How did the obsession with decarbonization arise?

How did the obsession with decarbonization arise?

How did the obsession with decarbonization arise? (

20 March 2024

Richard Lindzen

The current obsession with decarbonization had its roots in the reaction to the post-WW2 period, when ordinary workers were able to own a house and a car.

I was a student in the 50s and early 60s. Mockery of the poor taste and materialism of these people in ever expanding suburbs was endemic.

With the Vietnam War, things got amplified, as the working class got drafted, while students sought/received draft deferments (students, during this period, were still a relative elite; the mass expansion of higher education began in the late 60s.


Vietnam war opposers justified their often unruly/disruptive behavior by insisting, the Vietnam War was illegitimate, while ignoring the obvious fact, Vietnamese people were fleeing south rather than north.

It was fashionable to regard the US as evil and deserving to be overthrown.

Opposition often turned to violence with groups like the Weathermen and SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).


In 1968, I was teaching at the University of Chicago. We were spending the summer in Colorado, and we had a student house-sitting our apartment.

When we returned, we found a police car monitoring our apartment.

The house-sitter had turned our apartment into a crash pad for the SDS during the Democrat Party Convention. Our apartment was littered with SDS literature, which included instructions for poisoning Chicago’s water supply.

This unruly/disruptive period seemed to end with Nixon’s election, but we now know, this was just the beginning of the long march of disruption through various other institutions.


Currently, there is great emphasis on the march through the educational institutions: first the elementary schools of education and then higher education in the humanities and the social sciences, and now in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, STEM.


What is usually ignored is, the first institutions to be captured were professional societies.

My wife attended a meeting of the Modern Language Association in the late 60s, and it was already fully ‘woke.’

While there is currently a focus on the capture of education, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the traditional focus on the means of production.


The vehicle for this was the capture/subversion of the environmental movement.

Prior to 1970, the focus of this movement was on things like whales, landscape, clean air and water, and population.

However, with the first Earth Day in April of 1970, the focus turned to the energy sector, which, after all, is fundamental to all production, and more importantly, involves trillions of dollars.


This shift was accompanied by the creation of new environmental organizations, such as Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It was also accompanied by new governmental organizations – the EPA and the Department of Transportation.

Once again, professional societies were easy pickings: the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and even the honorary societies, such as the National Academy of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


There was a bit of floundering to begin with. The movement initially attempted to focus on global cooling, due to the reflection of sunlight by sulfate aerosols emitted by coal fired generators.

After all, there seemed to have been some global cooling between the 1930s and the 1970s.

However, the cooling ended in the 1970s.

There was an additional effort to tie the coal sulfates to acid rain, which was allegedly killing forests.

This idea also turned out to be a dud.


In the 70s, attention turned to CO2 and its contribution to warming via the greenhouse effect.

The attraction of controlling CO2 to political-control freaks was obvious.

It was the inevitable product of all burning of carbon-based fuels. It was also the product of breathing. .

However, there was a problem: CO2 was a minor greenhouse gas compared to the naturally produced water vapor.

Doubling CO2 (420 ppm at end 2023) to about 840 ppm (not possible due to a lack of remaining fossil fuels), would lead to warming of less than 1 C.


A paper in the early 70s, by Manabe and Wetherald came to the rescue.

Using a highly unrealistic one-dimensional model of the atmosphere, they found, by assuming (without any basis) relative humidity remaining constant as the atmosphere warmed, CO2 would provide a positive feedback that would amplify the CO2 effect by a factor of 2.

This violated Le Chatelier’s Principle, which holds, natural systems tended to oppose change, but to be fair, the principle had not been rigorously proven.

Positive feedbacks became the go-to tool for of all climate modelers, which now were predicting, a doubling of CO2 would increase temperatures by 3 to 4 C, rather than a paltry 1 C or less.  


The enthusiasm of politicians voting for "CO2 targets by a future date" and subsidies to "make it happen" became boundless.

Virtue-signaling elites promised to achieve net zero emissions within a decade, or 2, or 3, with no idea of how to do so without destroying their societies.

Ordinary people, confronted with impossible demands on their own well-being, have not found warming of a few degrees to be very impressive. Few are contemplating retirement in the Arctic rather than Florida.


Frustrated politicians, confronted by this resistance, had to frantically change their story, and enlisted the traditional Media, academia, etc., to help out

Rather than emphasizing tiny changes in their temperature metric, they now point to weather extremes (which occur almost daily at at any place on earth) as proof, not only of climate change, but of climate change, due to increasing CO2 (and now also to the even more negligible contributors to the greenhouse effect like methane and nitrous oxide), even though such weather extremes show no significant statistical correlation with emissions.


From the political point of view, extremes provide convenient Photoshop visuals for greater emotional impact, than small temperature changes.

The desperation of political figures often goes beyond this to claiming, climate change is an existential threat, even though the official IPCC documents, produced to support climate concerns, never come close to claiming this.


I should note, there was one exception to the focus on warming, which  was the ozone depletion issue.

However, even this issue served a scare-mongering purpose.

When Richard Benedick, the American negotiator of the Montreal Convention, which banned Freon, passed through MIT on his way back from Montreal, he gloated over his success, but assured us, we hadn’t seen anything yet; we should wait to see what they would do with CO2.

In brief, the ozone issue constituted a dry run for scare-mongering of minor global warming.


Of course, gaining bigger government, and more programs for command/control is not the only thing motivating politicians.

The ability to award trillions of dollars to reorient our energy sector means, implies favored recipients of these trillions of dollars.

These recipients need share only a few percent of these trillions of dollars to pay for the campaigns of these entrenched politicians, for many election cycles.


Richard Lindzen

The author is Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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(excerpts) From Part 1 – On Maine’s Wind Law “Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine if the law’s goals were met." . – Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, August 2010 Part 2 – On Wind and Oil Yet using wind energy doesn’t lower dependence on imported foreign oil. That’s because the majority of imported oil in Maine is used for heating and transportation. And switching our dependence from foreign oil to Maine-produced electricity isn’t likely to happen very soon, says Bartlett. “Right now, people can’t switch to electric cars and heating – if they did, we’d be in trouble.” So was one of the fundamental premises of the task force false, or at least misleading?" Part 3 – On Wind-Required New Transmission Lines Finally, the building of enormous, high-voltage transmission lines that the regional electricity system operator says are required to move substantial amounts of wind power to markets south of Maine was never even discussed by the task force – an omission that Mills said will come to haunt the state.“If you try to put 2,500 or 3,000 megawatts in northern or eastern Maine – oh, my god, try to build the transmission!” said Mills. “It’s not just the towers, it’s the lines – that’s when I begin to think that the goal is a little farfetched.”

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Hannah Pingree on the Maine expedited wind law

Hannah Pingree - Director of Maine's Office of Innovation and the Future

"Once the committee passed the wind energy bill on to the full House and Senate, lawmakers there didn’t even debate it. They passed it unanimously and with no discussion. House Majority Leader Hannah Pingree, a Democrat from North Haven, says legislators probably didn’t know how many turbines would be constructed in Maine."

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