All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1996

Global Warming: Not an Immediate Problem

The Science of Climate Change Is Imperfect at Best

Mr. Bethel resides in Arlington, Virginia.

All too often we find ourselves mounting a rearguard action to fend off public policies or programs limiting our choices, costing us money and, generally, making life tougher to live. In many instances during these struggles, we have to be content with small victories: holding social welfare program budgets to minimal growth or reining in policies that would expand government responsibilities. Occasionally an opportunity comes along to stop an ill-conceived government program dead in its tracks or to get rid of bad public policy before it becomes entrenched. Today, we have such an opportunity.

Some would have us believe that our planet is headed for a flameout. They contend that humankind is living unwisely. They predict that apocalyptic climate change could do us in. But we are told there is hope if we will place ourselves in the hands of national and international governing bodies whose collective wisdom will save us from ourselves.

What we are not told by our would-be saviors is that climate change is nothing new on this planet. We are not told that the science of climate change is imperfect at best. We are not told that most of the purported signatures of climate change could easily be attributed to the natural variability of weather. We are not told of the serious economic consequences that proposed climate-change policies would have for our society.

Now is the time to face this issue. If we permit this relatively new offshoot of statism to sneak up behind us, it will be difficult to contain the damage.

Defining the Problem

Our planet has experienced significant weather changes over time, from numerous ice ages to periods of warm, even hot, temperatures. The reason for this variability is not well understood, although influences are attributed to the earth’s orbit, volcanism, and changes in the sun’s energy output.

During the past 100 years, global temperatures have warmed an average of 0.5 degrees Celsius (about one degree Fahrenheit). This increase is within the range of variability expected with climate change, but those who subscribe to the global warming theory explain this event as a man-made enhancement of the naturally occurring greenhouse effect.

A layer of atmospheric gases (primarily water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane) encircles the earth and serves as a protective blanket or insulator retaining warmth from the sun; hence the term greenhouse effect. Without this natural process, large areas of our planet would be so cold as to be uninhabitable.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contends that if government policies are not put into place to limit man-made carbon dioxide emissions, CO2 will double in the atmosphere by the end of the next century, causing potentially catastrophic warming.

Anxiety about this prospect has prompted the U.S. government to spend $2.1 billion annually on research in this area. Concern and study make sense, given our continuing dependence on fossil fuels. But, before we move much beyond the research stage, it would be prudent to establish whether global warming actually does threaten our well-being.

Identifying the Problem

Meteorologists and climatologists use computer models to simulate the interplay of many complex variables that constitute the earth’s climate system, thereby determining the impact of these variables on climate change. Arriving at conclusive determinations has proved challenging for a number of reasons.

First, the complications of climate factors, such as the reflection of sunlight, the role of cloud cover, and the feedbacks associated with snow and ice, are still not understood well enough to permit the creation of totally reliable climate models.

Furthermore, even the most advanced computers cannot run the complex models that include every possible weather variable. Consequently, the models must be simplified, which calls for the use of approximations and assumptions.

Scientists at MIT conducted a study of computer simulation adjustments. Specifically, they examined procedures for adjusting climate models to account for the amount of heat and moisture flowing between the atmosphere and the oceans. The MIT research revealed that although these adjustments often allow models to simulate existing climate, they mask flaws that inevitably skew future predictions produced by the computer simulations.

Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research described the difficulty of creating accurate climate models this way: You can put all the components [of climate] together . . . but we know from our own experience with ocean, atmosphere, and ice components that it’s a major step from components to having it look like the planet Earth.

Forecasting Global Warming

Computer models have indicated that with the increase in greenhouse gases, our planet should have been experiencing a relatively rapid warming trend, on the order of 0.3-0.5 degrees Celsius during the past 15 years. Satellite temperature readings analyzed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) indicate that no such warming occurred during this period. In fact, these data show a cooling trend of -0.06 degrees Celsius from 1979 to 1994.

Also, according to computer simulations of the greenhouse effect, the average temperature in the United States should have increased by approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius during the past 100 years. Information collected by the National Climatic Data Center shows no significant warming in the United States.

Computer models of global climate change have indicated that the earth’s average temperature should have increased by 1 degree Celsius during the past century. As noted, if the planet has warmed, it has been only by about 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Significantly, the greater part of this purported increase, about 0.4 degrees Celsius, occurred before 1940. Yet roughly two-thirds of the carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere occurred after 1940, which brings into question man’s role in the process.

As for the future, according to the 1992 IPCC report, temperatures will rise 2.5 degrees Celsius by the second half of the next century. This forecast, however, is based on the same computer models that erroneously predicted a warming trend of 0.3-0.5 degrees Celsius for the 1980s and early 1990s.

Fearing Fear Itself

Unusual occurrences in nature are reported regularly and often attributed to global warming. This attribution occurred recently when a large piece of the Larsen Ice Shelf broke away from the Antarctic Peninsula. However, Dr. Jo Jacka, a glaciologist from the Australian Antarctic division, determined that the detachment of the iceberg from the Larsen Ice Shelf was a natural occurrence, not an indicator of global warming. Many of Dr. Jacka’s colleagues have also disputed the claim of warming in the Antarctic and the Arctic regions. According to the Global Warming Experiment, a study of climate change published by the George C. Marshall Institute, The 40-year record confirms the satellite finding of a cooling trend in the Arctic.

Extreme weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes and, most recently, the Blizzard of ’96 have also been cited as evidence of climate change. However, a report issued by Accu-Weather, the world’s leading commercial weather firm, finds no increase in weather-related natural disasters. In fact, the Accu-Weather study, Changing Weather? Facts and Fallacies About Climate Change and Weather Extremes, indicates the number of hurricanes in the Northern Hemisphere may actually have decreased in recent years. Storms detected today by advanced tracking systems would have gone unnoticed earlier in the century.

The study also reports similar findings about other extreme weather events. No evidence was discovered of an increase in strong or violent tornadoes in the 48 contiguous states between 1953 and 1993. The information points to a reduction in such activity. The authors of Facts and Fallacies attribute the perception of an increase in extreme weather events to three factors: more people live in areas that were once sparsely populated or even uninhabited; local media are now able to quickly report severe weather events . . . in distant parts of the globe; and more sophisticated weather monitoring systems and more widely distributed population mean that extreme events in remote areas are more likely to be detected.

As the World Meteorological Organization also notes, any increase in the number of fatalities, injuries and amount of damage and destruction caused by extreme events can often be related to population increases, especially in those regions most susceptible to climate variability.

Global warming has been blamed for a resurgence in infectious diseases, especially vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue, which are carried by mosquitos, rodents, and other vectors. However, the chief of the vector-borne disease branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control doubts any connection exists between climate change and the spread of disease. Dr. Duane Gubler told the Baltimore Sun recently, Dengue is an example that all the people who talk about this use. . . . But none of this has been associated with global warming. Dr. Gubler blames poverty, poor sanitation, increased world population, and a declining health infrastructure for the spread of disease. Dr. John La Montagnac, a director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also expressed doubts about the relationship between infectious diseases and global warming.

Global Warming Policy Development

Despite weaknesses in the science of climate change and despite ready evidence to counter fears of global warming, environmental activists are insisting on strict, comprehensive government programs that would bring:

•       carbon taxes;

•       a system of international policing to monitor the usage of CO2;

•       greater financial support for the 18 U.N. agencies involved in climate change activities;

•       massive government subsidies for alternative energy sources.

The bureaucratization of climate-change policymaking is already on the horizon. In what appears to have been a decision to err on the side of caution, the United States became a signatory to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. More popularly known as the Rio Climate Treaty, this document established national goals for cutting emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2000. The United States formalized its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the institution of the U.S. Climate Change Action Plan.

In the spring of 1995, the Rio Climate Treaty signatories met again and produced the Berlin Mandate, which seeks even more severe limitations on emissions of greenhouse gases by the industrialized countries. Procedures were developed in Berlin that would set qualified limitation and reduction objectives within specified time frames, such as 2005, 2010 and 2020, for greenhouse gas emissions.

At a meeting of the IPCC in December 1995, the participants agreed to a carefully worded statement indicating that, the balance of evidence . . . suggests a discernible human influence on global climate. This sets the stage for the continuing development of policies to decrease emissions of greenhouse gas.

The agreements do not specify how nations are expected to achieve a reduction in emissions. The Framework Convention states only that policies and measures to deal with climate change should be cost-effective so as to ensure global benefits at the lowest possible cost.

Economics of Climate Change Policies

Recently, a number of economic studies have assessed the costs associated with achieving the emissions-reduction targets accepted by the United States.

Dr. Alan S. Manne of Stanford University conducted a study of typical abatement proposals intended to stabilize carbon emissions between 1990 and 2000, reduce them to 80 percent of this level by 2010, and stabilize them thereafter. According to Dr. Manne’s findings in Global Carbon Dioxide Reductions—Domestic and International Consequences, price-induced energy conservation and shifts to low-carbon fuels would result in annual losses ranging from 1 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product to nearly 2.5 percent of our GDP.

Dr. Manne’s basic conclusions have received support in studies conducted by Dr. Lawrence Horwitz of DRI/McGraw Hill. Dr. Horwitz reported in The Impact of Carbon Dioxide Emission Reductions on Living Standards and Lifestyles that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 through the use of carbon taxation would reduce U.S. GDP by 2.3 percent, or $203 billion.

Dr. Horwitz discovered additional problems with near-term emissions-abatement programs. He predicts that 89 percent of U.S. consumption categories would be affected negatively by the carbon tax, with 40 percent of the total energy-cost increases falling directly on households. The balance of the increases would be borne by industry, then passed along to consumers. According to Horwitz, higher costs and lessened demand would spread damage throughout our economy. Real business fixed investment would decline $56 billion annually by 2010. Real disposable income levels would drop $75 billion in 1992 dollars by 2010. These developments would lead to severe job losses. Dr. Horwitz estimates the loss of more than 500,000 jobs per year between 1995 and 2010, with 1,000,000 jobs lost two years after the tax was fully implemented.

The Manne study of global CO2 reductions also reveals that restrictive approaches to limit carbon emissions would hinder our international competitiveness in such basic industries as chemicals, steel, aluminum, petroleum refining, and mining. He contends further that the U.S. coal-exporting industry would be put out of business, and severe strains would be placed on important trade pacts like NAFTA and GATT.

Aside from the economic costs associated with the present emissions-abatement proposals, The Global Warming Experiment reveals that the current policy direction contains a fatal flaw. The study notes that the burden of carbon emission reductions falls on the United States and on other industrialized countries at a time when the former Soviet Union and the developing nations of the world are emerging as the primary contributors to the growth of greenhouse gases. IPCC estimates show that the developing nations and the former Soviet bloc countries currently account for more than 50 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions, and by 2025 and 2100 the percentages will be 67 percent and 78 percent, respectively. By failing to include these nations in the program, any savings in the industrialized world will be more than offset by carbon leakage generated by the excluded parties.

Rational Response to Potential Climate Change

Given the uncertain prospects for drastic climate change in the immediate future and considering the potential for crippling costs of aggressive emissions-abatement policies, reasoned concern and continued study appear to be the responsible courses of action. These thoughtful approaches, unlike more aggressive proposals promoted by some environmental groups, will avoid the need to retire existing capital stock. They will allow time for advances in technology to bring improvements in energy use and supply. And a less restrictive policy will permit the development of ample supplies of low-cost substitutes for high-carbon-emitting fossil fuels, which currently account for 90 percent of the world’s supply of commercial energy.

W. David Montgomery, a former visiting lecturer at Stanford University and currently lead author with the IPCC, makes a case in a recent paper that the imposition of near-term emissions-reduction programs would be costly and potentially unnecessary. He suggests in Developing a Framework for Short- and Long-Run Decisions on Climate Change Policies that several steps should be followed to develop economically rational approaches, including:

•       analyze ultimate net costs and benefits to the United States of specific agreements;

•       analyze implications for net costs and benefits to the United States of international sharing of the burden of response;

•       inventory possible policy responses and analyze the economic merits of alternative response options.

The Global Warming Experiment asked the question: What would be the consequence . . . of a delay of a decade in implementing the Rio Treaty limits on carbon dioxide emissions? The answer: A decade’s delay could buy (time for) satellite observations of the global climate system, particularly observations that could lead to improvements in the treatment of the major cloud and vapor feedbacks in the climate simulation programs.

Perhaps Dr. Manne put the matter in perspective best, noting that: Since global temperatures are not likely to rise significantly during the next several decades, an aggressive carbon dioxide abatement policy is unwarranted for the near term. Such policies, if implemented, could cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Even after 2020, there would still be enough time to adapt the global economy to a sharp decline in carbon emissions if we learn that such action is warranted.