Teenage Skeptic Takes on Climate Scientists At just 16 years old, Kristen Byrnes is attracting attention for her Web site, which attacks mainstream science's views on climate change.
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Teenage Skeptic Takes on Climate Scientists

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Teenage Skeptic Takes on Climate Scientists

Teenage Skeptic Takes on Climate Scientists

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Okay. Most climate scientists will tell you they are confident that humans are causing global warming, but the general public is not so sure. In one poll last year, only about 50 percent of people agreed humans were contributing. The other half disagreed, were not sure, or did not believe the Earth was warming in the first place, which brings us to the global warming skeptic we will meet this morning.

Her name is Kristen Byrnes. She lives in Portland, Maine, and she is one of several people we're profiling as we conclude our series Climate Connections with National Geographic. NPR's David Kestenbaum paid her a visit.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: If you're a scientist trying to convince people they are making the world warmer, Kristen Byrnes is your worst nightmare. She's articulate, intelligent, she has a Web page, and one day her people will be running the world. Her people, meaning 16-year-olds. That's her age.

Ms. KRISTEN BYRNES (Founder, Ponder the Maunder): I don't really remember how old I was when I started getting into the global warming. And I had a sense that it wasn't just us. Because in middle school, I remember everyone was like, global warming, the world's going to end, stuff like that. So I never really believed in it.

KESTENBAUM: Kristen Byrnes is wearing green furry slippers…

(Soundbite of dog barking)

KESTENBAUM: …she has a dog that barks at first, then licks, and a snake named Rex who recently ate a mouse. She's no slouch academically. Her stepfather, Mike Carson, proudly shows off her grades.

Mr. MIKE CARSON (Kristen's Stepfather): 93, 97, 97, 98, 95, 89, 99. Hey, wait a minute, geometry, it went down to 99.

Oh, my goodness.

Ms. K. BYRNES: Quarter's not over with.

Mr. CARSON: Oh, you're grounded.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARSON: You're grounded for a week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: Some scientists may cringe to hear this story, but Kristen has a quality you want in a scientist: she is skeptical. Someone makes a claim, she wants to see the data. So about a year ago, when she was 15, she started to look at the scientific evidence. When she got confused, she consulted her stay-at-home stepdad, Mike. Soon, they had printed out a mound of technical documents from the Internet. Kristen was convinced by the skeptics, and she began to write, summarizing their arguments, adding her own touches.

Yes, she says, the Earth is warming, but it's part of the natural climate cycle. Documents and papers filled a cardboard crate that once held green peppers, which all surprised her mom, Tammy Byrnes.

Ms. TAMMY BYRNES (Kristen's Mother): I was like, wow. All righty.

KESTENBAUM: Now, the story might stop here, the homegrown science project, except that, Kristen says, they decided to post it on the Web.

Ms. K. BYRNES: I felt it was important to inform other people that this isn't completely true. Yeah, like, a public service to let people know.

KESTENBAUM: Mike set up the site, Tammy typed.

Ms. T. BYRNES: I was the faster typer, and so…

KESTENBAUM: How much typing did you do?

Ms. T. BYRNES: Quite a bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of typing)

KESTENBAUM: The result was a Web site called Ponder the Maunder. Kristen admits the title is a little obscure. It's a reference to what's known as the Maunder Minimum, a low period in solar activity in the 1600s. Her Web page includes charts of El Nino indices, isotope measurements in ice cores. Her tone is measured in some places, firm in others.

Quote: "I will start this section with a very important point: CO2 in the atmosphere does not reflect radiation back to the Earth, as some have tried to state."

Skeptics loved the Web site - a 15-year-old attacking the mainstream scientific view.

Mr. CARSON: Somebody had posted it on one of the blogs and from there, it took off. It took off like wildfire. But that was nothing compared to when her Al Gore critique went up.

KESTENBAUM: Kristen had no fear. She took on Al Gore, Nobel laureate, Academy Award winner, former vice president. She went after Jim Hansen, one of NASA's top climate scientists.

Mainstream scientists would argue many of the issues on her Web site are red herrings or have been put to rest. And Kristen did get e-mails from people challenging her science.

Ms. K. BYRNES: Yeah, there's a few who are like, you're wrong. I disagree with you on this, this and this. And we'd come back and be, like, actually, you're wrong on this, this and this, and this is why. So…

KESTENBAUM: What happened at the end of that?

Ms. K. BYRNES: A few of them just kind of gave up and figured they can't fight against a 15-year-old. So…

KESTENBAUM: Mike says the Web site got a half-million hits in a month. Emails poured in, mostly from people delighted that a young person was taking up their cause.

Ms. K. BYRNES: I got a letter in the mail for my birthday from a senator.

KESTENBAUM: U.S. Senator James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, famous for calling global warming a hoax.

Ms. K. BYRNES: Okay. Dear Kristen, thank you so much for your letter and e-mail and for your kind words. I appreciate your help in the fight against global warming alarmism. You're a commonsense young lady and an inspiration to me. I want you to keep up the good work. We are winning.

KESTENBAUM: Kristen says when her determination sagged, her stepdad Mike encouraged her. Kristen, motivation, he would say. Mike himself is deeply skeptical of climate change.

Mr. CARSON: Now, this is one of our little handy things here. What has happened here is we've taken a natural index, which is Southern Oscillation Index. It's a major indicator of the El Nino southern oscillation, and we've compared it to temperature.

KESTENBAUM: And the truth is, for people who want to try to get down into the details, climate change science can get very hairy. There are oceans to consider, which can absorb heat, water vapor, cloud cover to account for. Much of the evidence rests on detailed computer models.

Scientists disagree on some of the details, and a handful of scientists do not think the case has been made, but the overwhelming consensus is that humans are causing global warming, and the consequences could be serious.

When I visited Kristen, she had a friend over, Chrissy Flanders. They said climate change doesn't get much attention in school. And despite Kristen's online celebrity, she doesn't talk about climate change with her friends. During lunch, Chrissy and Kristen talked about food and friends and clothes. So it was sort of a surprise when Chrissy mentioned that she disagreed with Kristen on climate change.

Ms. CHRISSY FLANDERS: No, I don't believe what you think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: Wait, wait. Say what you don't believe.

Ms. FLANDERS: I don't, I just think it's partly 'cause of humans. I don't agree with you, sorry.

Ms. K. BYRNES: That's okay. It's your opinion.

KESTENBAUM: Okay. So why do you believe that humans are involved in climate change?

Ms. FLANDERS: I don't know.

Ms. K. BYRNES: She just believes what everybody else is making her believe.

Ms. FLANDERS: No. I don't really know. I don't - I guess maybe a little, but not all of it.

KESTENBAUM: Not everybody's going to have time to look at the data, right? That some of these people are going to have to sort of decide, you know, if 300 scientists find something, maybe for some people, that's good enough for them.

Ms. K. BYRNES: Right. Like, even the media, other scientists, they're making everybody believe that it is anthropogenic. And like Chrissy here, good example. She doesn't know why she believes it, but she believes it because it's what everybody else believes. And I know that's not what you think…

Ms. FLANDERS: I don't really have an opinion. I don't really think about it.

KESTENBAUM: Maybe you're…

Ms. K. BYRNES: You have an opinion.


KESTENBAUM: It's probably fair to say that most people, even those who have strong opinions about global warming, could not make a strong scientific argument for why they believe what they believe. Most of us delegate, decide to believe someone we trust. We don't actively seek out the other side. We probably wouldn't know what to make of it or how to reconcile the two. Who has time or the expertise?

Kristen is getting out of the climate change business. She thinks she'd like to become an architect, maybe even build energy efficient green buildings. She does not see herself as an environmentalist. She says that makes her think of hippies.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

INSKEEP: If you do have time to check the details, a United Nations scientific panel recently concluded that humans were very likely the cause behind present-day global warming, and you can read their report at npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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