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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Global Warming Lawsuit

Air Date: Week of

Roger Revelle is the grandfather of global warming theory. Shortly before his death, he co-authored an article which downplays the certainty and severity of the greenhouse effect. A former student claims that Revelle was coerced for political reasons into lending his name to the article. Co-author Fred Singer is suing for libel. He claims the article is an accurate reflection of Revelle's ideas. David Baron from member station WBUR reports.


NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Jan Nunley, in this week for Steve Curwood.

How real is the threat of global warming? And how seriously should the Federal Government try to reduce the production of greenhouse gases? Those are two of the biggest issues in environmental policy today. And they're at the center of a bitter legal battle brewing in a state court in Massachusetts. Although they're not actually involved in the dispute, two of its major figures are Vice President Al Gore, who's an advocate of strong action to reduce greenhouse gases, and Roger Revelle, often called the Grandfather of the Greenhouse Effect and the man most influential in shaping Gore's position. The lawsuit involves a much-discussed article which some claim shows that Revelle changed his mind on global warming shortly before his death. Others say the article misrepresented Revelle's views for political purposes. David Barron of member station WBUR in Boston explains.

BARON: Roger Revelle wasn't the first person to suggest that carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels might build up in the atmosphere and cause a warming of the Earth's climate. But in the 1950s he performed critical experiments that convinced scientists the threat was real. Revelle wrote ominously that mankind was embarking on a great, one-time geophysical experiment. Vice President Al Gore wrote in his 1992 book, Earth in the Balance, that Revelle inspired his efforts to counter the Greenhouse Effect. Revelle was Gore's professor at Harvard. But after Revelle's death in 1991, some politicians and commentators tried to use Revelle's legacy against Gore, who was calling for strict international curbs on emissions of greenhouse gases. Gore's critics claimed that Revelle changed his mind about global warming in his final years. Gore was asked about the issue during the 1992 Vice Presidential debate.

GORE: ... how he had been misquoted and had his remarks taken completely out of context just before he died. He believed up until the day he died (audience groans) - No, it's true.
MODERATOR: If the audience would stop please.
GORE: He died last year, and just before he died he co-authored an article which had statements taken completely out of context...

BARON: That article appeared in an obscure journal published by the Cosmos Club, a private, Washington-based organization with about 3,000 members. The article was titled, "What To Do About Greenhouse Warming: Look Before You Leap."

SINGER: Which means that we should think or a moment before we take drastic action. And this is further emphasized in the article itself.

BARON: That's Fred Singer. He co-wrote the article with Roger Revelle and Chauncy Starr, former president of the Electric Power Research Institute. Singer directs the nonprofit Science and Environmental Policy Project, and is a frequent critic of environmental activists. He explains that the article wasn't meant to dismiss the possibility of global warming, but it was intended to show that no one knows how serious a threat global warming poses.

SINGER: We say the scientific base for greenhouse warming includes some facts, lots of uncertainty, and just plain lack of knowledge.

BARON: The article argues there's no good evidence to suggest the Earth is heating up, despite predictions that global warming should already be underway. The paper questions the dangers of global warming, raising the possibility that the Earth's environment might in fact benefit from a warmed climate. The authors conclude that nations should take only modest and inexpensive steps to ward off possible global warming until more research is done.

LANCASTER: I don't see that Roger Revelle wrote this article.

BARON: That's Justin Lancaster, Revelle's former student and colleague at Scripps. Lancaster is being sued for libel, for claiming that Revelle's name was placed on the Cosmos Journal article despite Revelle's objections. The person suing Lancaster is Fred Singer. Like Singer, Lancaster directs a nonprofit organization devoted to environmental policy, but he considers global warming a much greater threat.

LANCASTER: I see a group of people taking this article, saying it's the last testimony of Roger Revelle, and essentially using it against his career. And I think it's a terrible thing. I'm as close a colleague as anybody on this issue of global warming, in the last years of Roger's life, and I'm not going to sit silently and let this happen.

BARON: Lancaster has been far from silent. In 1992 he complained repeatedly about the article to the editors of a book that was to include the controversial paper. Lancaster tried unsuccessfully to block republication of the article, calling it "misleading" and "unscholarly." He claimed that Fred Singer had taken advantage of Revelle at a time when he was weak. When the article was written, Revelle was 81 and had recently undergone open heart surgery. Though Lancaster admits Revelle's mind remained sharp until the end. Lancaster suggested in his letters that Singer had pressured Revelle into accepting co-authorship so Singer could use the article for political purposes in his fight against environmentalists trying to combat global warming. It's because of these statements that Fred Singer is suing Lancaster for libel. The lawsuit is expected to go to trial some time next year. Lancaster stands by what he wrote in those letters, though he admits the article isn't completely out of line with Revelle's thinking.

LANCASTER: That's the cleverness, in my mind, of this article, is that it incorporates enough of what is consistent with Roger Revelle's view to get him to pass on authorship. And then it's used after that against Roger Revelle's effect as a scientist trying to reach policy.

BARON: Lancaster's rival Fred Singer admits he wrote the first draft of the article. In fact, many of the key sentences expressing skepticism about global warming were copied verbatim from an earlier paper Singer authored alone for an American Chemical Society publication. But Singer adds both co-authors revised his draft to their liking. Justin Lancaster counters he has galley proofs showing that some of Revelle's desired changes in the manuscript never made it into the final version. But co-author Chauncy Starr, who is not a party to the lawsuit, says that's not true.

STARR: The very last changes were made by Roger Revelle and were sent to me for approval and I approved them and that's what printed in the article. There was no question that he was actively engaged, and that whatever appeared in that article, he agreed with.

BARON: In fact, many of Revelle's former colleague say the Cosmos Journal article is perfectly consistent with this previous writings. While Revelle was concerned about global warming, they say, he wasn't dogmatic. He believed public policy should be based on hard data, not speculation. In earlier articles, Revelle had questioned the accuracy of computer models that predict dramatic climate change in the next century, and he had speculated increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might actually benefit crops. University of Virginia climatologist Pat Michaels, the well-known global warming skeptic, charges it's Justin Lancaster, Revelle's former student, who's misrepresenting his late professor's beliefs.

MICHAELS: To me it is astounding. It's absolutely astounding, that we are having the living trying to take the names of the dead off papers that they wrote because the living don't agree with what the dead said when they authored the paper. That's straight out of a rather frightening book by George Orwell.

BARON: But many of Revelle's former colleagues criticize Michaels and others who've used the Cosmos Journal article for political purposes. Michaels has cited the article in his attacks on Al Gore's proposals for combating global warming. Harvard professor Peter Rogers, who knew Revelle for almost 30 years, says his former colleague would not have been pleased to see the article used against the environmental movement.

ROGERS: If he thought that it was going to be used in that way, I don't think he would have wanted to participate.

BARON: Rogers contends that if Revelle were around today, he'd consider the debate over who really wrote the article with his name on it a waste of time. Rogers says Revelle would have wanted to see scientists discussing the issue at the heart of the controversial article. That is, how big a threat is global warming? And what should be done about it? For Living on Earth, I'm David Baron.



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