Roger Revelle’s Impact on the Climate Change Debate

What was Roger Revelle’s impact on the climate change debate? How did doubt-mongering threaten to discredit him?

In their book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway take on individuals or groups who seek to discredit science that they perceive to be a threat to their agenda. One of the targets of a doubt-mongering campaign was Al Gore’s mentor—Roger Revelle.

Read more to learn about Roger Revelle and the merchants of doubt.

Roger Revelle Enters the Climate Change Debate

In 1965, Roger Revelle summarized the possible impacts of the warming caused by CO2. There were still a lot of unknowns, so he focused on the sea-level rise because it seemed the most certain. He estimated that by 2000, there could be notable changes in climate because there would be 25% more atmospheric CO2. As the planet warmed, sea ice would increase in size due to thermal expansion (volume increases when material warms up), and this would push water farther inland.

Lyndon Johnson read the report but had bigger problems (such as the Vietnam War) and didn’t do anything about it. The next president, Nixon, did consider atmospheric changes, but he was focused on the greenhouse gas effects of water (from supersonic transports (SSTs)), not CO2.

Discrediting Roger Revelle

Roger Revelle was an important voice in the climate change discussion. He was also Al Gore’s mentor, so if the merchants of doubt (MODs) could make it look like Revelle had changed his opinion on global warming, it would not only sow doubt, it would hurt Gore’s 1992 presidential campaign, which focused on the environment.

Fred Singer attended one of Revelle’s talks and approached him about writing an article together that would be called “What To Do about Greenhouse Warming: Look Before You Leap.” Revelle agreed but shortly after, he had a heart attack. An operation saved him, but there were further complications and his health deteriorated. He and Singer continued working on the article (though Revelle appeared to have lost enthusiasm), and Revelle may not have been able to look closely or check changes due to his health.

While still working with Revelle, Singer wrote his own article with almost the same title (“What To Do about Greenhouse Warming”). This article reused the Marshall Institute’s work and focused on uncertainty.

In February 1991, Singer and Revelle met to discuss their paper. They argued about how sensitive the climate was to CO2. The current draft of the paper claimed that the warming would be “well below the normal year to year variation” and less than 1 degree Celsius. Revelle corrected the numbers in the margin. Singer ultimately cut the numbers, so the next draft read that a “modest average warming” and still contained the phrase about the warming being below the normal variation. The historical record doesn’t show whether Revelle ultimately agreed to this wording, but everyone who knew him expected he hadn’t. Revelle was well aware of natural variability because he was a geologist (natural variability is determined from paleoclimate data).

The article appeared in Cosmos (a non-scientific journal with low circulation) and because Revelle was listed as the second author, it looked like he had agreed that the warming wasn’t significant or outside of normal. One of Revelle’s colleagues stated that Revelle was embarrassed by the paper (Revelle died shortly after it came out). 

While few scientists read Cosmos, the article made its way into public consciousness. In 1992, Al Gore’s critic Gregg Easterbrook attacked him for failing to mention that Revelle had ultimately concluded that there was too much uncertainty to act. The quote Easterbrook used to support this was from Singer’s solo 1990 paper with a similar title to the co-authored one. Other critics repeated the attacks.

Setting the Record Straight

Several people tried to set the record straight about Roger Revelle.

1. Revelle’s daughter published an op-ed. 

2. Two of Revelle’s colleagues wrote to Cosmos. They wrote that Singer had written the paper, not Revelle, and that Singer had probably only included his name as a thank-you for advising and reviewing. Cosmos wouldn’t publish their letter, so they sent it to Oceanography (a scientific journal mainly read by scientists).

3. Justin Lancaster, a colleague and close friend of Revelle:

  • Wrote to the journal that had published Easterbrook’s attack. The journal refused to publish Lancaster’s letter. 
  • Tried to get Singer to remove Revelle’s name from the paper when it was republished. Ultimately, the republication had a footnote to another of Revelle’s papers that presented his thoughts on climate change. 
  • Complained about the Cosmos article at Revelle’s memorial symposium and continued to go public about Singer pressuring Revelle. Singer filed a libel lawsuit. Lancaster tried to fight it, but he didn’t have the money and had to settle.

Revelle probably didn’t actually change his mind about global warming. In November 1990, he wrote an unpublished introduction to a meeting (Oreskes and Conway found it in his papers), which states that he thought that climate was serious and we should act.

Roger Revelle’s Impact on the Climate Change Debate

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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