We Love Electricity: Caleb Rossiter's "Climate Change" Blog

June 8, 2015: Certain Trade War over Uncertain Models -- a response to Professor William Nordhaus, sent to the New York Review of Books.

                                                                                                June 5, 2015
Letter to the Editor, New York Review of Books:

William Nordhaus must really be convinced that a catastrophe will unfold if, as the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts, industrial emissions of carbon dioxide raise the concentration in the atmosphere of this generally beneficial warming gas from four hundredths of one percent to eight hundredths of one percent over the next 100 years   (A New Solution: The Climate Club, June 4, 2015).

After all, Professor Nordhaus is willing to start a global trade war by forming a “Climate Club” of governments who agree to place heavy tariffs on the products of governments who refuse to join them in sharply restricting their emissions.  (One hopes that the Club would exempt Africa from this trade war, since life expectancy there hovers in the mid-50’s, and at present only carbon-based energy can deliver electricity to the 75 percent of homes that currently lack it.)

What is the basis for Professor Nordhaus’ conviction?  Like the UN, President Obama, and members of the Democratic Party as a rule, it’s the models: “Scientists are increasingly confident that the basic results of climate modeling are accurate.  Climate models calculate that past emissions have contributed to warming of almost one degree centigrade over the last century, with rapid continued warming projected over the present century and beyond.”  Professor Nordhaus claims that there have been “disruptions” of the climate to date due to this tiny warming, and that there are “potential dangers” to come.  

As someone who has helped students in math modeling and statistics classes sort through these sorts of hypotheses over the past decade, I cannot share Professor Nordhaus’ certainty on either the causes or the effects of the warming to date and the predicted warming to come.  The models do not, in fact, attribute the recorded 1.2 degree Fahrenheit (or .7 degree Celsius) rise in temperature since around 1880 entirely to human-based emissions of warming gasses.  (And remember, this is a very rough estimate of the rise, since methods of producing a “global mean temperature” have varied widely in global coverage and accuracy over this period.)

Fully half of the rise came before human-based emissions were large enough to have much effect.  The computer models attributes that warming, from 1880 to 1940, to the very difficult-to-measure variables of solar power and decadal ocean oscillations that they choose to exclude as causes in more recent years.  The IPCC’s finding is only that it is “extremely likely” that “most” of the half a degree rise from 1960 to 2000 (when a 15-year “pause” ensued) was due to human-based sources.

Even that claim is highly suspect.  The “time-step” computer models of the climate that predict conditions in the near future, and then use those predictions to estimate conditions in the next near-future, have not, in fact, gotten fundamentally more convincing since the 1950’s.  There was a reason that Cold War professor John von Neumann gave up trying to use climate models to prepare a U.S. “climate war” that would cause drought and starvation in the Soviet Union.  Models of our complex and chaotic climate system simply don’t make useful predictions after a few days’ time. 

The climate models have gotten more complex, for sure, with thousands of estimated parameters for warming potential, vorticity, circulation patterns, absorption of heat, pressure, energy, and momentum by various layers or atmosphere, land, ocean, and sea-ice.  But they are still like models of the stock market, based not just on theoretical causations, but on correlations in conditions that will never be repeated.  This makes prediction, well, unpredictable.  A climate model runs on many imperfect assumptions, including crucially the precise warming potential of carbon dioxide.  It must be constantly “tuned” to control its predictions, since slight changes in any of the thousands of assumptions and parameters can cause it to explode upwards or nose-dive to zero in future time periods.

The modelers themselves call their future estimates “scenarios” and not “predictions.”  They agree that their models’ workings are partially based on ideal theory and partially based on “opaque” equations, since they must play with the levels of parameters representing the unknown effect of the interaction of numerous variables until they get a nice “back-fit” with previous temperature records.  What the models are not based on is a sound knowledge of what in the world causes our global temperature to move the way it does.

Every 100,000 years the earth experiences a swing of 20 degrees Fahrenheit down and up.  Atmospheric physicists agree that this swing is very likely caused, at some remove, by one of the “Milankovitch cycles,” because the earth’s orbit oscillates between a nearly-perfect circle to a five percent oval and back during this period.  As Oxford physicist Fred Taylor has written, however, the amount of solar power reaching the earth is not significantly affected by this change in orbit, and nobody has identified either the initial mechanism or the feedback mechanisms by which the temperature responds.  Given the difficulty of identifying the source of a 20-degree oscillation, a little humility is in order about our knowledge of the cause of a fairly typical change of one degree in one hundred years.

Caleb Stewart Rossiter

Adjunct professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and
School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC
202-375-8212

March 25, 2015: Living with Climate Orthodoxy on Campus: One Professor's Take, published as Appendix I, pp. 230-235 in National Association of Scholars, Sustainability: Higher Education's New Fundamentalism, published March 25, 2015.

March 9, 2015: Are Climate Skeptics Like Doubters of Evolution?

A letter to my friend the science journalist about “doubters” of a “scientific consensus” on climate catastrophe
           

A friend of mine is a journalist who writes about scientific issues for major national publications.  He recently wrote a piece trying to explain why some people doubt an established consensus in the physical sciences.  One consensus he cites is that emissions of warming gasses pose a “serious threat.”  Being conflated with critics of evolution and vaccines got under my skin, so I responded with the following email.


From: Caleb Rossiter
To:
Subject: Hi from Caleb, the luke-warmist


Dear _____: I just read your piece in ______ on doubters of a scientific consensus.  You include with modern doubters of Darwin, Galileo, fluoride, and vaccines those of us who study the science, math models, and statistics of “climate change” and find little evidence of human-caused climate catastrophe.  I think that our inclusion on that list is inappropriate at present. 

Theories about evolution and vaccines, or claims about the damage done to human health by GMOs or by chemicals, can all be tested by controlling for intervening variables that also affect rates of damage.  These hypotheses can then be confirmed or rejected to a degree of certainty.  For example, Rachel Carson on DDT causing cancer, Mother Jones magazine on industrial chemicals reducing sperm counts, and Erin Brockovich on chromium-6 causing a litany of ailments were all proved wrong with proper statistical controls. 

However, in earth’s poorly understood and complex, interactive climate system, many intervening variables are impossible to control for accurately.  As a result, predictions about climate changes are extremely hard to test.  Climate claims at present are fundamentally speculative, rather than, as in the other examples of science cited in your article, definitive.   

 I am just a small fry among the big fish like Lindzen, Happer, Dyson, Soon, Pielke pėre et fils, Curry, and Spencer who think this.  But I have taught math models and statistics for a decade at American University, and I am proud of the work my students have done to assess the climate “consensus” you cite.

Yes, the United Nations summary you cite concludes that most of the half degree F warming from 1980 to 2000 (it has held flat for the 15 years since then) was the result of human emissions.  But the justification for this conclusion comes almost entirely from the fact that a few modelers, using hundreds of parameters for unknown and currently unknowable interactions, can get a decent back-fit on previous global mean temperatures when they assume a certain sensitivity of temperature to CO2 and methane levels.  

That is hardly the “scientific consensus” you claim.  It’s a mathematical effect, which can also be produced with baseball batting averages as the correlated variable, given enough tuning of the other parameters. And the modelers have had to cut their sensitivity almost in half recently to account for the recent 15-year hiatus.

The modelers themselves call their future figures “scenarios” and not “predictions.”  They also acknowledge that they must resort to solar and other natural variations to model an even greater temperature rise from 1890 to 1940, since industrial CO2 in that era would have had little effect.  Their scenarios have huge error bands, in part because the laboratory effect of CO2 on temperature is a square root rather than a linear function, meaning that the impact of additional CO2 on temperature levels off, rather than keeps increasing.  This is because the CO2 molecules, which happen to oscillate at the same frequencies as infrared leaving the atmosphere, get “filled” with the resulting heat-trapping interactions, and absorb less and less of the escaping infrared over time.

More importantly, the “climate change” that drives policy choices is not the modest temperature rise in the past 130 years, whatever its cause, but rather its effects.  There is absolutely not a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is "a serious threat.” The UN report provides little to show that droughts, hurricanes, and sea height have increased due to, or even with the warming.  I know because for many years my students have taken the individual, usually peer-reviewed studies cited in the UN’s footnotes and analyzed them for their final projects, so I’ve had to read all the studies.

All the best, Caleb, a luke-warmist catastrophe-denier and hopeful recipient of those energy company research funds you say are sloshing around out there for climate skeptics…tell ‘em I’m waiting!


p.s. I have written much on this topic.  One piece in the WSJ about the need for carbon-based electricity for Africa got me fired from my anti-imperialist think-tank last year. In this polarized debate, newspapers that adopt the “consensus” had, of course, turned it down.  It’s all on my blog, We Love Electricity, on calebrossiter.com.


December 20, 2014: Some op-eds and articles opposing divestment from fossil fuel companies.

A year after being released from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela flew to Houston as a favor to a supporter of his African National Congress. Dominique de Menil had asked him to speak at the Rothko Chapel, the human rights center she had founded, to honor the Jesuit professors assassinated by U.S.-trained soldiers in El Salvador.

As a consultant to the Rothko Chapel, I took advantage of this chance to talk with Mandela. I told him that I had worked on the 1986 law barring new investment in South Africa. "Ah, those wonderful college students and their divestment movement," replied Mandela, his voice rising and his eyes lighting up. "The way they built those shanty towns on campuses to shame their elders! Without them, I would still be on Robben Island."

Today, another divestment movement is underway on American campuses. This one calls on universities to sell their stock in energy companies whose products emit heat-trapping gases. Energy divesters claim a legacy from the anti-apartheid movement, saying they are again protecting Africans from the negative effects of selfish U.S. interests. Desmond Tutu, the archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, has called on schools to join "an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet."

The divesters claim that energy emissions are the cause of the one degree warming of the planet since the mid-1800s, and that this warming has led to rising seas that flood Africa's coastal cities and to crop-killing droughts and more malaria. As a statistician who has analyzed such claims with students for a decade, I can report that there is little evidence to support them. But even if we accept them, the moral choice would still be to support African efforts to use carbon-based energy, not to divest from the companies working there....

To read the rest of this article in the Houston Chronicle, click here. For a more detailed discussion of the issue published by the National Association of Scholars, click here. Related pieces in the American University Eagle and the Washington Examiner can be found here and here.

I had the pleasure of presenting talks on this topic at the Energy and Climate Policy Summit of the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Houston on September 26, 2014, and at the Table Talk series at American University in Washington, DC, on October 8, 2014. At both I showed slides of Malawians living in huts where they cook with wood and suffer from lung disease, and of South Africans living in shacks where they cook with electric stoves powered by coal-fired plants.

In Houston I was overly-lionized as a courageous champion of Africans; in Washington students in Fossil-Free AU suggested that as a climate change skeptic I should be fired as an embarrassment to the university. I greatly enjoyed both opportunities to exchange analyses with those with whom I often find myself in disagreement. By the way, skepticism is what we academics do, ever since Plato wandered the grove of Academus with us in 400 BC, demanding that we either prove our beliefs with hypothesis, evidence, and logic, or renounce them.

May 5, 2014: OK, I did one more piece on "Climate Change" -- now I'll really stop! My Wall Street Journal op-ed, Sacrificing Africa for Climate Change: Western policies seem more interested in carbon dioxide levels than life expectancy, with reactions to it, such as my termination at the Institute for Policy Studies for expressing "divergent" views on climate catastrophe," is here. There has been much commentary on the firing, as here.

May 13, 2013: My Last Piece on "Climate Change": The Debate is finally over on "Global Warming -- Because Nobody will Debate."

I am deserting from the Climate War.  I will never write another climate article or give another climate talk, and I’ll bite my tongue and say oooooooooooom when I hear or see the sort of exaggerations and certainties about the dangers of heat-trapping gasses that tend to make my blood boil at their absurdity.  For a decade I’ve been a busy soldier for the scientific method, and hence a “skeptic” to climate alarmism.  I’ve said all I think and know about this repetitive, unresolveable topic.  I’ll save hundreds of hours a year for other pursuits!

This is not like my pledge to my wife after a marathon that “I’ll never do another one.”  This is real.  There is simply too little room for true debate, because the policy space is dominated by people who approach this issue not like scholars weighing evidence, but like lawyers inflaming a jury with suspect data and illogical and emotional arguments.   

The believers in human–induced catastrophic climate change, strongly represented among the liberal and radical left of American and international politics, have won the mainstream media and government battle for the conventional wisdom, but lost the war for policy change.  None of the governmental and few of the institutional and individual actors who claim to fear climate change will take real steps to reduce their use of energy, choosing instead to put on phony shows of “green-ness” and carbon-trading shell games.  So it’s over, on both fronts. 

Read the whole piece.

March 18, 2013: Unpublished (surprise) letter to the New York Times on the direction of causality between temperature and carbon dioxide.

The Times’ campaign to prop up the faltering hypothesis that industrial gasses have led to catastrophic climate change reached a nadir with a news article (February 28: Study of Ice Age Bolsters Carbon and Warming Link) implying that an increase in global carbon dioxide levels 20,000 years ago caused the end of the ice age, beginning the 20 degree rise in global temperature since then.  The causality, of course, is in the other direction: every 100,000 years for many millions of years the earth has gone through a 20-degree temperature cycle that is perfectly correlated with the change in earth’s orbit around the sun from circular to five percent elliptical.  In the middle of these cycles it is well-known that changes in temperature and carbon dioxide reinforce each other, but at the extremes, it is the reversal in temperature that drags carbon dioxide along with it.   More.

March 1, 2013: Unpublished (surprise) letter to the Nation magazine on why"350" is an impossible and undesirable goal.

The Nation’s call for a “national pollution cap of no more than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere” (20 Progressive Executive Actions, February 11) is impossible to realize.  Carbon dioxide circulates globally, so its level is not set by any nation.  The level is already 395 parts per million and rising by about two units every year.  The time-scale for these molecules falling to sea or land ranges from decades to thousands of years.  Even if the United States stops producing industrial carbon dioxide the carbon level will continue to rise with economic growth in other countries.

If the call for a cap refers instead to promoting a set of policies that encourage all countries to agree to the century or so of carbon-free life it would take to return to 350, it has a significant downside.  Cheap electricity is essential to continuing the dramatic increase in life expectancy in the developing world in the past 50 years: according to the World Bank, 20 years in Asia, 15 years in Latin America, and seven in Africa before the 1980’s, when a combination of civil war, structural adjustment, and HIV/AIDS drove it back down.  Cheap coal is what is available right now, not expensive renewables.  It seems immoral to deny developing nations the right the developed world had to development through cheap power, particularly as the technology now exists to scrub emissions from coal, reducing sulfur dioxide and other gasses that really are pollutants, because they damage human health.

I applaud the moral motivation that drives “350,” and a fear of climate catastrophe justifies such a position.  As someone who has taught climate statistics, though, I must dispute advocates’ certainty in their fear.  The models that try to divide the one degree rise in global temperature since 1850 between human and natural causes are weak, as are claims that the increase has led to catastrophic weather.  The future “scenarios” generated by the climate modelers, in which CO2-driven warming escalates in the next century to dramatic proportions, are even weaker.  The positive feedbacks to initial warming that are included in climate models are mostly guesswork.  In the lab, at least, the response of the heat-absorbing frequencies of carbon dioxide molecules is a square-root function, meaning that additional CO2 has less and less effect on heating. 

The world will achieve the goal of 350 surely but slowly, whatever we do with fossil fuels, because temperature will drop 20 degrees over the next 80,000 years, as part of the recurrent 100,000 year temperature cycles of the past few million years.  These cycles, which drive CO2 levels down and up with them, mysteriously yet perfectly follow the “Milankovitch” oscillation of the earth’s orbit around the sun from perfect circle (recently) to 5 percent ellipse (in about 50,000 years).  Patience.

Caleb S. Rossiter

Adjunct professor, School of International Service and Department of Mathematics and Statistics, American University, Washington, DC

February 13, 2013: Fracking: Economic dream, easily-regulated operation.

When I ran for Congress in 1998 I became a fan of New York State Assemblyman Bill Parment, a thoughtful and responsible analyst who became so expert before taking on any legislation that he drove his colleagues crazy -- imagine anyone actually understanding the Dairy Compact! I recently asked Bill to brief me on the controversial topic of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation. Here is the result, in words and a song!

Warning: Perhaps like President Obama in the 2013 State of the Union address you believe that the one degree rise in global temperature over the past 150 years will result in a climate catastrophe; that Tropical Storm Sandy, wildfires, and floods show that the catastrophe is already upon us; and that human beings' industrial emissions are the cause of the one degree rise. In that case you will find this entry hopelessly irrelevant, since there can be no discussion of balancing the well-being of some humans due to economic activity with the demise of all humans due to climate catastrophe.

Of course, if Obama really believed all that, he would never have bragged in the same speech about increasing oil and gas production. But please, my friends, be of good cheer, and don't worry about your inability to get the worlds' governments to match their "climate change" rhetoric with their actions. We're gonna make it: There is absolutely no statistically-significant evidence that extreme weather is more frequent today due to the one degree rise in temperature, and indeed no convincing modeling that separates natural variation from human activities as the causes of the one degree rise! See my "climate" chapter for a detailed discussion of that.

November 20, 2012: Good Germans, Munich, Brownshirts, Deniers, Churchill: Enough with the World War II Analogies!


Here is what my friend and anti-imperial compatriot John Tirman, executive director of the M.I.T. Center for International Studies, “tweets” about me and others who are not convinced that industrial emissions are the primary cause of the one degree rise in global average temperature since 1860 – or that this historically minuscule rise, whatever its reasons, is a primary cause of random storms and droughts: “One day, climate change deniers will be viewed like Holocaust deniers are now. #sandy #climatechange”  Ouch.

How am I, a statistician who teaches about the uncertainty of exploratory computer climate models in separating human-induced warming from natural fluctuations of various cycles and extreme randomness (an uncertainty that is openly acknowledged by the modelers themselves, who call their models “scenarios” and not “predictions”), analogous to someone who denies that the Nazis planned and carried out the murder of six million Jewish civilians?

Can’t I just be called an “industrial-emissions-warming-catastrophe” skeptic, honoring Diogenes, Socrates, and the core tradition of scientific thought, the refusal to accept claims “on authority” without testing them with reality?  Skepticism has brought us a better understanding of our solar system (thanks, Copernicus and Gallileo) and our universes big and little (thanks, Einstein and Heisenberg), the end of the unjust and brutal social systems of monarchy, feudalism, slavery, imperialism, and colonialism, as well as the modern medicines and treatments of water, crops, and materials that have extended our lives some 50 years on average from the 1600’s.  Skeptic, please. 

John’s respect for the climate models is beyond my ability to alter. (Lord knows I have tried: for a version of the “climate change” chapter in my anti-imperial history “The Turkey and the Eagle,” see here.)  But being called a “denier” got me to thinking: why do so many of us reach to the horrors of World War II to make our ad hominem arguments?

In high school in the 1960’s I called Americans who were not out in the streets marching against segregation and the Vietnam War “Good Germans,” since my parents had taught us that the real villains in World War II were the apolitical Germans, not Nazis at all, who just went about their business as Hitler rose to power.  When President Lyndon Johnson and his intellectual allies cited “Munich” as the reason they had to stand up to Ho Chi Minh’s national revolution in Vietnam, I was happy to take the bait and argue that it was not the Munich agreement about governing the Germanic western part of Czechoslovakia that was the problem, but the failure of France and Britain to intervene when Hitler violated its terms and stormed the entire country.  In fact, I said, it was the United States that was playing the role of Hitler, violating the international agreement in question (the 1954 peace treaty between France and North Vietnam) by blocking what President Eisenhower acknowledged would be the fair election of Ho Chi Minh as president of the entire country.

The Nixon administration called us Nazi storm troopers (“Brown Shirts”) when we marched in the streets, and we called them Hitlers for pushing Americans to “think with the blood” by sanctifying our troops  – the very troops they kept out there dying in a war they knew was lost, but needed a “decent interval” before leaving, to preserve American global prestige.  

When Vietnam anti-war protestors pretended to be pro-war students, and read quotes about the need for law and order to cheers at meetings of conservative alumni, and then revealed that the quote was from Hitler or his henchmen, I thought that was a great debating tactic.  Of course, when pro-war professors played at being anti-war and read quotes about the need to challenge law and order in a noble cause to cheers at meetings of anti-war students, I thought that was below the belt.  Nazi writings turn out to be like the Bible – a little bit of something for everyone.  (Oops – see how easy it is to use an offensive World War II analogy?)

In his sophomoric (my apologies to my sophomores) climate lecture that is featured in the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” (itself as illogical as the same director’s attack on public school teachers, “Waiting for Superman”), Al Gore casts himself as Winston Churchill in the 1930’s, presciently calling for action in the coming crisis but being ignored.  Leaving aside any notion of praise for Churchill, a brutal imperialist dripping with Teddy Roosevelt’s contempt for the genetic inferiority of the colored races he enslaved, maybe, just maybe, Churchill was more successful in pushing Britain to prepare for war (witness the creation of a bombing command in the late 1930’s that was used to pummel German cities for the 5 years before the D-Day invasion) because the case that Hitler was a threat was clearer than the case that industrial emissions are.

The point is, World War II analogies, like the apartheid analogies opponents of Israel’s occupation policies use when the Nazi analogies grow stale, are used to score points, not to start a discussion and analysis, because they are guaranteed to enrage and inflame.  If we want to shout someone down, we'll use them; if we want to talk, we’ll talk about the current facts and claims.  And we’ll evaluate the claims like skeptics, asking for proof and logic, not bluster and analogies.

Now, finally, to the substance of the matter.  John sounds as if he, like a majority of Democrats but not Republicans and Independents, believes that a warmer season can be attributed more to, industrial emissions than to natural variation.  (See here)  In this, he is supported by the hysterical, hyper-political, Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Panel on Climate Change (definitely the silliest Nobel Peace Prize since Henry Kissinger’s).

Based on surprisingly (and perhaps inherently) immature climate models, the IPCC claims with 95 percent certainty that “most” of the increase in temperature in the last 30 years of the 20th century was due to human activities.  That claim ignores the similar, almost certainly natural increase in the first 30 years of the 20th century, when industrial emissions were so comparably low that no modeler attributes the increase to them.  And, the “95 percent certainty” implies that a random statistical test has been applied by the IPCC, which it has not – this is just its confidence for an unremarkable claim (that perhaps half of a small rise is not natural fluctuation) put to numbers.

Let’s start with the statistical fact that slightly higher global average temperatures, whatever their cause, move the distribution of temperatures up as well, leading to a slightly increased incidence of higher local heat spots.  From this, those who fear climate catastrophe jump to an unshakeable belief that these increased heat spots lead to stronger and more frequent hurricanes….hence tropical storm Sandy.  So, logically, John must conclude that the storm surge damage from Sandy was caused by our failure to cut industrial emissions, which is due to the effectiveness of the venal lies being told by the deniers, like me.

Now, there are lots of little reasons why all this is unlikely.  For example, the storm ran into two completely coincidental low-pressure troughs, creating the surge conditions.  (See this explanation by Jess Masters)  And I wish I was part of a well-compensated conspiracy by fossil fuel companies that has captured public opinion; the reality is that climate alarmists have had an underserved field day, in funding and impact on popular opinion, in the past decade.

But the big issue is that extreme weather is a really random part of our global and local systems, and really hard to attribute to anything other than God playing at dice.  For the past few million years, global temperature has oscillated smoothly up and down about 20 degrees every 100,000 years.  We happen to be at the top of the cycle right now.  Physicists believe that the cycle is, at heart, a response to the 100,000-year shift of our orbit around the Sun from a perfect circle to a 5 percent, egg-like ellipse, because the statistical fit is so good.  BUT, they are stumped as to how the change in the orbit does this, since the change in radiative power is insignificant relative to the massive change in temperature it initiates.  A little humility is in order when claiming to know the physics of far smaller fluctuations and individual events. 

Please, call me a skeptic.  And lay off World War II.

 

Nov. 4, 2012: Riding the Burns' Sisters Train: With No Coal, It Would be Tough!

Ithaca, NY, has been a source of great popular music for as long as I can remember. In the '60s there were Bobby Comstock and the Counts, Big Daddy (Antrim) and the Dusquenes, Little Bernie (Milton) and the Cavaliers, David Wayne and the Continentals (reborn as the Jamo Band when it became culturally acceptable for Dave Jamurusty to go by his real name), the Mojos, the Ratchetts, and Oz and the Ends. In the '70s there was first Boffolongo and then its somewhat successor, Orleans. In the past 30 years there has been a collection of roots/rock/pop legends based in Ithaca, from the Tompkins County Horseflies to Donna the Buffalo. But the reigning champ since the late '70s has been the Burns Sisters. Talented, creative, and wildly popular, the three of the many Burns sisters who still form the band are like the Beatles: I don't know anyone in Ithaca who doesn't have their favorite.

Their new CD, the Hills of Ithaca, includes a couple of songs that Marie Burns crafted from fragments of Woody Guthrie's diary entries from a train trip he took to Ithaca in 1947 to perform on the Cornell campus. It also includes Marie's "Gas Man," a bitter denunciation of hydraulic fracturing to obtain natural gas, which is the topic of intense debate in New York's Souther Tier right now. Bringing up the subject is like raising Israel and Palestine at a DC cocktail party. There are no innocent bystanders in the conversation, and the evening self-destructs in anger and recrimination.

In listening to both the Guthrie and the anti-fracking songs I noticed an irony that often escapes advocates of restricting energy production in the name of beauty, safety, nostalgia, and "climate change." If the Burnsies have their way, there will be no fracking, and the route of the old Lehigh Valley railroad will be as lovely as it was when Woody rode it. But if the predecessors of the anti-frackers had had their way, there would have been no steam train for Woody to ride, and no coal to power it.

Environmentalists must have hated to see the railroad gouge its way through the landscape, burning coal and, more importantly, taking Pennsylvania coal to markets across America. And that was even before they believed that burning coal threatens a "climate crisis" that could end life on earth. (For more on the uncertainty and exaggerations of climate models, see my article.)

The recent storm, Sandy, has been cited as proof of human-generated global warming. Nonsense. There is nothing in the storm and storm surges that relates to the cause and the effect of the one-degree rise in global mean temperature in the past 150 years. The black-outs that followed the storm should instead be cited as proof that today's world, from America to Africa, relies on electricity for the dramatic increases in income and life expectancy of the industrial era. The gift of natural gas, like coal and oil, should be harvested carefully, with strong protection from air and water pollution, but it should be harvested. After all, we need Woody to be able to hop on the train, and the Burns Sisters to hop on a plane, and come entertain us.