Doug Bandow is a widely published author and commentator.
Five years ago the Clinton administration announced a 50-point plan to curb the emission of so-called greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide. Countries spent much of last fall debating a global agreement to cut future emissions below 1990 levels. “The only thing we know for absolute certain is that voluntary programs won’t work,” contends Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Actually there’s one other thing that we know for certain: activists like Mathews are misusing science in demanding draconian energy restrictions to avert global warming. In fact, there is no consensus among climatologists that uncontrolled, human-induced warming threatens the planet. Or that the kinds of measures being proposed would avert such a danger.
The climate has long been a favorite of apocalyptics. In the 1890s and then again in the 1950s people warned that the planet was warming. But in the 1960s and 1970s arose a different fear: a new ice age.
Publications like National Geographic reported shorter growing seasons, summer frosts, and advancing glaciers. Time magazine observed that “the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing.” There were books too, like The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age and Ice: The Ultimate Human Catastrophe.
The latter, written by Fred Hoyle and published in 1981, proclaimed: “It is 12,500 years since the last ice age ended, which means the next one is long overdue. When the ice comes, most of northern America, Britain, and northern Europe will disappear under the glaciers.” Since “The right conditions can arise within a single decade,” Hoyle advocated warming the oceans.
But, happily, that crisis seems to have passed. And we are back to global warming. The basic theory is that pollutants—so-called greenhouse gases—are accumulating in the atmosphere, holding in the heat and causing the world’s temperature to rise. It remains just a theory, however, since climate change is a complex business. For instance, increased emissions may help shield the earth from the effects of the sun’s rays; other factors, such as variations in the sun’s intensity, also play a role.
Nor is there one right temperature. After all, there was once an Ice Age. And there was even a little ice age running from the 1400s through the 1800s, when temperatures were notably lower. There’s no reason to believe that the temperature in 1997, or 1897, or any other particular year is the right one. Indeed, if we could choose, we should choose a warmer climate. Fewer people die because of the cold; less money is spent on energy; growing seasons are longer. Some people would lose, but on net mankind would be better off if temperatures rose moderately. The only real issue, then, is whether the earth faces an uncontrolled, catastrophic increase in average temperatures.
The question is worth asking, but the discussion has become highly political. Six years ago Stephen Schneider, who once warned of a new ice age, told the Boston Globe that “it is journalistically irresponsible to present both sides as though it were a question of balance.” Despite being a scientist, he admitted: “I don’t set very much store by looking at the direct evidence.” After all, he stated, “To avert the risk we need to get some broad-based support, to capture public imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make some simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have.” So much for genuine scientific discourse. Explained Schneider: “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”
He’s not interested in direct evidence because there is no consensus among climatologists about global warming. Past polls have found that most of them do not believe human-induced warming had occurred. Even half of the members of the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) doubt that we face a runaway greenhouse effect.
The IPCC’s latest report has nevertheless been cited as making the case for global warming. But lead author and climate modeler Benjamin Sanger complains that “it’s unfortunate that many people read the media hype before they read the chapter.” He cites the report’s many caveats: “We say quite clearly that few scientists would say the attribution issue was a done deal.”
Caveats are necessary because even Bruce Hamilton, conservation director of the Sierra Club, acknowledges that “If you look at the science, it’s all over the map.” Disputes begin over data collection and temperature trends. The best evidence suggests far less warming so far this century than predicted by the models; most warming has happened at night, when it is beneficial. Moreover, about half of the warming occurred before 1945, when emissions of supposed greenhouse gases began to climb dramatically. Finally, temperatures have been falling while the climate controversy has been heating up. John Shanahan of the American Legislative Exchange Council points out that “the government’s own satellite data and balloon measurements over the last 18 years show a very slight cooling,” the opposite of “what the climate models predict should have occurred.”
Indeed, to some degree the scaremongering reflects sheer hubris. After all, mankind’s impact on the environment remains marginal—just seven billion of the 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the result of human activity. It may be an important seven billion, but it remains a secondary cause.
Thus, there are good reasons to avoid any treaty commitments to regulate the economy into oblivion. The President rejected the environmentalists’ most extreme proposals, but activists oppose any compromise. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt even denounced American companies as “un-American” for criticizing global warming pseudoscience, and suggested that they be “called to account.”
Such firms are defending more than their profits, however. Since the United States is already one of the globe’s most efficient energy consumers, massive cutbacks in emissions would mean fewer jobs, less production, and a lower standard of living. A Heritage Foundation study estimates the cost of proposed controls from just 2001 through 2020 to be $3.3 trillion, or about $30,000 per household. It obviously matters whether environmental activists are choosing effectiveness or honesty when making their claims.
The answer is not just to delay the effective date or moderate the controls. There should be no treaty without real consensus both that disaster threatens and that new regulations would avert disaster.
To reach such a consensus, policymakers should treat global warming as a scientific issue. If persuasive evidence indicates the potential for uncontrolled, human-induced warming, then countries should explore less costly control measures—such as reforestation and spreading trace quantities of iron in the oceans.
But Americans must demand facts, not rhetoric. Chicken Littles have long manipulated fears about the climate: the President brought weather forecasters to the White House for indoctrination. Some scientists have also sacrificed their integrity for politics. In Science magazine Richard Kerr warns that “Climate modelers have been ‘cheating’ for so long it’s almost become respectable.”
Is the sky falling? The burden of proof falls on those demanding the power to levy new taxes and impose new regulations. Unless and until such evidence appears, the American people should remain skeptical of the global warming chorus.