Undiluted hype about global warming and climate disasters is polluting the journals and airwaves; multimillion-dollar propaganda campaigns are underway by environmental activists, generously financed by compliant foundations and by government grants. The White House is putting pressure on civic and religious groups, and even on corporations, to join the apocalyptic chorus. It’s time to review some facts that need to be more widely known:
(1) The climate is never just “average.” It changes all the time, from season to season, year to year, and over the millennia. And that includes not only temperature, but rain, snow, droughts, storms, and every conceivable feature of the weather. So watch out when you read about the “hottest year,” “longest drought” or “biggest hurricane.” There is bound to be a weather record of some sort, set at some time, somewhere in the world.
(2) But are there long-term climate trends? Is it getting warmer or is it getting colder? The correct answer is: Yes. It all depends on the time scale you choose. The global climate has warmed over the last 100 years, but not appreciably over the last 50 years. It is colder now than it was 1,000 years ago. And do you recall that the global climate cooled from 1940 until about 1975, raising fears of an impending ice age?
(3) Are human activities influencing climate? Yes, of course. The rise of agriculture and the growth of cities have changed the local climate significantly. With increasing populations and rising industrial activity there have also been some worldwide changes: Temperature extremes have softened, the stratosphere is cooling, the frequency of hurricanes has been diminishing — all of these are thought to be human influences on the atmosphere. But this does not mean there will be a catastrophic or even a substantial warming of the climate in the next century.
(4) But isn’t there substantial climate warming already because of the increased burning of fossil fuels — oil, gas, and coal — that creates more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Well, carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are certainly rising, but the climate seems not to be warming, as many would expect. It did warm greatly between 1880 and 1940 long before CO2 increased significantly. But in the last two decades, since 1979, weather satellites and balloon-borne radiosondes agree that climate has not warmed — even though CO2 levels rose.
(5) And why hasn’t climate warmed, when theory clearly expects this to happen? The answer must be that even our best computer models of the atmosphere are incomplete and leave out important features. Only in the last few years have modelers started to include ocean currents, atmospheric aerosol particles and dust into climate models. Most now suspect that clouds are the main reason why models and observations do not agree.
(6) What about global calamities, like the spread of tropical diseases and sea-level rise? Well, since the climate is not warming, there is no real reason for concern. Diseases are not just spread by mosquitoes, but nowadays mostly by human contacts — which have been increasing markedly with the tremendous rise in global transportation. Informed scientists predict that sea level will drop — not rise — if oceans warm; the evaporated moisture may simply turn to snow in the polar regions and increase the thickness of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps.
(7) So, would a global warming be good or bad? Probably both; but overall, warming is definitely better than cooling. It is certainly better for agriculture and therefore for basic human existence. All historical evidence shows that during the warm periods of the Middle Ages (around 1100 AD) people were better off than during the hard times of the “Little Ice Age” (1450-1850) when crops failed and people starved.
(8) When it comes to it, what can we do about climate warming? We can do little about the climate itself, but we could try to stop the increase of atmospheric CO2. Even that task is daunting; it requires that we cut emissions — worldwide — by between 60 percent and 80 percent. In effect, this means cutting energy consumption by comparable amounts — including all transportation, heating, air conditioning, and electricity use. It would have an enormous negative impact on people’s welfare — particularly for the poor and those in developing countries.
(9) How would one reduce energy consumption by between 60 percent and 80 percent? There are basically two ways, short of drastically reducing population itself: energy rationing or energy taxes. Rationing means a political allocation, with governments and bureaucrats deciding who may use energy and who may not. Energy taxes are almost as unpalatable; just try to picture $5-per-gallon gasoline.
Those who promote the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, argue it can all be done by conservation — at little or no cost; but that’s just not credible.
(10) Should we ruin our economies and cause tremendous hardship for people to counter a phantom threat? That’s a leading question; climate warming does indeed seem far away and a minor problem at that. There is a sure threat to human existence, however, and that is the near-certainty of a coming ice age. Geologists tell us the present interglacial warm period will soon come to an end. Perhaps greenhouse warming can save us from a frozen future.
Will scientific facts turn off the hype? Don’t bet on it. Not until the public becomes fully aware of the tremendous costs imposed by the policies now being developed to meet a non-existing problem.