Global Warming: Mostly Hot Air
The past few months have not been good to the still-infant discipline of climate change alarmism -- that strange amalgam of pseudo-science, crystal ball gazing, and mass hysteria that was formerly known as global warming alarmism until it became apparent a few years back that the globe had in fact stopped warming, and the alarmists decided that the term "climate change" was a more effective way of describing what the rest of us call "weather."
For around a decade now -- since around the time, coincidentally, that the warming stopped -- the alarmists have had things pretty much their own way, dominating the debate with ever more dramatic predictions of impending doom as man-made CO2 emissions heat up the planet, and managing for the best part to keep a lid on dissent, thanks to an unlikely, and decidedly unholy, alliance of organizations and individuals with a vested interest in upping the fear factor.
This alliance includes politicians who see climate change as a new way of persuading citizens to give them more power; corporations who play on our concern and guilt to sell us anything from eco-friendly washing powder to flex-fuel SUVs; scientists keen to get their hands on a share of the $5 billion handed out by governments and NGOs each year for climate change research; and the legions of bureaucrats employed to draw up regulations and run the globe-trotting climate conference circus.
Then there's the lavishly funded environmental lobby; socialists who see climate change as their last, best hope of undermining free-market democracies and cutting the United States down to size; and a media which understands that "World Ends Tomorrow" stories get more viewers than "Everything Likely to Be Just Fine" stories, and whose members tend to side with the leftist, anti-American crowd.
Given such an array of talents and interests it's a wonder any of us are still allowed to drive a car, fly in a plane, or light a barbecue. And indeed the alarmist movement has come worryingly close to achieving critical mass. Its apotheosis probably came around a couple of years ago, when Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was doing the rounds, and you couldn't open a magazine or turn on the TV without seeing photos of polar bears "stranded" on ice flows, CG renderings of famous landmarks under 30 feet of water, or interviews in which Al's celebrity eco-buddies promised to take a long, hard look at their Learjet usage.
Not that there weren't dissenting voices. A sizable minority of scientists has for years been disputing the basic science behind climate change alarmism (you can find a list of 400 leading "skeptics" here), arguing that the relatively small amount of warming (less than a degree Celsius) observed in the 20th century was well within the natural range of variation in the Earth's temperature, and questioning the assumption that human activity was to blame. Climate is always changing, they pointed out, and there's no such thing as an "ideal" temperature for the planet.
They also noted that other planets in our solar system had been experiencing similar warming, notably Mars -- despite the fact that, while NASA has succeeded in sending a couple of robot probes to the red planet, they have yet to land an SUV there. Back on Earth, they presented evidence that temperature drove CO2 emissions, and not the other way round. They suggested that natural factors, such as solar activity or the oceans, might play a role in regulating the climate, and that a couple of degrees of warming would anyway have net benefits for most countries.
And even if the warming was man-made, the skeptics argued, the measures the alarmists claimed were necessary to stop the warming would have greater economic and social costs than those that would be incurred by simply adapting to changes in climate -- a particularly sensible course of action in the event that the warming did turn out to be natural -- while waiting for market forces to make low-carbon technologies viable. Most significantly, the skeptics pointed out that the increase in global temperatures appeared to have stopped around 1998, despite the fact that CO2 output had continued rising.
But despite persuasive evidence that the Earth's climate was not following the alarmist script, and that proposals to "combat" the hypothetical problems were ill thought out to say the least, the skeptics have struggled to make their voices heard outside the skeptic blogs, websites, and think tanks. They've had their reputations rubbished, funding withheld, and been likened to Holocaust deniers. A writer for an environmentalist website famously suggested that "we should have war crimes trials for these bastards -- some sort of climate Nuremberg."
A recent survey exposed the extent of bias among news programs on the three main U.S. networks: just one-fifth of stories about climate change featured opinions that dissented from the alarmist orthodoxy. However, CNN has probably outdone them all in terms of melodramatic reporting -- hardly surprising given that founder Ted Turner thinks global warming will have turned those of us who aren't lucky enough to be dead into cannibals within 40 years. Meanwhile, in the UK the BBC has effectively seconded dozens of its journalists to the alarmist PR machine, unquestioningly reporting new findings that support the alarmist narrative, while largely ignoring research that questions the "consensus," other than to debunk it. Reputable science journals haven't been much kinder to the skeptics, who often find it difficult to get research published as editors take an increasingly pro-alarmist stance.
But the skeptics have refused to be silenced, and in the past year or so there have been signs the momentum is beginning to shift away from the alarmists and towards the realm of common sense. Most significantly, it's becoming abundantly clear that the Earth is not warming in the way the alarmists have claimed it should be. In February of this year a raft of data from the leading monitoring centers showed that average global temperatures had fallen by around 0.65º C, effectively canceling out the recent 30-year warming trend and leaving the Earth's temperature close to what the alarmists would consider "normal." And a few weeks later the World Meteorological Association reported that global temperatures would fall again this year.
Two years of cooling do not a new ice age make, but they do raise serious doubts about the predictions made by the alarmists, and undermine the fundamental tenet of climate change theory: that global temperatures will continue to increase in line with CO2 emissions. Predictably, the alarmists have simply discounted the cooling, claiming that the long-term temperature trend is still upwards, and explaining away the fall by pointing to the cooling effects of the La Nina weather system -- despite refusing to credit the warming El Nino system with contributing to 1998 being the warmest year since records began.
The alarmists also said we'd see an increase in hurricanes and other storms as the planet warmed, but this hasn't proved to be the case, and several studies have shown no link between global temperatures and hurricane activity. Similarly, there has been no significant rise in sea levels, despite the alarmists' predictions to the contrary. So much for the science, which, contrary to the alarmist mantra, is far from settled.
Another fact that's become clear is that there's next to no agreement between those national governments and NGOs that have signed up to climate change alarmism about what to do to reduce CO2 emissions. The latest talks on how to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012 broke up just last week, with negotiators agreeing on nothing except the need to have more meetings.
For all their fine words, politicians are understandably reluctant to sign up to policies that will drive jobs overseas, further inflate already high energy prices, and generally wreck their countries' economies. Australia's eco-friendly Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, whose election last year was hailed as a major victory by the alarmists, started backtracking on his commitments as soon as someone showed him the projected bill. Europe, however, is pressing ahead with emissions trading, or "cap and trade" schemes, despite warnings that they will result in vast windfall profits for energy companies and higher prices for consumers, while doing little to curb emissions.
In the U.S., President Bush's latest plan for tackling climate change, while criticized by some conservatives, is a model of responsibility in comparison to polices being proposed elsewhere, combining energy efficiency regulations with greater investment in nuclear power, "clean coal," and new energy technologies. And it's telling that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who have been critical of the current administration's lack of action on climate change, have had little to say on the subject as they campaign in coal-producing Pennsylvania, other than to talk about creating five million "clean" and "high-tech" energy jobs. It may come as news to Senators Clinton and Obama, but if America embraces renewable energy there won't be much call for armies of laborers to toil amid the acres of wind turbines and solar panels.
There's also no prospect of agreement on who should pay for policies designed to reduce global CO2 emissions. China -- which has overtaken the U.S. as the world's leading emitter -- along with India and leading African nations, argue that they shouldn't have to pay for measures to mitigate environmental problems caused by the developed nations. The developed nations, in turn, argue that they shouldn't be penalized just because free-market policies enabled their economies to grow more rapidly than those of countries that persevered with various forms of socialism.
Yet another problem is the rush to biofuels, which was seen as a "magic bullet" by politicians for reducing CO2 emissions and achieving energy independence -- not least in the U.S. -- but is rapidly turning into a disaster worthy of an Al Gore movie all of its own. Dozens of studies have shown that the production of most biofuels causes more harm to the environment than the fuels themselves save, while the turning over of agricultural land from food production to growing crops for fuel is driving up food prices around the world.
Against the backdrop of these scientific and political developments, the public is becoming increasingly mistrustful of alarmist rhetoric. Al Gore's massively hyped Live Earth event last summer was a flop of suitably global proportions -- the only headlines it generated were for the air miles racked up by Gore's troupe of platitude-spewing stars, the negligible viewing figures, and the mountains of rubbish left behind at the concert venues. More bad news for Gore followed when a British judge ruled that An Inconvenient Truth contained nine factual errors -- the court case focused attention on Gore's mendacity even as he was collecting his richly undeserved Nobel Peace Prize.
Gore is back peddling his patented brand of misinformation and fear-mongering with a $300 million advertising campaign -- an awful lot of money, given that he's been telling us for years that "the debate is over." But the old magic seems to have gone, and these days he looks like nothing so much as the little boy who cried wolf. Short of appearing on stage with Elvis, and announcing that far from being dead the King has, in fact, been in self-imposed exile on a Pacific atoll studying the threat of rising sea levels, Al has played all his cards. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that precisely zero per cent of Americans -- yes, zero, that's not a typo -- rated global warming as the most important issue in the upcoming presidential election.
The alarmists are in no mood to give up. Earlier this month the BBC altered its report on those falling global temperatures after a green activist emailed the reporter who wrote the story, threatening to launch a campaign to discredit him. But far from this being a victory for the climate change camp, it backfired spectacularly -- the story was picked up by bloggers and news media around the world, shining a light on the increasingly nasty tactics used by the lunatic fringe of the alarmist movement, and further damaging the BBC's already battered reputation as an impartial news source.
Around the world people are beginning to see the disconnect between what politicians, environmentalists, and the media tell them, and what they see with their own eyes. Many countries have experienced record cold temperatures and snowfall over the past few months, and a person who's just dug their car out of the snow doesn't appreciate being told that their power bills are going up because of regulations to combat "global warming." They're not going to stand for job losses, higher living costs, and other hardships in the cause of shaving a hypothetical degree or two of warming a hundred years from now.
And as the disquiet grows even elements of the previously supine media may begin to change their tune. While some journalists are ideologically invested in attacking the Bush administration and promoting the role of the UN, or genuinely think they're saving the planet, others are just chasing the next big story, and if the story becomes that politicians and corporations have been misleading and exploiting the public, they're likely to jump off one bandwagon and on to another one heading in the opposite direction.
Maybe the current cooling will continue, maybe it won't -- unlike the alarmists, skeptics don't claim to be able to see 100 years into the future. If the planet does continue to warm slightly, the billions that the alarmists want to spend in a futile bid to prevent it would be better spent tackling the real problems facing the world right now, as Bjorn Lomborg has so eloquently argued. (Imagine how many vaccination and water treatment programs Gore's $300 million vanity fund would pay for in Africa.) And if the cooling continues, our descendants could find themselves heading for another ice age -- and, ironically, desperately searching for ways to warm the planet.
Too many interested parties have too much invested in climate change alarmism to admit that the game is up just yet, but sooner or later their position is going to become untenable. And when it does, while acknowledging that many people embraced climate change alarmism for genuine reasons, we'll have to decide what to do with those who knew or suspected their claims had no substance, but pressed on out of a desire to get rich or impose their ideologies on others.
Nuremberg-style trials anyone?
Mike McNally blogs at The Monkey Tennis Centre.