All Commentary
Monday, October 1, 2001

The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming by Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling

Climate Change Predictions Are Based on Dubious Science and Shameless Fear-Mongering

Cato Institute · 2000 · 224 pages · $10.95 paperback

Reviewed by Bonner Cohen

“There’s no question that global warming is a real phenomenon, that it is occurring,” EPA administrator Christie Todd Whitman told the press in February. “and while scientists can’t predict where the droughts will occur, where the flooding will occur precisely or when, we know these things will occur; the science is strong there.” Whitman is certainly right in saying we’re in store for more droughts and floods. They have always been with us, and they always will be. But whether they have the remotest connection to global warming is quite another matter.

Whitman is not alone in believing that the world faces an endless chain of climatological calamities—not just more droughts and floods, but more hurricanes and tornados, not to mention melting icecaps and the spread of tropical diseases. Proponents of the theory of global warming have succeeded so well in spreading their message of impending doom that it has become standard fare in the mainstream media and—unfortunately—in the halls of government.

This is why The Satanic Gases is so timely. The book examines the science behind the theory and compares the predictions of changes in the earth’s climate with actual observations. Performing this task are two of the nation’s premier experts on climate. Patrick Michaels is professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and past president of the American Association of State Climatologists. Robert Balling is the director of the Laboratory of Climatology at Arizona State University.

Human influences on the climate are anything but new. Ever since agriculture began to spread thousands of years ago, humans have been mucking around with the earth and its climate. The perennial long-grass prairie of east central North America, for example, was replaced with annual plantings of corn and soybeans. “Whereas the prairie was a continuous vegetative cover,” the authors note, “the replacement crops are seasonal, with bare ground exposed to the sun for half the year, resulting in dramatically different absorption of and heating by the sun’s radiant energy.” Given how widespread agriculture is, it is revealing that land-use changes are scarcely considered by the computer models that serve as the basis for the policies to address global warming. And it is those models, known as General Circulation Models (GCMs), which have predicted that increased emissions of manmade carbon dioxide, mostly through the burning of fossil fuels, will lead to a potentially dangerous warming of the planet.

The problem is, the authors point out, the models have consistently overstated what scant warming has taken place over the past two decades, if indeed any has taken place. Throughout the debate over global warming, no authority has been cited more often in the media as providing “more proof” of human-induced climate change than the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet as Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at MIT, recently pointed out at a Capitol Hill briefing, the IPCC was created to assist negotiators in the process of furthering the Kyoto Protocol—not to find out the truth about climate change.

Its vested interest in promoting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol has led the IPCC to become more of a cheerleader for curtailing the use of fossil fuels than a source of scientific objectivity. In addition to publishing scary, non-peer-reviewed “summaries” of the state of climate change, which often bear little resemblance to the findings of its scientists, the IPCC has not leveled with the public on the limitations of its models. As the authors point out, no GCM has ever succeeded in creating a troposphere (the bottom 40,000 feet of the atmosphere) that behaves at all like the observed data of the last quarter of the twentieth century. “In other words,” they write, “while the United Nations was promoting the paradigm that the models were ‘generally realistic’ and using them as the basis for sweeping policy recommendations that could greatly harm United States prosperity, the models were in fact making massive errors that the IPCC was loath to note.”

The inaccuracy of the predictions by GCMs is significant for what it tells us about how much we should rely on such models in the future. Michaels and Balling pointedly ask: “[I]f a GCM calculates that the earth currently is several degrees warmer than it actually is, what logical device allows it to make a forecast of future warming?” Those forecasts can spark fears that result in disastrous policies. “More people die from weather-related causes in the winter than in the summer,” they note. “And per capita summer mortality is going down, thanks largely to air conditioning; from this perspective, proposals to fight global warming in ways that make electricity more expensive appear inefficient, to say the least.”

Any rush to judgment is fraught with danger, particularly one based on dubious science and shameless fear-mongering. President Bush’s recent decision not to regulate emissions of carbon dioxide and his rejection of the Kyoto Protocol were welcome steps back from the folly into which the global-warming debate threatened to take us. But the fight is far from over. Those wishing to be armed for that fight should read The Satanic Gases.

Bonner Cohen is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.