Global Warming or Hot Air?
by Ari Armstrong, June 12, 2001
According to the environmental lobby and the popular media, people are creating greenhouse emissions which will cause the earth's temperature to rise, resulting in environmental problems or even devastation. The Kyoto treaty, by forcing the United States to reduce energy consumption by (around) 30 percent, promises to save us from this problem. However, this chain of reasoning is faulty.
Patrick J. Michaels of the Cato Institute points out that temperatures are likely to rise over the next century by around 1.5C degrees. (See http://www.cato.org/dailys/06-12-01.html.)
Michaels adds, "The physics of the greenhouse effect requires that warming begins to damp off if the increase in a greenhouse compound is constant. So the only way that the computer models can predict a constant warming rate for the next 100 years is to assume that the greenhouse gases go in at ever-increasing (exponential) rates." In other words, if greenhouse gasses remain constant, or if they decline, then the temperature increase over the next century will be less than anticipated.
In order to prevent this possible modest warming, the Kyoto treaty urges the United States do reduce its energy consumption by some 30 percent, while exempting all "developing" nations from cut-backs. The cost of such a move in terms of human life and well-being would be enormous. Yet the "environmentalists" don't notice the irony when they advocate policies which would reduce the quality of people's environment.
The June 12 Rocky Mountain News ran statistics from the Department of Energy showing the United States to be responsible for 23 percent of the emission of greenhouse gasses (from industrial sources, which is only one source of such gasses). If we reduced our energy consumption by 30 percent, what would cut total global emissions by 7 percent. Is this relatively minor change in pollution worth devastating our economy?
On June 11, the Wall Street Journal published an article by Richard S. Lindzen, one of the members of the National Academy of Sciences panel on climate change (http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=95000606). Lindzen points out that the popular media grossly mischaracterized the report.
Lindzen writes, "[T]he report represent[s] the span of views... making clear that there is no consensus, unanimous or otherwise, about long-term climate trends and what causes them." He continues,
Our primary conclusion was that despite some knowledge and agreement, the science is by no means settled. We are quite confident (1) that global mean temperature is about 0.5 degrees Celsius higher than it was a century ago; (2) that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen over the past two centuries; and (3) that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas whose increase is likely to warm the earth (one of many, the most important being water vapor and clouds). But -- and I cannot stress this enough -- we are not in a position to confidently attribute past climate change to carbon dioxide or to forecast what the climate will be in the future. That is to say, contrary to media impressions, agreement with the three basic statements tells us almost nothing relevant to policy discussions.
So now we'll see a rash of retractions and apologies from newspapers across the country, right? I'll hold my breath.
Lindzen reminds us that earth's climate throughout history has changed dramatically. He notes, "Distinguishing the small recent changes in global mean temperature from the natural variability, which is unknown, is not a trivial task. All attempts so far make the assumption that existing computer climate models simulate natural variability, but I doubt that anyone really believes this assumption."
Lindzen adds, "My own view, consistent with the panel's work, is that the Kyoto Protocol would not result in a substantial reduction in global warming." He suggests other policies may be more fruitful.
So if Kyoto isn't the answer, what is? Put simply, a free market. Advancing technology promises to unlock new, cleaner sources of energy. Thus, it's quite possible that well before the end of the century people could be producing radically lower levels of greenhouse gasses, even as we use more energy. The government should stop meddling in the energy markets, stop misdirecting investments to politically motivated projects, and get the hell out of the way. Most politicians and bureaucrats are unlikely to consider this approach, however, because it would reduce their power and tax income.
Unfortunately, Dubya has indicated he may push for more government subsidies of politically favored research. Such a move would result in more government waste, and thus slower economic progress toward cleaner energy. However, Bush did make some sensible comments about the issue, as quoted by Mike Allen and Eric Pianin in the June 11 Washington Post:
We do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming... We do not know how much our climate could, or will change in the future. We do not know how fast change will occur, or even how some of our actions could impact it... [N]o one can say with any certainly what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided.
Bush is right to express skepticism in Kyoto. Unfortunately, he seems equally unwilling to support freer markets.