The U.S. auto industry and regulators in California and Washington appear deadlocked over stiff Obama-era fuel-efficiency standards that automakers oppose and the Trump administration have vowed to roll back – an initiative that has environmental activists up in arms.
California and four automakers favor compromise, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) supports the president’s position that the federal standards are too strict. The EPA argues that forcing automakers to build more fuel efficient cars will make them less affordable, causing consumers to delay trading older, less efficient vehicles. Complicating matters is California’s authority to create its own air quality standards, which the White House vows to end.
However the impasse is resolved, the moment looks ripe to revisit the root of this multifactorial dustup: namely, the scientific “consensus” that CO2 emissions from vehicles and other sources are pushing the earth to the brink of climate catastrophe.
In a modest office on the campus of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, an Israeli astrophysicist patiently explains why he is convinced that the near-unanimous judgments of climatologists are misguided. Nir Shaviv, chairman of the university’s physics department, says that his research and that of colleagues, suggests that rising CO2 levels, while hardly insignificant, play only a minor role compared to the influence of the sun and cosmic radiation on the earth’s climate.
“Global warming clearly is a problem, though not in the catastrophic terms of Al Gore’s movies or environmental alarmists,” said Shaviv. “Climate change has existed forever and is unlikely to go away. But CO2 emissions don’t play the major role. Periodic solar activity does.”
Shaviv, 47, fully comprehends that his scientific conclusions constitute a glaring rebuttal to the widely-quoted surveys showing that 97% of climate scientists agree that human activity – the combustion of fossil fuels – constitutes the principle reason for climate change.
“Only people who don’t understand science take the 97% statistic seriously,” he said. “Survey results depend on who you ask, who answers and how the questions are worded. In any case, science is not a democracy. Even if 100% of scientists believe something, one person with good evidence can still be right.”
History is replete with lone voices toppling scientific orthodoxies. Astronomers deemed Pluto the ninth planet – until they changed their minds. Geologists once regarded tectonic plate theory, the movement of continents, as nonsense. Medicine were 100% certain that stomach resulted from stress and spicy food, until an Australian researcher proved bacteria the culprit and won a Nobel Prize for his efforts.
Lest anyone dismiss Shaviv on the basis of his scientific credentials or supposed political agenda, consider the following: He enrolled at Israel’s Technion University – the country’s equivalent of MIT – at the age of 13 and earned an MA while serving in the Israel Defense Force’s celebrated 8200 Intelligence unit. He returned to Technion, where he earned his doctorate, afterward completing post-doctoral work at California Institute of Technology and the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics. He also has been an Einstein Fellow at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In other words, he knows tons more about science than Donald Trump or Al Gore.
As for politics “in American terms, I would describe myself as liberal on most domestic issues, somewhat hawkish on security,” he said. Nonetheless, the Trump administration’s position on global climate change, he said, is correct insofar as it rejects the orthodoxy of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC’s findings and conclusions are updated every six years; the latest report, released this week, noted that deforestation and agribusiness are contributing to CO2 emissions and aggravating climate change.
In 2003, Shaviv and research partner Prof. Jan Veizer published a paper on the subject of climate sensitivity, namely how much the earth’s average temperature would be expected to change if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is doubled. Comparing geological records and temperature, the team came up with a projected change of 1.0 to 1.5 degrees Celsius – much less than the 1.5 to 4.5 degree change the IPCC has used since it began issuing its reports. The reason for the much wider variation used by the IPCC, he said, was that they relied almost entirely on simulations and no one knew how to quantify the effect of clouds – which affects how much radiant energy reaches the earth – and other factors.
“Since then, literally billions have been spent on climate research,” he said. Yet “the conventional wisdom hasn’t changed. The proponents of man-made climate change still ignore the effect of the sun on the earth’s climate, which overturns our understanding of twentieth-century climate change.”
He explained: “Solar activity varies over time. A major variation is roughly eleven years or more, which clearly affects climate. This principle has been generally known – but in 2008 I was able to quantify it by using sea level data. When the sun is more active, there is a rise in sea level here on earth. Higher temperature makes water expand. When the sun is less active, temperature goes down and the sea level falls – the correlation is as clear as day.
“Based on the increase of solar activity during the twentieth century, it should account for between half to two-thirds of all climate change,” he said. “That, in turn, implies that climate sensitivity to CO2 should be about 1.0 degree when the amount of CO2 doubles.”
The link between solar activity and the heating and cooling of the earth is indirect, he explained. Cosmic rays entering the earth’s atmosphere from the explosive death of massive stars across the universe play a significant role in the formation of so-called cloud condensation nuclei needed for the formation of clouds. When the sun is more active, solar wind reduces the rate of cosmic rays entering the atmosphere. A more active solar wind leads to fewer cloud formation nuclei, producing clouds that are less white and less reflective, thus warming the earth.
“Today we can demonstrate and prove the sun’s effect on climate based on a wide range of evidence, from fossils that are hundreds of millions of years old to buoy readings to satellite altimetry data from the past few decades,” he said. “We also can reproduce and mimic atmospheric conditions in the laboratory to confirm the evidence.
“All of it shows the same thing, the bulk of climate change is caused by the sun via its impact on atmospheric charge,” he said. “Which means that most of the warming comes from nature, whereas a doubling of the amount of CO2 raises temperature by only 1.0 to 1.5 degrees. A freshman physics student can see this.”
Nevertheless, the world of climate science has “mostly ignored” his research findings. “Of course, I’m frustrated,” he said. “Our findings are very inconvenient for conventional wisdom” as summarized by the IPCC. “We know that there have been very large variations of climate in the past that have little to do with the burning of fossil fuels. A thousand years ago the earth was as warm as it is today. During the Little Ice Age three hundred years ago the River Thames froze more often. In the first and second IPCC reports these events were mentioned. In 2001 they disappeared. Suddenly no mention of natural warming, no Little Ice Age. The climate of the last millennium was presented as basically fixed until the twentieth century. This is a kind of Orwellian cherry-picking to fit a pre-determined narrative.”
Shaviv says that he has accepted no financial support for his research by the fossil fuel industry. Experiments in Denmark with Prof. Henrik Svensmark and others to demonstrate the effect of cosmic rays on cloud formation were supported by the Carlsberg Foundation. In the U.S. the conservative Heartland Institute and the European Institute for Climate and Energy have invited him to speak, covering travel expenses.
“The real problem is funding from funding agencies like the National Science Foundation because these proposals have to undergo review by people in a community that ostracizes us,” he said, because of his non-conventional viewpoint.
“Global warming is not a purely scientific issue any more,” he said. “It has repercussions for society. It has also taken on a moralistic, almost religious quality. If you believe what everyone believes, you are a good person. If you don’t, you are a bad person. Who wants to be a sinner?”
Any scientist who rejects the UN’s IPCC report, as he does, will have trouble finding work, receiving research grants or publishing, he said.
In Shaviv’s view, the worldwide crusade to limit and eventually ban the use of fossil fuels isn’t just misguided “it comes with real world social and economic consequences.” Switching to more costly energy sources, for example, will drive industry from more industrialized countries to poorer countries that can less afford wind turbines and solar panels.
“It may be a financial sacrifice the rich are willing to make,” he said. “Even in developed countries the pressure to forego fossil fuel puts poor people in danger of freezing during the winter for lack of affordable home heating. The economic growth of third world countries will be inhibited if they cannot borrow from the World Bank to develop cheap fossil-based power plants. These are serious human problems in the here and now, not in a theoretical future.”
For Shaviv, the rejection and closed-mindedness his minority view provoke may contain a silver lining. Just think of the acclaim that awaits if his research — and scientific reconsideration of the current orthodoxy — one day proves persuasive.