PJ Media

Climate Alarmists: Understandable Motivations, Unknowable Results

On October 7, hordes of business executives prepped at the White House and then descended on (ascended to?) the Congress in support of climate change legislation. The thrust of their presentation was that cap and trade would stimulate the economy — particularly the economies of the companies for which they work.

Without even getting into dubious economic stuff, who would benefit financially or politically, or whether United States enactment of climate change legislation is needed to help President Obama confirm his humble place on the world stage, a useful preliminary question is whether any climate change legislation would have a beneficial impact on, well, the climate.

Al Gore et al. to the contrary notwithstanding, science has taken a backseat to ideology and financial interest, and the answer is not known. Carbon dioxide emissions — the focus of the current legislative efforts — may or may not contribute to climate change; if they are a significant causal factor, it is far from certain whether the change will be to make it warmer or cooler, better or worse.

Studies have shown that there seems to be a relationship between global warming and carbon dioxide concentrations; studies have also shown that warming trends occur before, and therefore not necessarily because of, increased carbon dioxide concentrations. Despite the lack of attention paid by the media, the world has been in a period of cooling for almost a decade and may well continue in that direction for at least the next couple of decades, despite (or even, perhaps, because of) the increases in carbon dioxide concentrations. The Arctic ice, said to be vanishing, may not be. According to a recent study, vector borne diseases (malaria, Lyme disease, etc.) have increased with warmer temperatures. The study, at least as reported in the article, does not seem to address the problem that we have had cooling for the past decade.

The only thing to be said with certainty is that there has been an increase in studies. “In 2008 alone, there were some 4000-odd peer-reviewed papers published on the topic.” One must wonder how many of them were funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Almost forty years ago, in the 1970s and as recently as the late 1980s, great concern was expressed about a coming carbon dioxide-induced ice age, and in 1986 it was claimed that something had to be done immediately to prevent global cooling from producing an ice age, likely to kill off a billion people due to reduced food production. Now global warming is itself the demon, likely to cause the planet to warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the current century. According to a report issued a few weeks ago by the United Nations Environment Program, this increase will occur “even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges.” This is a “much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago.”

It seems highly unlikely that all of those “most ambitious” pledges will be met. According to a January 2009 NOAA study, the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450-600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “Dust Bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise.

If so, it’s probably already too late to act; too much damage (if any?) has already been done.

One way to verify the predictive accuracy of a model is to put data from the past into it, predict the present, and see whether the prediction matches present conditions.

None of the alarmists and their supercomputer climate models ever predicted even a 30-year respite in their apocalyptic scenarios. Nor did they predict that the Sun, that thermonuclear furnace in the sky that has more influence on Earth’s climate than any number of Ford Explorers, would suddenly go quiet for an indefinite period. If the results don’t coincide with the model results, the model is wrong, the data are wrong, or both are wrong.

This seems obvious, but to some it is not, and the proposition bears repeating from a modestly different perspective:

Although carbon dioxide is capable of raising the Earth’s overall temperature, the IPCC’s predictions of catastrophic temperature increases produced by carbon dioxide have been challenged by many scientists. In particular, the importance of water vapor is frequently overlooked by environmental activists and by the media. The … large temperature increases predicted by many computer models are unphysical and inconsistent with results obtained by basic measurements. Skepticism is warranted when considering computer-generated projections of global warming that cannot even predict existing observations. Various predictions are thus wrong, because they call for too much warming, insufficient warming, too much cooling or not enough cooling.

Chaos theory is sometimes referred to as the butterfly effect — a butterfly flapping its wings in China can indirectly cause a Hurricane Katrina which strikes Florida, badly damages President Bush’s political situation, and leads to the election of President Obama. His election causes a worldwide reduction in carbon emissions, which then results in fewer flowers and hence fewer butterflies in China. Even seemingly insignificant perturbations can have a dramatic and long-term effect.

The problem is, we can’t calculate the consequences until they are so close to happening that it will likely be too late to make things better — assuming that it was ever necessary and possible to do so. Chaos theory holds that many aspects of even the not-too-distant future are basically unpredictable because seemingly insignificant perturbations can, over time, have enormous consequences. We can certainly predict the obvious — for the foreseeable future, the summer climate in Texas will be hotter than the winter climate in Alaska. We can also predict that no matter how desperately we may wish it were otherwise, there is realistically nothing we can do to make our wishes come true.

Weather prediction for more than a few days into the future is often inaccurate, despite the human and economic importance of the predicted or unpredicted weather activity. It is not the same as climate prediction, but it is certainly part of it. Some things which may grandly affect the climate have little impact on the immediate weather, and the reverse may be true as well. But to predict how the climate will change over the next century, even the next decade, is very difficult and fraught with potential error. We simply don’t know, and have no way of knowing at present, whether the Arctic ice will increase or diminish over the next decade, whether the summers will be hotter or the winters colder, or what the impact of either will be.

The climate change gurus seem neither fully to recognize the difficulties which impair their predictions nor the difficulties inherent in predicting the consequences of the perturbations which they advocate. And environmental perturbations are what they are demanding. It has been argued that reductions in carbon dioxide emissions may diminish plant growth and hence food production. That would be the law of unintended consequences writ large. There is nothing inherently bad about carbon dioxide, and the plants which need it break it down into carbon and oxygen — which humans need.

It is possible that nothing need be done, but that even if something would be useful, we don’t know what, how much, or how much if any good or harm it will do. Again, contrary to Al Gore et al., there is much dissent.

According to one of some six hundred and fifty academically qualified dissenters, the recent lack of warming in the face of continued increases in CO2 suggests that the effects of greenhouse gas forcing have been overstated, that the import of natural variability has been underestimated, and that concomitant rises of atmospheric CO2 and temperature in previous decades may be coincidental rather than causal.

I fear that things could easily go the other way. The climate could cool, perhaps significantly; the consequences of a new little ice age or worse would be catastrophic, and said consequences will be exacerbated if we meanwhile adopt warmist prescriptions. This possibility, plus the law of unintended consequences, leads me to view proposed global engineering “solutions” as madness.

Despite the vast self-importance of humans, changes in the Sun seem to have a substantially greater impact on the Earth’s climate than we do, and there is nothing much we can do about that. There have been significant changes in climate on our neighboring planets, presumably not impacted by humans. It is far from clear that we humans actually have significant power to affect the climate; to the extent that we do, it is quite possible that acting on the basis of poor guesses about how to do so, far from producing desirable results, will have adverse consequences.

The questions are extraordinarily complex. The scientists who devote their days to studying the situation are in vehement disagreement, and the politicians who devote their days to getting re-elected (without reading or understanding the complex legislation upon which they vote) lack the knowledge to figure out who has got it right and who has got it wrong in an area far more complex even than health care or economic stimulus.

They seem to have taken to heart the old poem “When in danger and in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout” without knowing whether there is a danger.

Lacking reliable answers to the basic questions, it seems silly to run off at enormous expense in a dither about what may — or may not — avoid global warming or global cooling. It’s like standing on the beach frantically throwing money at the ocean to keep the tides from coming in or going out. Butterfly effect notwithstanding, it seems probable that no matter how much money is tossed from where, the tides will continue coming in and going out; we have a pretty good idea what causes the tides — it’s the damn Moon. As to the climate, we don’t really know whether it’s happening, what may be the principal causes, or what might help to produce a desirable result.

The environment is important; we live in it. However, we must understand and learn from our mistakes. The well-intended ban on DDT probably saved a few lives. Butt probably cost many more by encouraging the proliferation of mosquitoes and other disease transmitting insects. We nevertheless feel an urgent need to do something, if only to assuage our guilty consciences or to achieve political goals.

The motivations are understandable, but their consequences are not.