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Friday, April 24, 2009

Global Warming Revisited

Climate Change is a Godsend for Big-Government Enthusiasts

In the May 2001 Freeman I published “Unprecedented Global Warming?” which noted that climate change (global warming and global cooling) is a continuing phenomenon and that what we’ve witnessed in the last 25 years is “by no means unprecedented.” The Medieval Warm Period (800-1300), which took place without SUVs, power plants, or factories, was warmer than it is today. Crippling our economy to solve a minor (or nonexistent) future problem struck me as a serious mistake.

That article was tantamount to heresy among those who devoutly believe in anthropogenic (manmade) global warming. A physics professor responded, “Heberling’s commentary is the latest in a long list of junk-science commentaries about climate change. Heberling, who is not a scientist, but rather the president of a small business school, repeats several old and misleading ideas.”

Of course, Al Gore, the Nobel laureate who has made global warming his cause, is not a scientist. He has a B.A. in government. For the record, I have a B.S. from Cornell University, where I took courses in physics, chemistry, geology, and meteorology. However, this makes little difference because my sin was to downplay the severity of global warming, and too many people and organizations are tied financially to the “crisis.”

As MIT atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen puts it, “Ambiguous scientific statements about climate are hyped by those with a vested interest in alarm, thus raising the political stakes for policymakers who provide funds for more science to feed more alarm to increase the political stakes. Indeed, the success of climate alarmism can be counted in the increased federal spending on climate research from a few hundred million dollars pre-1990 to $1.7 billion today.”

The Government Accountability Office says that for over 15 years the federal government has funded programs to study the earth’s climate and to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to climate change. A review of the number of government agencies and the amount of government money devoted to “climate change” is staggering. Nine of the 15 cabinet-level departments receive significant funding for climate-change activities. A 2007 White House press release boasted, “The President has devoted $37 billion to climate-change-related activities since 2001.” The U.S. Global Change Research Program, which has 13 federal agency participants, has made the largest scientific investment in climate change research at $20 billion over a 13-year period. The federal organizations with the largest budgets devoted to climate-change activities include NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

For those who embrace big government and centralized planning, the global-warming crisis has been a godsend. Under the mantra “preventing global warming,” government has greatly expanded into our daily lives. Mandates have superseded consumer choice in the areas of energy, transportation, and appliances. For example, when compared to the traditional light bulb, the new government-mandated compact fluorescent light bulb is far more expensive, loaded with mercury, and takes time to illuminate. To compensate for this delay, consumers leave the lights on. How does this help the environment or curtail global warming?

And the Horse You Rode In On

Given the billions of federal dollars at stake, it is not surprising that there would be resistance to any free flow of ideas that might question the crisis. If we don’t have a crisis, then we won’t need the government to ride in on a white horse throwing billions around to save us. It therefore becomes imperative to squelch or marginalize dissent. Name-calling, shooting the messenger, and the use of such show-stopper statements as “We have consensus” and “The debate is over” usually do the trick.

In the name-calling category, we find the following epithets: “climate-change denier,” “flat-earth advocates,” and “tools or stooges of Big Oil.”

Jeff Kueter of the Marshall Institute says that scientists who challenge global warming “are quickly labeled as having received money from the petroleum industry. The media consider their findings and their opinions to somehow be tainted because they’ve got a financial relationship.” Why is there never any suspicion in the other direction, when a researcher has a financial relationship with the government and its agenda for more regulations, more mandates, a carbon tax, and the nationalization of the energy sector? Why don’t the media ever call such a researcher a “tool of big government”?

What about the consensus we hear so much about? Gregg Easterbrook expresses the mainstream sentiment: “The consensus of the scientific community has shifted from skepticism to near-unanimous acceptance.”

The late author Michael Crichton had this response:

I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had. Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus. There is no such thing as consensus science. If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.

One of the biggest tragedies of consensus science is the chilling effect it has on those who fall outside of this consensus. “Scientists who dissent from the alarmism have seen their grant funds disappear,” Lindzen says. “It’s my belief that many scientists have been cowed not merely by money but by fear. Alarm rather than genuine curiosity, it appears, is essential to maintaining funding. And only the most senior scientists today can stand up against this alarmist gale and defy the iron triangle of climate scientists, advocates and policy makers.”

Threat Level Whatever

The problem with public policy based on alarmism is that it’s hard to sustain. There are three reasons for this. The first is overselling the crisis. The general public has become numb and cynical about the endless barrage of ills all tied to global warming. (Even the disappearance of the Loch Ness Monster has been attributed to it.)

The second reason is clear and convincing evidence to the contrary. This is what did in the last climate-change crisis. A New York Times headline on May 21, 1975 blared: “Scientists Ponder Why World’s Climate is Changing: A Major Cooling Widely Considered to be Inevitable.” But it was hard to continue the hype about global cooling when it got hot outside. While the current global warming debate may be over, Mother Nature is, unfortunately, not cooperating. Contrary to the infallible computer climate-model predictions (which I call high-tech crystal balls), global temperatures peaked ten years ago, in 1998. There was no appreciable temperature increase for the next eight years. However, for the last two years the temperatures have actually fallen. The past two winters have been brutally cold. This painful realization may help to explain the sense of urgency in Congress to pass climate-change legislation–right now! Rep. Henry Waxman said at the opening of the 2009 congressional hearings on global warming that he plans to move “quickly and decisively” to push through climate legislation before Memorial Day (Or does he mean before it gets even colder?)

The final reason is that the alarmist crisis gets run over by a real crisis. With the financial turmoil, the housing crisis, the stock-market crash, and rising unemployment, it is hard to get excited about global warming. In the January Pew Public Survey Poll, global warming came in 20th out of 20 on the list of Top Priorities for America. The top five were: the economy, jobs, terrorism, Social Security, and education.

The global-warming crisis was tailor-made to simultaneously advance the agendas of the environmentalists, big government, and those who vilify the oil industry and business in general. There is far too much at stake to have this crisis die peacefully. As a result, there will be extensive efforts to keep it alive. For starters, the phrase “global warming” is being used less frequently (if at all). It’s been replaced with the nebulous, but error-free, “climate change.” Given that the earth’s climate has been changing for millions of years, “climate change” covers all bases (both warming and cooling). The problem with this approach, however, is that the public won’t buy it. It is hard to get excited about the dangers of “climate change.”

Be prepared for more talk about “energy security” and “energy efficiency.” This will lead to more government-mandated products and less consumer choice. There will still be a push for a carbon tax–or a cap-and-trade scheme, President Obama’s preferred policy. However, without the global-warming hysteria, this will be a harder sell.

Carbon dioxide will continue to be demonized as a “greenhouse gas.” Even though it is harmless to humans and is needed by all plant life, it will be called a toxic pollutant by the media, militant environmentalists, and politicians. Yet carbon dioxide makes up less than 4 percent of all greenhouse gases. Water vapor accounts for 95 percent.

Shut Off the Alarmists

What’s to be done? First, we should abandon all efforts and discussions related to cap-and-trade, carbon offsets, carbon footprints, and carbon taxes, which would never go away if implemented and won’t measurably change the temperature.

Second, we should stop government from funding climate change science. As John Tierney of the New York Times writes: “[Government] officials running the agencies have their own agendas . . . which can be [met] by supporting research demonstrating that there’s a terrible problem for the agency to solve.” Climatologist Patrick Michaels states, “[N]o one ever received a major research grant by stating that his or her particular issue might not be a problem after all.”

Third, we should demand that lobbyists for expanded government power disclose their financial backers.

Finally, we need to accept that climate change, both global warming and global cooling, will continue. Ironically, of the two we should wish for warming. Mankind has prospered in warming periods because agricultural production increased at higher latitudes and elevations. The opposite was true with global cooling. I’ll take global warming over another Ice Age. My request to Washington: Please don’t pass legislation to make Michigan any colder than it already is.

  • Michael Heberling is the Chair of Leadership Studies in the Baker College MBA program in Flint, Michigan. Prior to this, he was President of Baker's Center for Graduate Studies for 16 years. Before Baker, Dr. Heberling was a Senior Policy & Business Analyst with the Anteon Corporation. He also had a career in the Air Force retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. Dr. Heberling has over 75 business and public policy publications. His research interests focus on leadership, military history and the impact of public policy on the business community. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.