Special Report

The Global Warming Two-Step

Natural or man-made -- or both?

By 1.22.07

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I'm in an interesting dilemma. I'm just finishing up a book on global warming and nuclear power. The premise is this:

A. Global warming is a serious problem that should be solved.

B. Nuclear power is the only way we're going to solve it.

It's a simple premise that defies both liberal and conservatives -- fair enough. But ultimately it could get both on the same side. Then we might get something done in the country. Environmentalists hate nuclear but they worry about global warming more. Conservatives pooh-pooh global warming but they do like nuclear power. So maybe we could get going on a nuclear economy that would at least free us from coal (the worst polluter) and maybe eventually cut into our imported oil.

When I came to the chapter on global warming, the argument seemed fairly cut-and-dried. I employed the graph put out by the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change in 2000. It shows global temperatures staying on a very even keel over the last 1,000 years until suddenly jetting upward into unknown territory since 1980. What could be simpler? Global warming is real.

Although I didn't know it at the time, this graph is commonly referred, in good Silicon Valley fashion, to as the "hockey stick."

Two months ago I tested the waters by writing a Spectator.org column called "Endorse Kyoto." As I expected, a lot of people wrote in denouncing me for giving in to the liberals on global warming. What I didn't expect was that many alert readers clued me in to something that has emerged over the last five years -- the hockey stick is a fraud.

THE BIG PROBLEM FOR GLOBAL WARMING alarmists is a period called "The Medieval Warming," which occurred from about 950 A.D. to 1350 A.D. It's well known from the history books. The Vikings colonized Greenland in 982 A.D. and stayed until 1425 A.D., when the cold weather and permafrost drove them out. While there they mapped the northern coast of Greenland, which is now encased in ice (although it's slowly melting). Leif Ericsson, blown off course while headed for Greenland in 1000 A.D., discovered "Vinland" -- probably Nova Scotia -- where he found wild wheat and grapes growing in abundance. Today the land is barren.

In fact, the IPCC had known about the Medieval Warming all along. In 1996 it published a temperature graph that clearly showed the Medieval Warming. There wasn't any dispute at that point.

What happened? Somehow a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts named Michael Mann did some fancy things with some tree-ring data from California in 1998 and came up with the "hockey stick." Such a blatantly ahistorical effort would have only raised eyebrows under ordinary circumstances, but it turned out to be just what the UN wanted -- proof that global warming was unprecedented! The IPCC made the hockey stick the centerpiece of its 2001 Climate Report. Bill Clinton also used it as the centerpiece of his 2000 National Report on Climate Change. The government of Canada sent a copy of the graph to every household in the country. In the end, the IPCC appointed Mann editor of its Journal of Climate -- not bad for a lowly Ph.D. student.

Slowly the criticisms trickled in. Two Canadian statisticians, Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, examined Mann's algorithms and found that any random data plugged into the equations produced the same hockey stick. The hockey-stick fraud was also the subject of Michael Crichton's State of Fear.

The Hudson Institute has just published an excellent book, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, chronicling the whole controversy and more. Authors S. Fred Singer and Dennis Avery present their own counter-theory -- that the earth goes through regular 1,500-year cycles of warming and cooling, driven by the fluctuating intensity of the sun. There was a Roman Warming from 200 B.C. to 600 A.D. -- and of course the well-documented Little Ice Age from 1300 to 1850, when Europe nearly froze to death.

All this is part of the guerrilla warfare that is going on between proponents and skeptics of global warming. Dennis Deming, a climate scientist at the University of Oklahoma, recently told the Senate about his experience in the field:

In 1995, I published a short paper in the academic journal Science. In that study, I reviewed how borehole temperature data recorded a warming of about one degree Celsius in North America over the last 100 to 150 years. The week the article appeared, I was contacted by a reporter for National Public Radio. He offered to interview me, but only if I would state that the warming was due to human activity. When I refused to do so, he hung up on me.

With the publication of the article in Science, I gained significant credibility in the community of scientists working on climate change. They thought I was one of them.... One of them let his guard down. A major person working in the area of climate change and global warming sent me an astonishing email that said: "We have to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period."

All this was very encouraging news. While I was researching all this, temperatures on the East Coast were in the '60s and '70s and people were sunbathing in January. I still miss winter, but it was encouraging to know that we had been through this once before and the world didn't fall apart, as generally predicted by alarmists. Greenland may become habitable again, but at least Miami isn't going to be underwater.

THERE WAS ONLY ONE PROBLEM: What about my book? I was willing to make a concession on global warming in order to try to win liberals over to nuclear energy and now the whole thing had fallen apart.

I spent a very intense two weeks in study. There's lots of literature on both sides and of course alarmists and skeptics each accuse each other of the most nefarious skullduggery. Environmentalists are now pillorying Exxon of spending $16 million trying to refute global warming. Each side is at the point of trying to outlaw the other's opinion.

What finally occurred to me is that maybe both are right. It's possible that the sun forces a 1500-year cycle of warming and cooling and that recent carbon emissions from industrial civilization are exaggerating the pattern. That would suggest there's nothing too unusual about the recent pattern (everybody agrees it's getting warmer), but carbon emissions could still be playing a part.

I finally found a handful of scientists who support this view. One is Nir Shaviv, a very intelligent Israeli astrophysicist who has written the following on ScienceBits.com:

The truth is probably somewhere in between, with natural causes probably being more important over the past century, whereas anthropogenic causes will probably be more dominant over the next century. Following [the] empirical evidence... about 2/3's (give or take a third or so) of the warming should be attributed to increased solar activity and the remaining to anthropogenic causes.

The others are S.K. Solanki of the Max Planck Institute and M. Fligge of the Institute of Astronomy in Zurich, who have done extensive research on solar activity and show that it corresponds very closely with temperature changes. In particular, their data explains the slight decline in temperatures from 1956 to 1970 -- a period that carbon-emissions advocates have a great deal of trouble in explaining.

Solanki and Fligge are generally acknowledged by both sides to be very objective chroniclers of the solar theory. Yet when I read one of their leading papers, I found this:

Since approximately 1975 the situation is clearly different...with solar irradiance showing a comparatively much more modest rise than air temperature....[U]nless the influence of solar variability on Earth is very strongly non-linear, at least this most recent temperature increase reflects the influence of man-made greenhouse gases or non-solar sources of natural variability.

So I'm back in business. As far as I'm concerned, both sides have a point. Yes, there was a Medieval Warming and yes, the sun is the main agent of temperature change, but something is also happening with carbon emissions that is pushing us into unknown territory. It's worth doing something about it.

I hope this convinces both sides to take another look at nuclear power.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.