause of the warming (or has had a measurable effect at all on global temperatures), or that climate change is a bad thing. Most importantly, says Singer, climate change is part of a natural cycle and there is nothing we can do to stop it. So, why try when some measures could reduce energy production and put entire economies in jeopardy.

And it’s clear that Singer is not alone in his thinking. His most recent book, Unstoppable Global Warming — Every 1500 Years is on the New York Times bestseller list.

“I will show that the global warming models that have been developed don’t agree with the data, and science should always be based on observation,” Singer told the Guardian in a five-minute telephone interview. “I don’t do my own measurements, but these are all contained in official government reports that observe some of the very things that the models say shouldn’t be happening.”

In a recent article in Le Monde, Singer laid out his arguments: “First, the climate is always changing — either warming or cooling – on time scales ranging from decades to millions of years. Nearly 20 ice ages have come and gone in the past two million years, controlled by predictable changes in Earth’s orbit and tilt of its axis,” Singer wrote. “Our present interglacial warm period is 12,000 years old and may soon end. Geological evidence has also uncovered a 1,500-year climate cycle, likely caused by the sun — and also unstoppable. On top of all this, we have irregular, unpredictable short-term fluctuations. Since 1979, weather satellites have shown a slight warming trend that is well within historical experience. How can we tell whether this recent warming is due to human influences, such as the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases, or whether it is simply another natural fluctuation?

“It's no use asking the thermometers; they cannot talk. The melting of glaciers and ice sheets, the rise in sea level, severe storms, floods, droughts — all of these are interesting, to be sure, but really irrelevant to our question. They may well be connected to a warmer climate — or maybe not — but they cannot tell us what causes the warming,” he added.

While Singer often pokes holes in the predominant theories, his have come under heavy scrutiny and criticism from climate change scientists, who call his work misleading, inaccurate, and designed only to serve the interests of those who have funded his efforts — a roster that includes multinational oil, and coal companies who stand to benefit from a status quo position, the critics claim.

Despite the name calling from his critics, Singer refuses to posit why thousands of scientists don’t subscribe to his theory.

“I’ll leave that for you and others to decide,” said Singer, who has appeared in the documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle. “I don’t want to speculate on their motivation.”

In Vermont, where concern has been raised about the impact of climate change on maple sugaring and the ski industry, Singer said it’s simply pointless to try and fight it. Rather than lament the loss, people need to seize the opportunity of what may be coming and adapt.

“It’s pointless, because if it’s natural there is nothing you can do about it,” he said. “And, many economists believe that global warming is actually good for the economy, not bad, and will increase productivity.”

Singer adds that with China and India bringing new coal-fired power plants online every day, that anything the United States does to reduce its carbon footprint will have little, if any, impact on global CO2 output. That is despite the fact that the United States is recognized as the world’s leader in C02 output even if it doesn’t have the largest population.

Singer’s response is simple. “That’s because we are wealthy and have a high standard of living. If we were to reduce half of our footprint, we would have to either reduce our standard of living to that of a Third World country, or get rid of half of the population,” he said.

House Natural Resources and Energy Committee Chairman Robert Dostis, D-Waterbury, said simply throwing up one’s hands is not a responsible option.

“We need to take responsibility for what we’ve done and take action — that’s what we are charged with, and thinking like this does a disservice to taking responsibility for what we’ve done,” said Dostis, who said most climate change models show warming trends correlating with the increased burning of fossil fuels, and in many cases presenting an accelerated trend over previous warming cycles.

Dostis said he did not anticipate attending Singer’s talk, citing his legislative workload.

Singer is coming to Vermont at the invitation of Lake Champlain International (LCI) and its Great Spirits Series, named in honor of Albert Einstein.

LCI officials believe that recent legislative discussions on climate change were one-sided, offering little, if any, minority or divergent opinions.

“We feel the subject, given its seriousness and complexity, deserves continued discussion — certainly beyond one legislative session. We were convinced of this when certain legislators based their decision not to hear from professionals such as Dr. Singer based on their own bias, a bias, in some instances communicated via pejoratives. Education for the individual, we believe, should never end. It is ongoing process of discovery. As for private industry, I would expect them to pursue what is in their best, corporate interests,” said James Ehlers, of LCI, in an e-mail interview with the Guardian.

Ehlers said lawmakers, along with members of Gov. Jim Douglas’ Climate Change Commission were invited to hear Singer speak. He’s not sure how many may attend.

He hopes that Singer’s appearance is the first in a series of speakers aimed at bringing other viewpoints, and possible solutions, to the table for discussion.

“Our concern is that we are attempting to solve problems using the same manner of thinking that itself is responsible for the problems of today. For example, "saving energy" is not physically possible. Energy is neither created nor destroyed. How does one save it then, with a particular light bulb no less? This is perhaps old thinking. We are focused on the impossible rather the possible, such as environmentally-friendly and emission-free nuclear power and the development of hydrogen as two examples,” said Ehlers. “We have a vested interest, at our organization, in a healthy watershed. Continued damming of our rivers so that we may continue to enjoy the benefits of inexpensive power, as has been mentioned, is not in the long-term best interest of our region, in our opinion. Nor is the establishment of large-scale wind or solar farms for the large habitat footprints they affect. How can we achieve our need for a stable and inexpensive power supply to continue to enjoy the benefits of our modern society and at the same time do so in an intelligent and responsible manner?”

Event information
Singer will speak at 7 p.m., Wednesday at the Ira Allen Chapel at UVM. For more information, call 879-3466 or email info@lakechamplaininternational.org. Parking is available is at Fletcher Allen Health Care and at the Waterman building.

Singer’s biography
S. Fred Singer, now president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project, a non-profit policy research group he founded in 1990, is also distinguished research professor at George Mason University and professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. His previous government and academic positions include chief scientist, U.S. Department of Transportation (1987- 89); deputy assistant administrator for policy, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1970-71); deputy assistant secretary for water quality and research, U.S. Department of the Interior (1967- 70); founding Dean of the School of Environmental and Planetary Sciences, University of Miami (1964-67); first director of the National Weather Satellite Service (1962-64); and director of the Center for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Maryland (1953-62).