Am I the only knucklehead, or does the emperor of climate change have no clothes?
Despite a reasonable effort, I don't have it figured out. And I am dubious as to how so many other nonprofessionals can claim comprehension of the debate about global warming - especially in the aftermath of Climategate, the hacking of thousands of e-mails and documents from the Climate Research Unit at Britain's University of East Anglia.
Global warming makes my head spin. I watched Al Gore's movie and read his book. Both were compelling. But so is much of what has been written by debunkers, like the Wall Street Journal op-ed last week in which MIT meteorologist Richard S. Lindzen called claims of global warming's acceleration "bizarre."
And what about that chapter in the smash book SuperFreakonomics, in which authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner explain how the eruption of Mount Pinatubo cooled the planet and temporarily offset global warming? The explosion, they write, shot sulfuric ash into the sky so powerfully that it created a haze in the stratosphere. That haze then blocked out some of the Earth's sunlight, effectively offsetting the planet's warming for a few years. Then again, the authors' conclusion - that perhaps humans could do the same by purposely pumping sulfuric ash into the sky - left me dubious.
So what to make of it all? And who has time to sort it out? I've got four kids to help raise and several jobs to hold down. What's a concerned citizen to do?
Well, how about a public trial. The idea was raised, and ridiculed, not long ago. But I like it.
In August, William Kovacs, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Los Angeles Times he wanted to put "the science of climate change on trial" in an on-the-record public hearing like the Scopes monkey trial of 1925.
The Environmental Protection Agency dismissed the notion as a "waste of time." Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, called it a "cynical request." Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope said the chamber was "making a fool of itself."
Too bad Kovacs later backed away from the statement, writing that the Scopes analogy was "inappropriate." (So gun-shy is Kovacs that he refused to be quoted in this column.)
Those who could heretofore dismiss global warming skeptics as a "world-is-flat" crowd can no longer afford to remain above the fray. Climategate has damaged the credibility of man-made global warming proponents and provided great fodder for cap-and-trade opponents just as President Obama heads to Copenhagen.
Among the worst of the hacked e-mails: Climate Research Unit director Phil Jones, forced to take temporary leave last week, apparently considered ways to keep studies skeptical of climate change out of future assessments by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. On this side of the pond, Michael Mann, a Penn State professor now subject to a university inquiry, suggested to Jones that they advise colleagues to freeze out journals and editors who give attention to skeptics' work.
All this on the heels of a Rasmussen analysis released less than two weeks before Climategate, which found that nearly half of American voters (47 percent) believe global warming is caused by planetary trends, not human activity (37 percent). In April of 2008, those figures were essentially reversed. The percentage of voters who see global warming as a "very serious" problem experienced a similarly steep decline over the same time period.
In other words, the timing couldn't have been worse for the environmentalists. And the reality is that the politics of how to deal with climate change are as unforgiving, unrelenting and unmanageable as ever.
So where to go from here? A formal, legal, on-the-record examination of the scientific facts of climate change.
I'm not convinced that the leaked e-mails evidence a conspiracy by environmentalists to cook the global warming books. Penn State's Mann was right to note that the correspondence was never meant for public consumption. "We shouldn't expect the sort of refined statements that scientists make when they're speaking in public," he said in the wake of the leaks. It's also unfair that the e-mail senders and recipients have been outed, while the hackers and leakers remain anonymous.
Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, reminded me in an interview that while a thousand scientists from 130 countries contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment report, the number of scientists "involved in this who have maybe said something that looks pretty bad" is closer to 10. That sounds compelling.
As for the notion that Climategate proves that global warming is an environmentalist conspiracy, Curry said: "I'm chairman of a department with 25 faculty members, all bright people. You can't get those 25 people to agree on everything. Trying to get 1,000 scientists from 130 different countries to agree on anything at all - let alone trying to perpetuate some kind of hoax - is I would have to say impossible."
Maybe she's right. But why not find out?
If the science behind the climate-change movement is as firm as environmentalists claim - and the scientific consensus as universal - you'd think an epic, on-the-record hearing would be a welcome chance to prove the growing number of skeptics unequivocally wrong.