The Arctic seems to be warming up. Reports all point to a radical change in climatic conditions, and hitherto unheard-of high temperatures in that part of the earth's surface. Expeditions have sailed as far as 81 degrees 29 minutes north in ice-free water. The eastern Arctic has steadily gotten warmer, and today the Arctic of that region is not recognizable as the same region of about 50 years ago. Many old landmarks have changed as to be unrecognizable. Where formerly great masses of ice were found, there are now often moraines, accumulations of earth and stones. At many points where glaciers formerly extended far into the sea they have entirely disappeared. Formerly the waters around Spitzbergen held an even summer temperature of about 3 degrees Celsius; this year recorded temperatures up to 15 degrees, and last winter the ocean did not freeze over even on the north coast of Spitzbergen. The change in temperature has also brought about great change in the flora and fauna of the arctic.
~ Washington Post
There they go again. Hasn't the bien-pensant crowd at the Post heard of Climategate or the Himalayan glacier row or the admission by Phil Jones that there has been no statistical global warming since 1995? But wait, let's check the date on that article. Hmmm, the above passage appeared in the Post — on November 2, 1922! Yes, that's right, 1922, long before any gas-guzzling SUV roamed the earth. How can that be? Wasn't the Arctic gliding along in a perpetual state of cryogenic bliss until man turned up the thermostat in the mid to late twentieth-century? Isn't the late twentieth century warming unprecedented?
No, not quite. The Arctic is apparently highly sensitive to changing climatic conditions, regardless of their origin. Scientists know the region was toastier from 1920–40 than it is now. They also know it was significantly warmer in the more distant past. Blaming any of these past warmings on man would strain the very limits of credulity. These changes are cyclical, and often pronounced, as the introductory passage strongly suggests. The point being, the late twentieth century warming was in no way a singular event worthy of mass hysterics.
Global warming has become the mass hypnotic focus of our time, a credendum of right-thinking people. I admit it, though. I am a climate skeptic. I am not a scientist and I well realize that many impeccably credentialed scientists of good will do embrace some variant of the AGW hypothesis. I am not alleging that a pervasive consuetude fraudium grips the entire scientific community. There are obviously men of science who know to crook their knees in the direction of their funding, but I am not in a position to indict the entire profession.
The science is extraordinarily recondite and quite beyond my grasp. Unless you have an advanced degree in physics or chemistry, it's probably beyond yours as well. It is with a layman's ear that I have followed the global-warming debate. I base my skepticism on some basic premises.
Foremost among these is the fact that carbon dioxide is but a trace gas representing a vanishingly small 0.04% part of the atmosphere. The amount of carbon dioxide man adds to the atmosphere each year is a small fraction of that, about 3%. Nature cycles nearly twenty times as much into and out of the oceans each year. We only add one molecule of CO2 to every 100,000 molecules of atmosphere every five years. A doubling of CO2 would only increase the greenhouse effect by about one percent. One percent.
Imagine if you will the atmosphere as one hundred cases of one-liter bottles, or 2,400 one-liter bottles. Out of those one hundred cases, ninety-nine aren't even greenhouse gases and are therefore irrelevant to our purposes. Just one case out of one hundred actually represents greenhouse gases. Out of that one case that represents greenhouse gases, only one bottle out of twenty-four represents carbon dioxide — the other twenty-three are mostly water vapor. Out of that one bottle that represents carbon dioxide, only about fifty ml represents mankind's annual contribution, about a shot glass worth. So out of our theoretical atmosphere of 2,400 liters, we're responsible for about a shot glass worth of CO2 emissions. Or if you imagine the atmosphere as a 100-story building, man's CO2 concentration amounts to the linoleum on the first floor.
Yet this piddling amount is predicted to send this lugubrious ball on a gadarene rush towards a runaway global warming that will bring industrial man to his condign ruination.
Color me skeptical. I contend that if the climate was that sensitive to moderate increases in a trace gas essential to life, we probably would not be here today. The whole darn thing probably would have jumped the rails long ago. Yet here we are. I simply do not believe we stand so precariously on the devil's shovel.
I believe that the climate system is extraordinarily resilient and perfectly capable of accommodating modest increases in a trace greenhouse gas. We're currently at about 388 ppm. Plants shut down at about 150 ppm. They thrive at 1,000 or more ppm. This planet has sustained CO2 levels twenty-five times or greater than we experience today. Historically, CO2 levels appear to share very little correlation with temperature. I do not think that CO2 levels of 500 or 600 ppm have ever posed, or are capable of posing, any credible threat to the environment. I believe the burden rests on those who disagree to demonstrate otherwise. To date they have failed to do so.
Again, I am not a scientist but when I consider the arithmetic I can't help but doubt the theory. I believe it far more reasonable to conclude that the climate system possesses robust natural mechanisms perfectly capable of putting an effective brake on any putative runaway greenhouse.
It is important to first note that CO2's effect on temperature is logarithmic. It is counterintuitive, but its effect on temperature actually decreases with increasing amounts. The chart below illustrates the relationship between CO2 and temperature. If we assume pre-Industrial Revolution atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to be about 280 parts per million, then the first 20 ppm produced half of that warming, while the second half required an additional 260ppm. Most of the warming potential of carbon dioxide had already been realized when its level in the atmosphere reached about 280 ppm.
As you can observe, doubling or even tripling the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have little effect on future temperature by itself. SUV drivers, take heart! Your emissions are destroying the environment at a decreasing rate.
Even strident AGW proponents agree that doubling CO2 levels by itself would only lead to a temperature increase of about one degree or so. This is not generally disputed. What is hotly disputed — pun intended — is how earth's feedback mechanisms have been reacting to the initial CO2 warming. Therein lay the great controversy at the heart of the scientific debate, which does assuredly exist despite some rather self-serving claims to the contrary.
Those in the alarmist camp believe CO2's initial warming impetus has been producing greater water evaporation from the surface, which is accumulating in the atmosphere since warmer air can hold more water vapor. This is no small matter since water vapor is about one hundred times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide in the altogether. It is theorized that this increase in water vapor has resulted in more warming, which has lead to the release of more water vapor, which will lead to more warming, etc., which will ultimately lead to all species of environmental calamity. See Al Gore.
This is the central thrust of the alarmist argument. Virtually all working IPCC models assume a net positive feedback from CO2, which is why most produce a strong warming bias. Yet surprisingly there are no real-world observations to support this assumption. Positive feedbacks no doubt exist. But the thing is, so must negative feedbacks, and it is these that the models — or their tendentious programmers — tend to pooh-pooh.
Apparently, a one percent change in cloudiness can account for the entire warming of the twentieth century. A ten percent increase in low-level clouds could completely negate the warming effects of a doubling of CO2. Even such seeming minutiae as the width of water droplets in clouds can evidently influence climate. Smaller droplets that reflect more solar radiation can reduce warming estimates dramatically. Models can't begin to represent this sort of complexity.
Some studies suggest that an enhanced greenhouse effect will result in a more efficient rain cycle with decreased precipitation, ironically. And lower temperatures. But these conclusions are admittedly theoretical. What is not theoretical is that the climate is a system of gothic complexity that we're only beginning to understand.
More importantly, the observational record has proven rather unkind to the alarmist cause. Earth should be experiencing much greater warming if the climate was as sensitive to CO2 increases as the models suggest. In point of fact, temperatures have been flat or falling for over a decade despite steadily rising CO2 levels, which would imply an overmastering negative feedback. There's almost no correlation since 1998. A nice point to put somewhere.
Am I cherry-picking data that supports my case? Perhaps, but no more than the other side does. To the alarmist, disaster always seems to lie around the next corner. “Everything's alright for now, but just wait until X.” Yet “X” never seems to arrive.
Once again I am not a scientist, but I believe that natural forces, especially solar cycles and oceanic circulation cycles, likely account for most of the twentieth century's climatic variation. Alarmists have attempted to absolve the great fireball in the sky but many scientists contend that these critics have underestimated the sun's role by at least a factor of two. Maybe even ten.
Does this explain everything? No, probably not. There are myriad factors at play, many of unknown strength. The role of aerosols is apparently a great uncertainty, for example. Methane is another, although atmospheric levels appear to be relatively stable. A weak anthropogenic CO2 signal is probably hidden somewhere in the noise, as well. Few claim that CO2 plays no role whatsoever.
But Occam's Razor suggests that the natural combination of solar activity and changing oceanic circulation patterns have been the primary factors driving climate over decadal scales at least. This theory should have been the working hypothesis for any serious inquiry. In a violent wrench of logic the IPCC alighted upon CO2.
The very name IPCC is highly instructive. If the objective of that august body was merely to understand climate it would have been named the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Studies, or some such, not the ideologically freighted International Panel on Climate Change. Its mandate was clear from the outset. The culprit was immediately fingered — mankind. A show trial ensured his guilt. Rousseau surely must have been somewhere smiling.
Urgent action was of course necessary. By happy coincidence, the weaponry required to slay the multi-headed hydra of climate change were readily available in the armamentarium of the progressive Left: centralized economic planning, taxation, wealth redistribution. All on a global scale, no less.
The possibilities could not be ignored. The vein simply ran too deep. The prospect of placing a taxable claim on the very respiration of civilization fires the planner's imagination as little else can. Heady wine, that. An esurient international bureaucracy found a natural ally in Western officialdom, itself determined to mine the deepest resources of human enterprise. Rent-seeking corporate interests positioned themselves to profit from climate change legislation, under the stalking horse of corporate responsibility. They too surveyed vast fallow fields of opportunity.
This ill designing troika, the bête noire of free marketeers everywhere, formed a mighty front that will fight to the last for the cause. Fortunately, it is now on the run. Some are beginning to cough behind their hands. It will not go quietly into that good night, however. Too much money — too much power — is at stake.
Isn't it odd that Obama would raise his cries for climate change legislation to a keen pitch in the immediate wake of Climategate and other embarrassing revelations that cast the entire AGW theory into serious doubt? Wouldn't prudence demand a cautious approach to determine the scientific validity of these claims before committing the nation to an irreversible loss of economic sovereignty and a whopper of a tax increase that may prove completely unnecessary?
One would think. One would be wrong. As they say, follow the money. That will almost always provide the answer. Universal health care is an expensive proposition, official rhetoric notwithstanding. Social Security is careening towards insolvency. So are Medicare and Medicaid. Woe to the politician threatening to raise taxes to pay for it all. Enter cap and trade.
By saving the planet and weaning us off of our pernicious dependence on foreign oil, the administration hopes to skim between $1.3 to $1.9 trillion from the private economy between 2012 and 2019. One suspects the two are not unrelated. A drop in the bucket, but still.
I close with an oft-cited but highly apropos gem from the great Mencken. You're probably familiar with it but I think it's just so fitting: u201CThe whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence clamorous to be led to safety by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.u201D Few things alarm more than environmental catastrophe.
Brian Maher [send him mail] is a freelance writer living just outside of New York City.