When I was in college, I was drawn to both the natural and social sciences. I studied physics for a few years but then changed my major to economics. I am sure that my fascination with the issue of global warming arose because it encompasses concepts from a number of scientific and socioeconomic disciplines. It is obvious that the science is important. But economics is equally important. It is at the heart of the alternative fuel question and necessitates costs that dwarf even the current expenditures related to the banking crisis.
One important event was critical in inspiring me to write this article. In March, I attended a conference in New York City entitled “Global Warming: Was It Ever Really a Crisis?” Sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonpartisan public policy think tank, it was attended by over 600 scientists, economists, and policy makers who, using Heartland terminology, characterize themselves as “climate realists” as opposed to “climate alarmists.” In general, climate realists believe that the danger of climate change has been exaggerated both as to the magnitude and the degree of human causation, and that most of the proposed solutions, far from solving any assumed problems, will only make the world poorer.
Speakers included Dr. Richard Lindzen, a renowned atmospheric physicist at MIT; Dr. William Gray, a pioneer in the study of hurricane forecasting with over 40 years of experience; Dr. Nir Shaviv, an expert on the relationship between astrophysical phenomena and weather; Dr. Roy Spencer, a co-developer of methods for satellites to record temperatures accurately; and Dr. Vaclav Klaus, the President of the Czech Republic, who holds a Ph.D. in economics and has published a book on the subject. The speakers and the staff were very instrumental in illuminating the climate issues.
The subject matter, however, can be overwhelming for the average person. I could not find any individual article that summarizes the wide range of issues reasonably well. That is why I wrote this article. I have combined material from their writings and suggested readings (see endnotes) with other information I have learned over the last several years. The result is a statement of the realist position, which is a diagnosis of what is wrong with alarmism.
The Nature of the Problem
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is added to the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels, which include coal, gasoline, natural gas, and oil. CO2 can trap infrared radiation reflected back from the surface of the earth and, other factors being equal, will cause some additional heat to be retained. Gases with this property are called greenhouse gases. They are mostly natural and include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor. Water vapor overwhelmingly dominates CO2, and most of the CO2 is natural, with a small percentage coming from humans.
The issues at hand are whether the effect is substantial, and whether anything can or should be done about it: (1) Are humans altering the climate in a substantive and detrimental way? My answer is “No.” That is the science issue. (2) Would the widely proposed solutions help, or would they simply make matters worse? That is the economics issue, and my answer is “much worse.” Let us look at each in turn.
Scientific Weaknesses of the Alarmist Position
Natural Cycles. Climate change is the normal course of events. Alarmists claim that there have been unusual changes in climate, but that is not the case. The earth has been undergoing large temperature fluctuations for millions of years. For the earth, a century is proportionately equivalent to about a minute for a person. Therefore, since the period of expanded fossil fuel usage started in the 1940s, we are talking about the equivalent of less than a minute in a person’s life.
For the other 99.9+ percent of the time, the earth went through the same cycles without any help from humans. Corresponding to these cycles, the media has reported a number of major climate scares over the last century, most notably the “cooling” crisis of 1976, where the alarm was, in a number of cases, sounded in reverse by the same organizations that are doing so now.
During the first part of the 20th century, before the widespread use of fossil fuels, the earth nevertheless warmed. It cooled from 1940 to 1975, when fossil fuel use expanded significantly. Toward the end of the century, the earth again warmed, although, as a result of errors detected in the NASA/Goddard’s GISS record, we now know that the 1930s edged out the 1990s as the warmest decade of the century.
Since 1998, the temperature of the earth has remained constant. We know this because satellites provide the most accurate and unbiased means of measuring temperature. In contrast, other methods for measuring temperature, such as placing thermometers at land stations, have become problematic due to their increasing proximity to heat-producing machines (such as air conditioners which dissipate heat in order to cool buildings), and surfaces (such as black pavement).
Of the four periods I listed above, there was only one during which the temperature increase coincided with increased CO2, which strongly suggests there is no causal relationship.
However, the overall temperature increase is consistent with the earth’s recovery from the Little Ice Age, from about 1450 to 1850, interspersed with smaller fluctuations. The rate was less than a degree C per century, with a rise in sea level of less than a foot per century.
On a somewhat longer time horizon, the “hockey stick” analysis purported to prove that the earth is now warmer than it has been in a thousand years, a blink in geological time. Because the analysis suggested that over most of the past millennium there was a minimal temperature increase, followed by a large increase in the last century, the resulting graph resembles a hockey stick. However, this analysis was shown to have mathematical flaws, and it contradicted well-known historically reported climate events, such as the Medieval Warming Period and the Little Ice Age.
With respect to other alleged problems, the events are either not out of the ordinary, or unrelated to CO2. The temperatures of the Arctic and Greenland were higher in the 1930s. Temperatures have been declining in Antarctica, except for the small peninsula that extends northward from the main body of ice.
A number of claims in Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” have been shown to be false. For example, changes in the snow cover of Mount Kilimanjaro were underway long before the increase in greenhouse gases. Indeed, a British citizen sued Gore in court, contending that his movie, which was mandated in British schools, was propaganda. A British court agreed. After finding eleven major factual errors in the film, the court ruled that the film must be accompanied by notes acknowledging the major problems it enumerated.
Models. Scientific proof is based on the use of controlled experiments. However, we cannot have a “control” group, as with drug tests—there is no spare copy of the earth. Therefore, alarmists must rest their case largely on computer models. Computer models are essentially glorified spreadsheets that purport to reduce the earth to a series of equations. Though the outputs of models are sometimes reported as “experiments,” they are no more so than stock market forecasts and analyses are.
You are probably familiar with the acronym GIGO—“Garbage in, garbage out.” Models are nothing more than statements, in mathematical form, of what someone believes might be true. Translating a set of assumptions into mathematical formulas no more makes them true than does translating an argument from English to a foreign language.
Nor does the availability of powerful computers matter. One cannot program that which one does not understand, and critical aspects of the climate are not understood. Computers simply make it easier to create formulas that support a particular viewpoint. And there are different models, and different versions of a given model, creating an endless list of possibilities.
Models are heavily implicated in the current financial collapse. With a comparatively simple analytical problem, financial instruments with a small set of known characteristics, the modelers failed. Now compare that to the awesome complexity of the earth: The earth is 4.6 billion years old, its climate is affected by hundreds of poorly understood factors, and it is an enormous three-dimensional object.
Climate models also require an elaborate forecast of the world economy, to determine energy usage. Thus, it is not surprising that there would be problems. The physical predictions fail: They predict that the atmosphere’s middle troposphere (about six miles up) should warm. This effect is not observed. Nor can they reliably predict the long-term climate. And they lack sufficient compensating features of the earth’s climate (“negative feedback”), which, like your body, has the ability to adjust to moderate changes in the environment.
CO2 Science. CO2 science contradicts alarmist claims. The human contribution of CO2 is a small fraction of the earth’s CO2, about 3 percent, which, in turn, is a small fraction of all greenhouse gases, about 4 percent. (Water vapor is about 95 percent.) There is therefore no reason to assume that slight increases in CO2 would matter—after all, 3 percent of 4 percent is 0.12 percent, or about one-eighth of 1 percent.
Greenhouse warming may have made Venus extremely hot (a point often noted by alarmists), but Venus, whose atmosphere consists mostly of CO2, has thousands of times the density of CO2 as does Earth. Therefore, to justify alarmism, it is necessary to make certain assumptions, such as that carbon dioxide will interact with water vapor, a more prevalent greenhouse gas, to amplify the effect. But that assumes what needs to be proven—it is circular reasoning.
It is important to reiterate that climate fluctuations have occurred for the 99.9+ percent of the time where humans did not add CO2 to the atmosphere. Thus, the burden of proof is on the alarmists, not on the realists. Indeed, there have been periods in the earth’s history where CO2 levels were dramatically higher—without catastrophic consequences. Climate realists are investigating the major factors that really do influence the long-term climate, but that is a long-term effort, given the abundance of possible explanations.
I would like to note some additional points. In his movie, Al Gore attached great importance to his contention that climate warming follows CO2 increases in the atmosphere, with the causal implication that CO2 alters the earth’s temperature. Wrong. The evidence shows that warming <i>precedes</i> changes in CO2 levels, with the clear implication that warming itself increases CO2 levels. This is probably due to warm ocean water releasing CO2.
There is also a natural limit to the effects of additional carbon dioxide. The additional effects are diminished as more is added.
Furthermore, increased levels of CO2, which plants take in, are known to be favorable to plant growth, the foundation of the food supply. And cold, not heat, poses by far the greater danger to human life.
Alarmists themselves widely acknowledge that treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol would make a miniscule difference in the temperature—a fraction of a degree C. To reduce emissions of CO2, alarmists advocate alternative fuels and massive taxes on fossil fuels. The cost to the world economy would be trillions of dollars each year, the most expensive project in human history. And massive resources would be diverted from efforts to reduce world poverty, such as providing inexpensive power.
With the exception of nuclear power, alarmist proposals for alternative energy cannot work. Ethanol requires almost as much energy to create as it produces. Its yield is very low: The grain required to fill an SUV tank with ethanol once equals what a person eats in a year. The removal of large tracts of land from food production dramatically raised world food prices by reducing supplies. As a result, there were food riots as millions of people were exposed to hunger. A food consultant for the U.N. called it a “crime against humanity.” Furthermore, ethanol from corn requires fertilizers that increase nitrous oxide emissions that are themselves extremely potent greenhouse gases.
Hydrogen is not freely available, but must be extracted from molecules such as water. To do so requires more energy than it produces. Hydrogen is also flammable and hard to contain.
Wind and solar energy are not substantive solutions. It takes thousands of windmills to equal one large power plant, and the power must be transported from wind farms to cities. Because the wind is highly variable, turbines must be backed up by traditional power sources anyway. The same is true of solar plants, which work best in warm climates with direct sunlight.
Interestingly, environmentalists themselves have opposed these installations due to environmental damage and land requirements. Household installations of solar power may have some limited long-term potential, but are still expensive and cannot meet peak needs. River dams offer a modest contribution to national energy needs (about 3 percent), but the most productive sites are already used up, and dams radically alter the environment.
As a result of their deficiencies, alternative power sources require massive government subsidies in the form of tax breaks and requirements that utilities buy inefficient power; otherwise, the barely noticeable fraction of power they now offer, around 1 percent, would drop further. To reduce fossil fuel use, massive “cap and trade” programs will effectively ration our primary energy source. These twin policies will result in the direct and indirect cost to the world economy of trillions of dollars.
I see no alternative to fossil fuels other than nuclear energy. It reduces our dependence on hostile countries, so it can be justified regardless of where one stands on global warming. It alone utilizes the energy in the nucleus, providing the enormous energy described by Einstein’s famous equation. (Most energy sources rely on the limited chemical energy of electron bonds.)
Nuclear plants are safer than coal plants and produce less radiation. Furthermore, they can directly produce electricity, and power our cars by providing electricity for batteries, making a hydrogen infrastructure unnecessary. Unfortunately, there are irrational biases against nuclear power. Environmentalists widely oppose it, though some are re-examining the issue. Although they are much less concerned about CO2 than alarmists, realists widely support nuclear power because its expanded use would reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Thus, there is an irony here—that climate realists offer the best solution to the concerns of climate alarmists!
Despite alarmist claims about improper realist funding, alarmist funding by interested parties is the problem. Over $7 billion is spent annually on government funding of alarmist climate change and related research. (Government departments are more likely to be funded if they claim that there is a problem, as opposed to the absence of one.) Moreover, environmental groups and nonprofits massively fund alarmist efforts, including lawsuits.
It is often claimed that skeptics are heavily funded by the oil companies. In fact, funding by oil companies, measured in tens of millions of dollars, has diminished as oil companies have been exposed to bad publicity. Instead, energy corporations are actively pursuing the vast profit opportunities awaiting them from government policies such as cap and trade and alternative power mandates. For example, General Electric has entered the wind turbine market. Conservatively stated, overall funding of alarmism exceeds that of realists by a factor of a hundredfold.
The Heartland Institute, which sponsored the conference I attended, did not solicit or use corporate donations for the event. Donations from all energy sector companies totaled less than 5 percent of its 2008 operating budget. And think tanks that question the orthodoxy are massively dwarfed in size by those embracing alarmism.
Solving ‘Related’ Problems
A final issue is related to the assumed effects of climate change on existing problems, such as malaria, coastal flooding, and heat deaths. Even if we accept the alarmist claims of causation, solutions are available that are orders of magnitude less expensive than attempting to alter the earth’s climate.
With respect to the alarmist issue that malaria is increasing due to global warming, I would note that the highly effective anti-malarial chemical DDT has now been recognized as safe by the World Health Organization of the United Nations. Trying to alter the climate, even if possible, would be ineffective. The reason: Climate is a minor factor in the incidence of malaria.
Damage by hurricanes, caused mostly by increased development in high-risk locations, can best be handled by reduced development in risky areas. Hurricane Katrina had become a modest Category 3 hurricane by the time it hit New Orleans—the damage was caused by defective levees. Heat deaths, which are far less of a danger to humans than deaths due to cold, can be best handled by providing increased funds for air conditioners and fans.
Trying to solve the problems of malaria, hurricanes, and heat deaths by changing the climate would be like a tailor cutting off a customer’s arms because the sleeves are too short. In these cases, and the earlier ones I discussed, the realists offer better analysis and more rational energy proposals than do the alarmists.
Arthur Wiegenfeld is an independent investor in New York City. He has training in physics, computer simulation, finance, and economics.
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