The Dictionary of the Climate Debate (DCD)

Nierenberg, William

(1919 – 2000) An American physicist who was director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from 1965 to 1986. He was also co-founder of the Marshall Institute in 1984.

Chairs a NAS review of climate change in the 1970s

Dring the Carter presidency, an Act of Congress was passed requesting the NAS to review what was known about climate change. Nierenberg was appointed to chair the committee to produce a report on the risks of global warming, which two previous reports for the Carter administration (e.g., Charney Report) had highlighted as potentially being a major problem.

To read the full report, click here.

Its key points were:

(1) The most probable date of CO2 "doubling" (to 600 ppm) was 2065.

(2) Global warming due to doubling CO2 is likely to be between 1-5 - 4.5°C, as suggested by the Charney Report. …

(3) Warming at equilibrium would be 2-3 times as great over the polar regions as over the tropics; and probably greater over the arctic

(4) Sea level might rise 70 cm over a century from thermal expansion and the melting of alpine glaciers.

(5) There was great uncertainty of the fate of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

The key finding and recommendation

"CO2 is a cause for concern but not panic. A program of action without a program for learning would be costly and ineffective … a careful, well-designed program of monitoring and analysis is needed to detect the CO2 signal on climate …"

Branded a Merchant of Doubt

In their book Merchants of Doubt, activist [i.e. left-wing] science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway classifies him as one of the [right wing?] Merchants of Doubt, i.e. someone who keeps a controversy alive by spreading doubt and confusion after a scientific consensus had been reached.

Click here to read their elaborate analysis of this in their essay: "From Chicken Little to Dr. Pangloss: William Nierenberg, Global Warming, and the Social Deconstruction of Scientific Knowledge"

Here's a quote from the abstract:

"In the early 1980s, a consensus emerged among climate scientists that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels would lead to mean global warming of 2–3°C, probably by the mid-twenty-first century, and would have serious deleterious effects, including sea level rise of at least seventy centimeters. This consensus was challenged, however, by a committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, chaired by physicist William A. (Bill) Nierenberg, whose 1983 report arguably launched the climate change 'debate.'" [And thus, this dictionary - Ahem.]

The Marshal Institute responds

The Marshall institute published a rebuttal to these accusations. Click here to read Clouding the Truth: A Critique of Merchants of Doubt.

Here's a key quote:

"First, Oreskes-Conway assert the importance of consensus — these scientists “were on the wrong side” of the scientific consensus, they state. Science is not a popularity contest and scientific history is replete with examples of consensus views that were flat-out wrong.

Second, Oreskes-Conway say these scientists “fought the scientific evidence.” That should surprise no one. In fact, if the opposite were true, we all should be very concerned. Challenging the theory, hypothesis, and evidence is after all, the basis of modern science. “Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve, the philosopher Karl Popper reminds us.

Finally, Oreskes- Conway say these men “spread confusion.” Their actions spread confusion only in the sense that their views differ from the prevailing orthodoxy. The authors discount entirely the possibility that the questions of science were (and are) not as clear cut as is claimed."

1. Click here to view a lecture he gave in 1999 wherein he gives his view of the science of global warming.

2. Click here to read Early Climate Change Consensus at the National Academy: The Origins and Making of Changing Climate another defence of Nierenberg's role in kick-starting the climate change debate.

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