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Global Greenspin

Is the sky really falling? Over the last several years a remarkable amount of disturbing news has been advanced calling …

Is the sky really falling? Over the last several years a remarkable amount of disturbing news has been advanced calling attention to global warming, the imminent melting of polar ice, mass extinctions and a 12 to 20 foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century. For those still awake at the end of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” you are urged to take immediate action to combat this menace and liberate our civilization from its “carbon-besotted” ways. That a warming of the earth is underway is now beyond doubt. The key question that goes unanswered, namely how much of this is caused by human vs. natural causes, is dismissed as beyond dispute. The possibility that a cause other than anthropogenic warming is dismissed outright as heresy. All must kneel before the “undisputed scientific consensus.”

There are at least two troubling aspects of the controversy. One is the smug, moral transcendence of the climatologically correct. Skeptics are derided as deluded creationists, flat-earthers or worse, climate change “deniers” equivalent to holocaust deniers. One repeatedly reads that the “debate is over,” reminding one of Darth Vader’s oft-quoted Stars Wars line, “resistance is futile.” For green activists such as Friends of the Earth, Exxon-Mobil is the number one global warming villain, according to the Financial Times. Its former CEO Lee Raymond was dubbed “an enemy of the planet.” In a recent British documentary aired on Channel Four a Cambridge-educated climatista advocated the re-nationalization of Royal-Dutch Shell with the units broken up and the managers sent for warming “re-education.” Green Stalinism worthy of Pol Pot or the late Mao himself.

Not being an atmospheric scientist, I have no way of evaluating the evidence first-hand. But one is troubled by the behavior of the true believers, some of whom are also scientists, who insist on the absolute rightness of their position. It is evident that there are different authoritative views of the data itself and there are conflicting views on the extrapolations that are made from data. If the Enlightenment has taught us anything it is that our understanding of science improves with skepticism and questioning. When adherents seek to close down the debate they depart from science and enter politics.

At the heart of the matter is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere and its affect on temperature. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who has studied climate change over the last several decades, says “we simply do not know enough about the global carbon budget cycling to confidently rule out the existence of a relatively high CO2 level and rapid rate of change in the past 100 to 10,000 years compared to measurable levels today.” The earth is always warming and cooling. Ice is always melting or accumulating. According to S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist and emeritus professor of environment science at the University of Virginia and former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service, the best current information on temperature trends points to a small human contribution to recent global warming with natural factors being dominant. At a March symposium at New York University’s Kimmel Center, Soon said, “carbon dioxide is not the only factor of climate change, nor the most important one. While other factors, both natural and man-made, will likely overwhelm our ability to find the climatic fingerprints of CO2.”

It is interesting that the climate has long been a favorite of apocalyptics. At the turn of the 19th century a group in England calling itself the Lunar Society Of Birmingham consisting of several prominent men such as James Watt and William Small, who once served as Thomas Jefferson’s math and science teacher worried about global cooling. In 1810, Small wrote to Watt, “I am led by this and many other reasons to suppose, nay to believe, that the frozen space of the Globe is annually increased at the rate of about the 300th part of a degree of latitude . . . so that after a certain number of years all Europe, and finally the whole surface of this earth, will be frozen, as the Moon is now and has long been.” No slouch he, Small even had an ingenious scheme to deal with the problem: Dynamiting targeted areas of the polar ice cap thus creating floating icebergs that could be towed to the tropics rendering them more temperate and habitable. With the caps so reduced northern Europe could enjoy a respite from imminent cooling.

Interestingly this idea surfaced in the early 1970s with publications as diverse as Newsweek and National Geographic trumpeting the coming of “Global Cooling,” citing shorter growing seasons in northern Europe. Time magazine reported that “the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing.” Oops. Funny how the green theologists in the media have forgotten all about the apocalypse that didn’t happen.

Let’s suppose the global warmers are right. Does it follow that the effects of warming are all bad? (About a thousand years ago when the Vikings settled it, Greenland was, well, green.) And what should we do about it? Last October Bjorn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist” made headlines when he asked UN ambassadors from 24 countries representing 54 percent of the world’s population the ultimate fantasy question: If you had an extra $50 billion to spend to improve the world what would your priorities be? Mitigating climate change came dead last on their list. Apparently even UN diplomats reckon there’s more bang for the buck in tackling communicable diseases, sanitation, malnutrition and education.

But let’s assume that human use of fossil fuels is the main culprit. Would Kyoto-style agreements do any good? Jerry Mahlman of the National Center for Atmospheric Research speculated in Science magazine that “it might take another 30 Kyotos over the next century” to defeat global warming. We all want a better world but we should resist unenforceable international regimes to supervise complicated regulations that won’t work. Thirty years ago the Federal Energy Administration created models that predicted that the world will run out of oil and natural gas by the end of the 20th century. These projections were used to justify a number of dubious programs. We don’t hear too much about the Club of Rome’s similar shrill predictions made during the artificially induced gas shortages during Jimmy Carter’s Presidency. Nor do we hear much about Paul Ehrlich’s drumbeat about the coming catastrophe driven be population explosion. Today Western Europe, Russia and Japan have birth rates well below the replacement rate and China’s population is now projected to peak in 2050. That was apocalypse then.

Today global warming is being used to justify further expansion of government powers in the economy. In addition, some see this issue as an excuse to shovel more subsidies and protectionist favors to industry such as ethanol and to companies such as GE, DuPont, Alcoa and BP which cleverly support cap and trade limits on carbon dioxide. Mutual fund principal and founder of JunkScience.com Steven Milloy worries that just as the 1950s had the military-industrial complex, today we have the “eco-industrial complex” where rent-seeking companies lobby for regulations and taxes that hobble competitors. Before we go down the path of carbon caps or a carbon tax or whatever warmers advance we should demand from our solons that they answer a key question: How much of the global economy does one have to cripple before the planet cools down?

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.