The world’s most populous nation is officially openly debating whether fears of anthropogenic global warming are justified by science. In May 2013, the Chinese Academy of Sciences translated and published the reports of NIPCC (Non-governmental International Panel on Climate Change). While providing a platform for discussion of climate issues, the CAS does not necessarily agree with the NIPCC’s conclusions—which are contrary to those of the UN-IPCC (Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change). Rather, the CAS demonstrates a commendable willingness to encourage open discussion of important scientific questions. It may well be a first; no such discussion has ever been permitted by the UK’s Royal Society or by the US National Academy of Sciences.

However, there seems to be a division of opinion within the Chinese Academy, as is evident from the fact that their (Beijing) June 15 Workshop featuring the NIPCC conclusions is to be followed by a September symposium that clearly supports the IPCC point of view. I hope that internal debate of the science will allow the CAS to reach a considered opinion on whether Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) is a danger to human welfare, as has been claimed by alarmists. [Some pertinent questions are listed at the end of this article.]

But there is more involved here than just debate about climate science. Many personal factors enter in, as they do for scientists everywhere. Once part of the IPCC process, a scientist will typically attend many workshops and symposia during the year, usually at exotic locations (Bali, Cancun, Marrakesh), staying in first class resort hotels. There’s also the camaraderie of being part of an international scientific effort, making interesting contacts and forming scientific and personal friendships. And then there is a certain prestige attached to international efforts, often reflected in professional advancement, increases in salary, prizes and honors—not to mention lucrative research grants from compliant government agencies and generous private donors (that often include ‘Big Oil’!).

Finally, there’s the feeling that the scientific efforts may help to determine important national policies that “save the climate” and advance human welfare. At least that seems to be the opinion which is current in the United States and Europe. But it would be rash to assume that this idealistic hope is really true. One cannot imagine that important decisions about the future of economic growth and national development in China would be held hostage to purely scientific opinions. If anything, national policies tend to be fairly conservative and skeptical about the supposed danger of AGW. In China, such decisions are probably made by the National Development and Reform Commission, which has also handled international negotiations related to the Kyoto Protocol (to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases). China has opposed Kyoto—and the US, unlike other OECD nations, has never ratified the Protocol.

In support of this view, one can consider the agreement between President Obama and the Chinese president, at their recent meeting in Hawaii, to reduce the emission of HFCs (hydro-fluorocarbons), used in refrigeration as a replacement for CFCs. Their communiqué said nothing about Carbon Dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas, released in creating energy from fossil fuels, vital for economic growth.

One can of course cite as a counter-example the recently announced climate policy of President Obama, which seems to be driven by fear of AGW—or, more likely, by fear of losing the political support of climate alarmists. Though a small segment of the US population, the alarmists do include a large fraction of the media and other influential opinion-makers. Mr. Obama has promised what amounts to a “war on coal,” the most plentiful and cheapest fuel for generating electricity. But there’s every indication that the White House policy is politically motivated and not driven by science. A good indicator of the real motive is the possibility that Obama will veto the Keystone-XL pipeline, which is to bring Canadian tar-sand oil to Texas refineries. As everyone realizes, such a veto would simply be a sop to environmental activists, since it will hardly affect the decision of the Canadian governments to recover the oil from the tar sands.

On the other hand, China has just said they will experiment with Cap-&-Trade policies. But I suspect the aim here is not simply to reduce the emission of CO2 but to use it as a driver to improve the efficiency of old coal-fired power plants, which is as low as 11%.

For comparison, most US power plants have efficiencies of at least 35%—i.e., converting 35% of the heat generated in the combustion of coal into useful electricity. The “super-critical” coal plants now coming into use are capable of efficiencies of 55%. This means that China can build coal-fired electric generating plants producing five times as much power (with the same amount of fuel) as the old types now in use—certainly a worthwhile goal. But it will do little if anything for the global climate and should not be considered as climate policy.

Some questions for IPCC:

As mentioned earlier, the Chinese Academy of Sciences is planning a September symposium in Beijing to rally the pro-IPCC arguments and try to convince their government that humans make an important contribution to global warming. In anticipation of this symposium, one would like to ask the organizers the following kinds of questions:

  1. Can you explain why there has been no significant warming observed in the last 15 years—in spite of a rapid increase in the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide?

  2. Can one explain why the tropical atmosphere has shown no warming between 1979 and 2000 (ignoring the 1-yr long temperature spike of 1998, caused by a Super-El-Nino), and then again between 2002 and 2012-while models predict that the atmosphere should warm faster than the surface?

  3. Can one explain why the Antarctic has been cooling, with Antarctic sea Ice growing steadily-while models predict a global warming with most of the effects at high latitudes?

  4. Why is there is a striking difference in observed temperature trends between Northern and Southern hemispheres, not exhibited by climate models?

  5. There is also a striking disparity between observed and modeled latitude dependence of clouds and of precipitation. Why is that?

  6. Can one explain what caused the observed strong warming between 1910 and 1940? It is unlikely to be anthropogenic, since the level of greenhouse gases was quite low before World War-II.

  7. Can current climate models account for the observed Multi-decadal Oscillations of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans?

  8. Finally, can one explain the existence of the so called Little Ice Age, between about 1400 and 1800 AD, and the apparent coincidence of extreme cold with low sunspot numbers?

It is clear that the climate models cannot explain what is actually being observed. Yet it is a principle of science that observations must always take precedence. Models have not been validated by actual observations and therefore should not be used to make predictions about the future. The IPCC’s most recent report claims that models and observations do agree; but these claims are clearly questionable.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has taken an important step in trying to answer questions essential for a rational climate policy. The world will watch their pioneering efforts with great interest.

A quick word about carbon dioxide: It is an odorless, non-toxic natural constituent of the Earth’s atmosphere. As the basic food for all plants, it is absolutely essential for maintaining life on our planet. CO2 should not be called a “pollutant.” In the geological past, its level has been ten times or more higher than its present value; in fact, our major food crops developed when CO2 levels were about five times higher. China is now the world’s largest emitter of CO2 and thereby making an important contribution to increasing agricultural yields at a time when much of the global population is still hungry. The world should be grateful to China.