Capitol Ideas

The False Alert of Global Warming

By From the May 2005 issue

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GLOBAL WARMING BECAME the environmentalists cause celebre in the late 1980s. They had turned on a dime, for only a few years earlier global cooling had been their mantra. They didn't know what had caused that earlier "cooling trend," but its effects were sure to be bad. "The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only in ten years," Newsweek reported in 1975. "The resulting famines could be catastrophic." 

Now warming is the specter, with its melting glaciers, inundated cities, and the Gulf Stream reversing course. But I doubt if the enviros can keep on fomenting the scare much longer. It has been based on little more than extrapolated temperatures and spurious charts. What are the facts? Surface temperature measurements show a global warming period from about 1910 to 1940, followed by a cooling period until 1975. Since then we have experienced a slight warming trend. These three periods add up to a surface-temperature increase of perhaps one-degree Fahrenheit for the entire 20th century.

Satellite measurements of atmospheric temperatures do not agree, however. They began only in 1979, and have shown no significant increase over the last quarter century. Balloon readings did show an abrupt, one-time increase in 1976-1977. Since then, those temperatures have stabilized.

Environmentalists believe that the 20th-century warming was caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. That produces carbon dioxide—one of several "greenhouse gases." The argument is that their release into the atmosphere wraps the Earth in an invisible shroud. This makes the escape of heat into outer space slightly more difficult than its initial absorption from sunlight. This is the Greenhouse Effect. So the Earth warms up.

But whether man-made carbon-dioxide emissions have caused measurable temperature increases over the last 30 years is debated. Carbon dioxide is itself a benign and essential substance, incidentally. Without it, plants would not grow, and without plant-life animals could not live. Any increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes plants, trees, and forests to grow more abundantly. It should be a treehugger's delight. 

The surface data suggest that man-made carbon dioxide has not in fact increased global temperatures. From 1940 to 1975, coal-fired plants emitted fumes with great abandon and without restraint by Greens. Yet the Earth cooled slightly in that time. And if man-made global warming is real, atmospheric as well as surface temperatures should have increased steadily. But they haven't. There was merely that one-time increase, possibly caused by a solar anomaly. In addition, an "urban heat island effect" has been identified. Build a tarmac runway near a weather station, and the nearby temperature readings will go up.

Global warming became the focus of activism at the time of the Earth Summit in Rio, in 1992. Bush the elder signed a climate-change treaty, with signatories agreeing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels. The details were worked out in Kyoto, Japan. But America was the principal target, everyone knew it, and Clinton didn't submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification. The 1990 date had been carefully chosen. Emissions in Germany and the Soviet Union were still high; Germany had just absorbed East Germany, then still using inefficient coal-fired plants. After they were modernized, Germany's emissions dropped, so the demand that they be reduced below 1990 levels had already been met and became an exercise in painless moralizing.

The same was true for the Soviet Union. After its collapse, in 1991, economic activity fell by about one-third. As for France, most of its electricity comes from nuclear power, which has no global-warming effects but has been demonized for other reasons. If the enviros were serious about reducing carbon dioxide they would be urging us to build nuclear power plants, but that is not on their agenda. They want windmills (whether or not they kill golden eagles).

Under the Kyoto Protocol, U.S. emissions would have to be cut so much that economic depression would have been the only certain outcome. We were expected to reduce energy use by about 35 percent within ten years, which might have meant eliminating one-third of all cars. You can see why the enviros fell in love with the idea. 

Third World countries are exempt, as are China and India. Australia, like the U.S., has refused to ratify. Thirty-five countries, mostly in Europe, have agreed to reduce emissions. But there are no enforcement mechanisms, the potential for cheating is unlimited, and the principal irritation today is that the main enemy, the United States, slipped the noose.

Any unusual event is now likely to be linked to climate change. Within 24 hours of the tsunami in December, the CBS evening news displayed a graphic that had only the words "global warming" and "tsunamis." Citing unnamed "climate experts," Dan Rather intoned:

Climate experts warned today that tsunamis could become more common around the world and more dangerous. They cite a number of factors, including a creeping rise in sea levels believed to come from global warming and growing populations along coastal areas.

The claim that the globe is warming depends on knowing earlier temperatures. Such information can only be obtained indirectly. Climate scientists depend on tree rings, bore holes, ice cores, the skeletons of marine organisms. The graph that was most effective in persuading policy-makers became known as the hockey stick. The temperature line is mostly horizontal, perhaps declining slightly for 900 years, then abruptly heading up into a warmer range over the last 100 years. The 900 years are the handle, the last hundred are the blade.

THE "HOCKEY STICK " was first published in 1998 by the climatologist Michael Mann of the University of Virginia, and co-authors. It was immediately used by the United Nations to promote the idea that we have an unprecedented crisis on our hands. But the chart also aroused suspicions, because for years there had been a broad agreement among climatologists that global temperatures had not been as unvarying as the chart implied. There had been something called the Medieval Warm Period, which persisted until the "Little Ice Age" took hold in the 14th and 15th centuries. Both periods lasted for several hundred years.

The warmer period, accompanied by a flowering of prosperity, knowledge, and art in Europe, seems to have been wholly beneficial. Agricultural yields increased, marshes and swamps—today called wetlands— dried up, removing the breeding grounds of malaria-spreading mosquitoes. Infant mortality fell, the population grew. Greenland was settled by the Vikings, who reached a peak of prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries. They began declining in the late 14th century, with the colder weather. Then the settlements perished.

The warm period has been recognized in the climate textbooks for decades, and it was an obvious embarrassment to those claiming that the 20th-century warming was a true anomaly. Also, the earlier changes occurred when fossil-fuel consumption could hardly have been the culprit. They would prove that warming could occur without human intervention. 

Consider, in this context, the experience of David Deming with the University of Oklahoma's College of Geosciences. In 1995, he published a paper in the journal Science, reviewing the evidence showing that bore hole data showed a warming of about one degree Celsius in North America over the last 100 to 150 years.

Deming continues: 

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, someone who wouldpervert science in the service of social and politi cal causes. So 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. " 

Whether intentionally or not, that is exactly what Mann's "hockey stick" did. 

Once doomsayers convince us that we are experiencing something new, they feel free to claim that we face a catastrophe. They can extrapolate from the minor and beneficial warming that we may (or may not) have experienced in the last generation and argue that temperatures will keep on rising until the ice caps melt and cities flood.

Then the hockey stick was challenged by a Toronto minerals consultant named Stephen McIntyre, who, remarkably, had no credentials as a climatologist. He spent two years and $5,000 of his own money trying to uncover Mann's methods. Mann at first did give him some information, but then cut him off saying he didn't have time to respond to "every frivolous note" from nonscientists. McIntyre was joined by another Canadian, and in 2003 they published a critical article. Mann had "used flawed methods that yield meaningless results. "

In a rebuttal, Mann revealed new information that had not appeared in his original paper. It had been published in the British journal Nature, which later published a correction. McIntyre thinks there may be more errors but still doesn't know how the graph was generated. Mann has refused to release his secret formula. A Wall Street Journal reporter doggedly pursued the matter and contacted Mann. He told the reporter: "Giving them the algorithm would be giving in to the intimidation tactics that these people are engaged in."

Michael Mann now concedes it is plausible that past temperature variations may have been larger than thought. Fred Singer, a leading critic of warming scares and founder of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, says that "the hockey stick is dead." He was recently nominated by warmists to receive the First Annual Flat Earth Award for being "the year's most prominent global warming denier." Nominated along with him were Rush Limbaugh and Michael Crichton, the thriller writer.

In his recent book State of Fear, Crichton unexpectedly emerged as a powerful critic of modish conclusions about global warming. He studied the subject for a couple of years before writing his recent hook, to which he added an appendix comparing global-warming science to eugenics. Earlier, in a speech at Caltech, he had compared it to the search for extraterrestrials (which he says is based on bogus science). There may have been some warming as a part of a natural trend, Crichton allows. But "no one knows how much of the present trend might be natural or how much man-made."

"Open and frank discussion" of global warming is being suppressed, he believes. One indication is that "so many of the outspoken critics of global warming are retired professors." They can speak freely because they are no longer seeking grants or facing colleagues "whose grant applications and career advancement may be jeopardized by their criticisms."

Environmentalists have become adept at de-legitimizing their opponents by saying they are "supported by industry," but studies funded by environmentalist organizations are "every bit as biased," Crichton added. They have become a special interest like any other, with legislative goals and millions spent on lobbying.

Myron Ebell, who works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) in Washington, D.C., one of the few groups that examines global-warming claims skeptically, says that environmentalism is now a $1.5 billion industry. In Washington, skeptics (like himself) are outnumbered by global warming advocates perhaps by a margin of 300 to one. Yet CEI, greatly underfunded by comparison with groups like the Sierra Club, tends to be characterized in the media as "industry supported." The enviros' problem is that they have "everything going for them except the facts, " Ebell says. 

Some environmentalists have begun to echo the complaint that they are a special interest. A few months ago, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus wrote a widely circulated 14,000-word essay called "The Death of Environmentalism." It "provoked a civil war among tree huggers," Nicholas D. Kristof wrote in the New York Times. In effect, it was a cry of anguish: Why have we been unable to win on our top issues, especially global warming? They called it "the world's most serious ecological crisis," which "may kill hundreds of millions of human beings over the next century." They looked back to their golden age in the 1970s–the time when they began "using science to define the problem as 'environmental.' "

"Using science" is what they were doing, all right, and the rest of us were blinded by it, for about 25 years. But the problem wasn't that the use of science had led them to propose unattractive "technical fixes," when they should have been appealing to something larger in the human spirit. The problem was that their science was never very good to begin with. And as its inadequacies became more apparent, their scare tactics became more apparent, too. 

To keep the money rolling in, environmentalists always need a crisis. It looks as though they will have to cook up a new one.

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).