False alarms and climate change
If warming is not a burning issue, let's say so as we open debate
Rob Bradley in the Houston Chronicle
Dire predictions about the future of prosperous capitalist living remain trendy, despite decades of well-documented exaggeration. Al Gore claims a consensus in regard to his "planetary emergency" of global climate change from fossil-fuel burning. The science is "settled," the editorial page of Science magazine claimed last year. And note the title of a recent conference at the Baker Institute at Rice University: "Beyond Science: The Economics and Politics of Responding to Climate Change."
But as columnist George F. Will has observed in reference to climate science, "People only insist that a debate stop when they are afraid of what might be learned if it continues."
Alarmism as an intellectual movement began in 1798 when Thomas Malthus predicted that food supply would fail to keep up with population growth, resulting in human misery and subsistence living. That was followed in the 1860s by the "coal panic" in England, brought on by an economist who forecast the imminent decline of the British coal industry. But coal, like agriculture, proved far more abundant than expected, and the alarms faded away.
Malthusianism turned into neo-Malthusianism in the '60s with Paul Ehrlich's "population bomb" scare. That was followed in 1972 by the Club of Rome's influential Limits to Growth, predicting that the world would soon run short of mineral resources. But just as Ehrlich's predicted food riots in U.S. cities did not materialize (the problem turned out to be obesity), so too have the Club of Rome's calculated shortage dates for various minerals proven to be highly exaggerated.
At about the same time, a miniscare over global cooling emerged, in response to falling temperatures between the 1940s and 1970s, which were blamed on rising sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants.
But a feared return of a Little Ice Age soon gave way to rising temperatures and a more urgent alarm: global warming from man-made greenhouse emissions. In the mid-1980s, John Holdren predicted that climate-related catastrophes might kill as many as 1 billion people before the year 2020. But the Harvard University professor (and Baker conference speaker) has more recently stated: "That the impacts of global climate disruption may not become the dominant sources of environmental harm to humans for yet a few more decades cannot be a great consolation."
No scientist knows the future of climate (whether global or regional) nor its precise drivers (whether natural or manmade). That is why the 20-year climate scare has produced notable exaggerations and is likely to continue to do so.
For instance, the El Niño-driven spike in global temperatures in 1998 was exploited by some as a step-change to a human-induced higher warming era. Yet global average temperatures today are no higher than a decade ago, and the last six years have seen temperatures go sideways, not up. If this trend continues, it will be back to the drawing board for those scientists (like NASA's James Hansen) who are convinced that the climate is very sensitive to man-made greenhouse gas forcing.
"Global warming could plunge North America and Western Europe into a deep freeze, possibly within only a few decades," a 2004 news release from NASA exclaimed. "That's the paradoxical scenario gaining credibility among many climate scientists." But a few years later, this particular scare (concerning altered ocean circulation from manmade warming) was contradicted by a headline in Science magazine: "False Alarm: Atlantic Conveyor Belt Hasn't Slowed Down After All."
Hurricane Katrina and the active hurricane season of 2005 led to headlines that man-made global warming was now producing more ferocious storms. Yet the last two hurricane seasons have been uneventful, and scientists are deeply divided about whether global warming increases or decreases either the frequency or intensity of hurricanes.
The climate alarm de jour is that the rise in sea level will be several times greater than that predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Gore infamously turned the IPCC's long-run prediction from inches into feet in his movie/book, An Inconvenient Truth. (He exaggerated about hurricanes, too.) Greenland melting is indeed being driven by higher area temperatures, but Antarctica is expected to add ice on net in the coming decades, moderating the sea-level rise. Recurrent media reports of breaking ice from warmer temperatures fail to note that Antarctica has been gaining ice and has cooled in the last [half] century. (Melting Arctic sea ice, on the other hand, does not affect sea level, just as melting ice cubes do not raise the water level in a drinking glass.)
It is high time for an open debate over the human influence on climate given that the federal government — after nearly 20 years of debate — is still considering whether to enact mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions. If the science behind climate alarmism is weak or weakening, this should not be hidden from the public in a rush to enact legislation. Fire-ready-aim is hardly the basis of sound public policy.
Bradley is chairman of the Institute for Energy Research, a nonprofit public-policy organization he founded in Houston in 1989 to espouse principled, free-market energy policies.