© June 6, 2009
U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher was in a froth, and his audience loved it.
The California Republican was talking about global warming and could barely contain his disgust.
"Al Gore has been wrong all along!" Rohrabacher yelled into the microphone. "This is outrageous! All of this is wrong! The people who have stifled this debate have an agenda that is just frightening!"
Welcome to the third annual International Conference on Climate Change, a daylong session of speeches and scientific presentations that took place Tuesday just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Almost no media covered the event.
Organized by The Heartland Institute and other conservative think tanks and groups, the conference drew about 250 guests, most of them researchers and policy analysts, some from as far away as Japan and Australia.
There was plenty of wry laughter during the day, especially when former Vice President Gore and his award-winning movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," were brought up, which was often.
The conference hall also was filled with a tangible air of frustrated defeat, like the brainy kid in math class who thinks he knows all the answers, raises his hand time and again, but is never called upon.
"We are seldom heard in the policy debate," said Joseph L. Bast, president of The Heartland Institute. "If you open your newspaper, turn on your TV set, you're likely to see global warming alarmism, and nothing else."
Bast labeled as "popular delusion" the current conventional wisdom on the issue - that man-made emissions, notably carbon dioxide, from the burning of fossil fuels is dangerously heating up the planet, causing sea levels to rise and is increasing the ferocity of storms and drought.
As such, the conference represents a lingering - and still powerful - sentiment that global warming is not such a big deal after all.
Instead, attendees argued, the slow and slight increase in air, water and atmospheric temperatures during much of the 20th century is part of a natural cycle of the Earth's unpredictable, roller-coaster weather patterns.
Carbon dioxide, they debated, is not a pollutant that should be regulated, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Supreme Court now hold; it is an attribute that helps plant and sea life.
Bast acknowledged that the conference was hurriedly organized, and moved from New York City to Washington, to counteract proposals from President Barack Obama for a "cap-and-trade" program aimed at fighting global warming by drastically limiting carbon emissions.
Bast and others described the proposed programs as a complete waste of money, with potentially crippling consequences for the economy, and without any attainable goals.
"How do you control the weather?" asked Bob Carter, an Australian scholar from James Cook University. "For us to assume we can somehow control nature and regulate weather patterns, when we cannot even predict them correctly, is patently absurd."
Others saw darker motives in the climate debate.
These skeptics, including Rohrabacher, contended that global warming is a liberal-inspired hoax, intended to wrest control of world energy policy and wealth from Western countries so the United Nations can have its way.
To them, liberty, capitalism and the U.S. economy are at stake.
"I have to wonder what has happened to the sovereignty of the United States," said U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the keynote speaker at the conference and the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which debates climate policy.
Skeptics, or "realists," as they call themselves, focus much of their scorn on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Gore in 2007.
The IPCC consists of hundreds of scientists from across the globe who, for two decades, have tracked climate research and temperature trends, and attempted to interpret what they mean for policymakers.
Its most famous pronouncement, in 2007, was that a marked increase in greenhouse gases from mostly man-made sources is "very likely" causing climate change.
"Very likely," the IPCC wrote, means a 90 percent certainty that human activity, not natural variability, is the driving force.
The IPCC also noted that many geographical areas seem especially susceptible to climate change, including low-lying coastal areas, such as southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.
But scientist after scientist at the conference pointed out flaws and shortcomings in the calculations of the IPCC, especially its reliance on computer models to make forecasts.
One researcher, Roy Spencer, a professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, noted that the IPCC did not adequately calculate how clouds play a major role in ground temperatures.
When there are few clouds in the sky, temperatures typically are warmer, Spencer said, and when it is cloudy outside, conditions typically are cooler.
Is it possible then, Spencer asked, that decreasing clouds in recent decades caused the warmings recorded on Earth?
Spencer said he asked the IPCC about this and was surprised to learn that the organization had not researched this point and had assumed that cloud cover does not change over time but is fairly consistent.
The two revelations sparked more wry laughter from the audience.
"If a 1 percent change in cloudiness could trigger global warming, or global cooling, wouldn't you think that'd be a pretty important thing to nail down?" Spencer asked. "They have never gone there."
Skepticism over climate science is hardly new. Indeed, skepticism has always been a part of scientific discourse and has been around global warming since the 1970s, when the theory first gained credence.
William "Skip" Stiles, a Norfolk environmentalist, was working as a congressional aide back then, and he remembers the committee hearings, the charges and countercharges of bias and flawed science.
"I will agree that these models are only as good as the data that goes into them," Stiles said. "But when you think of all the shots these folks have had at this, and all the years of research by the IPCC - we're talking 25 years! - you have to think we've reached some fairly solid conclusions that global warming is real and we, as humans, are playing a major role in it."
Carl Hershner, a researcher and professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science who has tracked sea level rise in Virginia for years, expressed similar thoughts.
"One thing about science is that you never get rid of all the naysayers," Hershner said. He described the IPCC as "an extremely conservative group" that "constantly looks at achieving consensus, and updates its findings regularly."
In his keynote address Tuesday, Sen. Inhofe predicted that cap-and-trade will pass the House of Representatives - "Nancy Pelosi has the votes," he said - but will stall in the Senate, where previous climate-change programs have similarly died.
Last year, without any action coming from Washington, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine appointed a Climate Change Commission to suggest ways Virginia can reduce carbon emissions and lessen its role in accelerating warming.
The theory that global warming is a natural phenomenon, and not man-made, was not part of commission deliberations.
"The fact that global climate change is happening and is largely human-caused is now widely accepted," reads the commission's final report, published in December.
At the bottom of the page, however, is a footnote: "While we have concluded that the overwhelming evidence supports these points, we have heard testimony providing contrary information during public comment periods at our meetings."
State Sen. Frank Wagner, a Republican from Virginia Beach, was a member of the climate commission. He also has attended one of the skeptics' conferences in New York City.
"I've tried to keep an open mind," Wagner said. "There are so many theories out there, and so much detail, you're kind of overwhelmed.
"I mean, even the scientists themselves are debating with each other at these meetings. You're left wondering what the truth really is."