Utah author Bill Pekny wrote a book with 13 chapters describing climate change, full of charts, colorful graphics and “key takeaways” after each segment in which he impresses upon his readers why his research matters, and should offer comfort to those who believe the world is on the eve of destruction.
Pekny, from Midway, does not dispute that the climate is warming — he is among the 97% of scientists who say it is. But then he takes a sharp U-turn and says carbon dioxide is not the culprit. That puts him in dramatic contradiction, as an outlier, in the field of scientific research that exists.
Carbon dioxide, he insists, is not Frankenstein’s monster out to destroy the village of humanity.
“I think there is an improper fixation on CO2 being the bad guy as a pollutant and it is just the opposite,” Pekny said.
His book, “A Tale of Two Climates: One Real One Imaginary,” tackles what he says is dangerous groupthink, underpinned by science that he asserts is by no means conclusive and is the result of cherry-picking conclusions from the voluminous reams of research.
“I think there is way too much of that groupthink. I think there is in many cases where it goes to people who are trying to live and work and get grants and they are sometimes not too careful about how they do that,” he claims.
But Pekny is in the extreme minority.
Multiple studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals show that 97% or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s page on global climate change.
In addition, it provides a litany of leading scientific organizations that over the years have issued statements endorsing this position, including the American Meteorological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society, the latter of which expressly points to increasing concentration of greenhouse gases and particulate matter as the leading driver behind a warmer climate.
Globally, there are nearly 200 worldwide scientific organizations that hold the position that climate change has been caused by human action.
“I don’t want to silence him, but information like this causes real harm,” said Logan Mitchell, a research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah.
“I would urge people to find information from reputable places. ... You know they say a lie can travel around the world before truth has a chance to lace up its boots.”
So what’s up with Pekny, a scientist with an alternative view who just didn’t crawl out from underneath a rock or spend years sequestered from the scientific community?
He has degrees in physics from Georgia Tech and DePaul University, did graduate study in physical meteorology and numerical analysis at Florida State and the University of Utah, and was a visiting scholar at the Ginzton Laboratory of Applied Physics at Stanford. He spent 50 years in the U.S. Armed Forces and the aerospace industry, was part of the U.S. Navy Hurricane Hunters (he flew into hurricanes) and was involved in laser radar development.
So why write a book that puts him in a small minority of those who study climate change science and risk being branded a crazy detractor, heretic or worse?
“Climate and pollution are different atmospheric phenomena. Pollution is controlled by humans. Climate is not, and to conflate climate and pollution is wrong. There is no evidence of that,” he said.
Pekny said there are many factors that contribute to climate, but not all of them are getting out in the news.
“The big warmer of our planet is water vapor, and carbon dioxide is a drop in the bucket by comparison.”
And man’s contribution?
“My concluding opinion is that it would be an outrageous waste of money to have national or international policy that spends multiple triple trillions of dollars per decade in an attempt to reverse a global climate pattern that is natural, normal, stable and controlled by the sun, water, gravity and inertia,” Pekny writes in the summary of his book.
“Furthermore, mankind’s personal, vehicle, home and industrial carbon dioxide emissions are miniscule and neither concerning nor catastrophic. In fact, the opposite is true. One more time: carbon dioxide is a colorless, odorless, clean atmospheric gas that is increasing in a steady and beneficial manner and is crucial to all life on Earth.”
Pekny asserts the Earth is in a global warming stage sandwiched between two ice ages, and if anything the world is facing an eventual cooling, but when that happens is anyone’s guess depending on the Earth’s geological record.
“Nothing is ever sacrosanct,” Pekny said. “Nothing is ever settled about science. It is only one good experiment away from being disproven.”
Pekny is not alone in his departure from mainstream climate change science.
Another author, meteorologist Joe Bastardi, wrote a book called, “The Weaponization of Weather in the Phony Climate War.”
Then there is something called “the Petition Project,” that has been around for more than 20 years, claiming that thousands of scientists signed a petition saying there is no “conclusive evidence” that pollution is leading to a catastrophic disruption of the Earth’s climate. That petition remains a political flashpoint with dubious verification.
Mitchell said tackling the arguments of climate change skeptics feels like a game of whack-a-mole, since some of the most common concerns have been addressed by scientists for years.
He does agree with Pekny’s assertion that “science isn’t settled,” and there is always another experiment unfolding to open a new chapter.
But he said the kernels of truth in Pekny’s statements in the book are misleading.
“When we throw a football do we have to prove Einstein’s general theory of relativity to catch the ball? No, we understand that gravity works and we catch it,” Mitchell said. “Do we question the science behind touchscreens and Wi-Fi when we pick up our phone? No, we just call our friends.”
Mitchell said that science around the theory of relativity is continuing to evolve, but the advancement of science doesn’t lead him to question whether gravity exists.
“What many people fail to realize is that the scientific basis of climate science is as well established as our understanding of gravity. That is why virtually every major scientific organization agrees with the basics of climate science.”
These are what Mitchell said he explains when giving lectures on climate basics:
- It’s warming.
- It’s us.
- Experts agree.
- It’s serious.
- We can meet the challenge.
Speed of climate change is the issue
Mitchell does agree with Pekny on one point: The misleading information in public discourse and unfortunate politicalization of climate change does nothing to further understanding.
“No scientist would call it catastrophic climate change,” he said. “I think there is a difference between political rhetoric and what the science says.”
So if the Earth warms up by a 1 degree, Mitchell said, the world is not going to come to an end. There will be that incremental damage, which he said is already playing out in melting glaciers, drought and in other impacts that affect mankind.
If a motorist is in a car speeding 60 mph toward a stoplight, Mitchell questions why the driver would not slow that car down in advance of the stopping point and take some steps along the way to reduce the impact of a collision, i.e., reducing carbon emissions.
“The key point to understand and communicate is that the actual temperature that the Earth is at doesn’t matter. Humans and civilization can adapt to any given temperature. What’s a problem is the ‘speed’ of climate change. Civilization has trouble adapting to rapid climate change and that is why we care.”
That said, Mitchell said he welcomes dissenting research, but he points out it has to be rock-solid, bulletproof and not something easily disproven.
Pekny stands by his research and said he understands the pushback, but said from a scientific standpoint, he is glad the book is being discussed and starting a conversation.
He emphasized, too, that people would be better served to focus on the real pollution culprits such as ozone, nitrogen and sulphur dioxides, ammonium nitrate, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, smoke, dust and black carbon.
“This is where we need to focus our blood, sweat, tears and limited funds,” he writes.
For Mitchell’s part, he said if Pekny had a point to make, he should have presented it in a peer-reviewed research paper, not in a book pitched to media with data sets that take little effort to debunk. Pekny countered that he often doubts the efficacy of “peer reviews” and said those reviewers are often unpaid volunteers, busy with the events of the day, and “tend to go with the flow.”
Climate change has become a religion of sorts, with websites lumping skeptics into a hall of “shame,” and multiple resources advising how to convince those with a minority point of view.
Countries with the largest number of “unbelievers” are also tracked. Statista reported that according to Yougov — a global public opinion company — Indonesia and the United States are the countries with the highest shares of climate change deniers. In a survey carried out in July and August last year, 21% of Indonesians and 19% of Americans said that climate change was not real or that humans weren’t responsible.
Outreach done by Envision Utah seven years ago showed that 4 out every 5 Utah residents had some level of concern over “global warming,” with 24% saying they were “very” concerned, contrasted to 20% who said they were “not at all” concerned.
In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in October of 2019, findings point to concern over “climate change” as having some connection to where one lives.
“The degree to which Americans report experiencing effects of climate change in their local community varies by geographic region. Americans in Pacific states (which include California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska) are most likely to see at least some local impacts of climate change (72%). By comparison, 54% of those living in Mountain states (Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) say climate change is affecting their local area at least some.” the research pointed out.
Particularly in the West, droughts, water shortages or wildfires rise as a top concern or indicator of a changing climate.
Learn about climate change
For the most recent scientific assessment of the changing climate in the United States, Mitchell recommends the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 4th National Climate Assessment issued in 2018 under the Trump administration. In addition, he recommends Skeptical Science as a resource that addresses common climate change questions or misunderstandings.
Mitchell, a peer reviewer of dozens of research papers, was one of 37 technical advisers of the Utah Road Map put out by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, which is a guide for state policymakers to tackle air pollution and a changing climate.
The scientist said it behooves everyone to take a warming climate seriously, regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum.
Pekny and Mitchell do have one thing in common: a shared urge for the general public to learn more about the changing climate and the science that shapes it.
“That is really the message of the book,” Pekny said. “That based on my 50 years in the workforce, I have learned there are many, many factors that drive and contribute to the climate. Not all of them get out there in the news, and so the general public needs to educate itself. So my goal with this book is to share that message in an easy manner.”
Mitchell said that a changing climate is so nuanced, so complex, the public needs to take the time to learn and become as informed as possible. A robust discussion is fruitful, but it has to be based on scientific data that is solid, he added.
“Here is my honest opinion — 97% of climate scientists are working on this and have come to the same conclusion about the fundamental basics of climate change. That means there are a few out there that disagree. That 3% actually are really important to the scientific process, because they are poking and prodding,” Mitchell said.
“If they have good faith science and good arguments, they are going to improve our understanding of the climate system. They are absolutely important to the scientific process.”
He added he believes that Pekny’s book does not hit that 3% mark.
For Pekny’s part, he said he is distributing his book to a few political leaders in Utah to promote more dialogue on climate change — something he views as a good thing, even amid the criticism.
“There is a huge amount of “real science” out there that is not being brought into public awareness,” Pekny said. “As a first step, we need to properly define terms like ‘weather,’ ‘climate,’ ‘pollution’ and the ‘Greenhouse Effect,’ and stop using them interchangeably and incorrectly. We also need to look at recorded climate history to better understand what’s happening with climate today.”