Canton Repository

July 15, 2001

Global warming debate heats up


WASHINGTON — After establishing himself as a prominent skeptic of global warming, pioneering the development of satellite and rocket technology, and serving in a succession of high-level government posts, S. Fred Singer was looking for a challenge.

So two years ago, at age 74, he decided to teach himself how to type.

Actually, it was just the latest example of a commitment to self-education from the scientist-author-activist who lives near Washington, D.C., but still considers Ohio home.

“I believe in self-education,” said Singer, who quit school in the European equivalent of seventh grade but went on to earn a doctorate in atmospheric physics from Princeton. “I started to educate myself when I was quite young, and I try to keep it up. I try to learn something new every year.”

Singer is headed to a global warming conference in Bonn, Germany, this week, where delegates from 180 nations are meeting to figure out where to go next with the Kyoto protocol. The proposed treaty would require participating nations to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, a so-called greenhouse gas that results from the burning of fossil fuels and contributes to a warming of the atmosphere. The protocol sustained a crippling blow recently when President Bush, citing scientific uncertainty, withdrew the United States’ support for the pact.

Singer’s purpose at the conference is to offer an alternative to the widely accepted view that greenhouse gases are causing global warming. Since the late 1980s, he has argued that the current scientific evidence does not justify dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, which could throw the U.S. economy into recession.

“I want to make sure that we in the United States do not go off half-cocked in a direction that will hurt the economy,” he said. “Also, I was really annoyed by the way the subject was being hyped by certain people.”

Singer has written books on the topic, including “Hot Talk Cold Science: Global Warming’s Unfinished Debate,” published by the Independent Institute, an Oakland, Calif., think tank where he is a research fellow.

In 1990, he founded the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a nonprofit policy research group he runs from his Arlington, Va., apartment and uses as a platform for his views.

Reserved, polite, precise and concise, he displays a touch of whimsy in his enthusiasm for certain toys. His favorite is a plastic shark, which sings “Mack the Knife” after a prelude of theme music from “Jaws."

“Isn’t the synchronization amazing,” he says as the fish sings.

Singer retains a trace of an accent from Vienna, Austria, where he was born and lived until he fled the Nazi-occupied city at the age of 14. Singer, who is Jewish, took his younger sister and joined his parents who were already in Akron.

Skipping high school entirely, he taught himself trigonometry and calculus before enrolling at Ohio State University, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. He also served in the Navy.

His resume includes a stint as the first director of the National Weather Satellite Center and high-ranking positions in the Department of Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation, as well as academic and scholarly appointments to the University of Virginia, Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and other universities and think tanks.

The honors bestowed on him include a 1954 award from President Dwight Eisenhower for space satellite design and a 1997 commendation from NASA for research on particle clouds.

But he is a modest, kind and generous man who, says his niece Susan Vees of Uniontown, brushes off his accomplishments and is more curious “about what’s going on in our lives” when he visits his relatives and cheers on the Ohio State Buckeyes football team.

Previously married but without children, Singer remembered his niece with mementos from his trips around the world and provided education trust funds for her, her two brothers and her children, she said.

But on the issue of global warming, Singer is viewed as a contrarian. While acknowledging that carbon dioxide is increasing, he says evidence is mixed as to whether it is warming the atmosphere.

Singer questions the computer models used to predict the exceedingly complex behavior of climate. They don’t provide certainty or even consistent results, he said.

Singer explains that between 1850 and 1950, the earth’s temperature rose, an event he attributes to a natural warming that followed a colder period beginning in the 1400s. The climate then cooled until the mid-1970s, at which point the evidence for a warming trend becomes contradictory.

For example, while land-based thermometers show a warming since 1975, satellite and weather balloons show little temperature change and even a slight cooling since 1979, he said.

Why the discrepancy? No one is sure, but one explanation is that the thermometers show artificially high readings as a result of an “urban heat island” effect. Many of the thermometers are at airports, where temperatures have risen as the surrounding area developed.

Even if the globe is warming, he said, temperatures are not rising as much as they should be, based on current understanding of the greenhouse effect.

“Something is happening in the atmosphere that is reducing the effect,” he said. Part of the answer lies in dimly understood “negative feedbacks,” which he said at least partially cancel out the warming.

When the earth warms, for example, that leads to increased evaporation from the oceans, which in turn creates clouds, which cool the earth by deflecting the sun’s rays, he said.

Not everyone buys Singer’s interpretations.

John M. Wallace, who served on a National Research Council panel that prepared a report on global warming for the White House, conceded that Singer’s objections have merit, including the discrepancy between thermometer and satellite data.

“We don’t have a full understanding of that,” said Wallace, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington. Some experts have concluded that both sets of measurements are correct even though they differ. “If that’s the case ... we believe it is quite possible that ... temperature changes might be proceeding at different rates at the surface and aloft,” he said.

Scientists are well aware of the heat island effect and attempt to correct for it, Wallace said. “The main thing they can do is to restrict their analysis to rural stations and stations with well-documented station histories,” he added.

And Wallace, who is 90-percent sure that human activity is having a substantial impact on climate, faults Singer for being selective with data. Singer approaches science, he said, “Like a debating contest, and I guess I personally believe that science should be motivated by a genuine desire to understand nature and to let the chips fall as they may in terms of what conclusions are led to.”

Singer’s supporters counter that he follows the evidence where it leads, rather than attempting to make it fit a preconception. “He isn’t the kind of person who goes with the herd,” said David Theroux, president of the Independent Institute. “That can be good or bad. I think in his case it’s been good.”

Best known now for his role in the global warming debate, Singer has “changed careers many times,” he said, and he’s anxious to return to the study of space.

“I’m hoping that the administration will give me something that will allow me to work in the area of planning space adventure, space experiments, space projects,” he said. “I’ve given them some idea of what I’m interested in ... planning a manned expedition to Mars.”

He said such a visit is possible within 10 to 25 years.
Meanwhile, he’s expects to be busy in Bonn, where he will “badger the press and the delegates to tell them that (on global warming) Bush is right.”