Global Cooling: Fear the Ice
by Bill Walker
by Bill Walker
The Ice Ages are not over. We're still feeling the effects of the one that receded 12,000 years ago. I grew up on a farm in central Ohio, right on the terminal moraine. I spent my formative years toting glacier-dumped rocks from newly plowed fields, to put on the piles of rocks from the efforts of the previous century's farm boys. So I have been meditating on the evils of Global Cooling since I was six or seven years old.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Global Cooling was all the fashion. Newsweek warned of it. Popular books warned of the return of the ice. Aircraft contrails, dust and sulfates from coal power plants, volcanoes, desertification, solar variation, galactic dust clouds, fires from global nuclear war (has everyone really forgotten Nuclear Winter? Or is that meme still happily cohabitating with Global Warming in millions of muddled minds?), etc., would all combine to freeze the Earth. No political careers were built on fears of a milder Earth.
Fashions change. As Michael Crichton points out in State of Fear, one year it suddenly became unfashionable to look at cooling factors in the Earth's climate. Today's academic climatologists are forced to publish within the paradigm that the Earth is warming, that this trend will continue regardless of natural events, and that warming is bad. Major media is even more constrained; Newsweek is not running any stories on the cooling effects of aircraft contrails or the dust clouds from the nomads who yearly expand the Sahara Desert.
The Earth may well have warmed a tenth of a degree or two, if you pick the right starting and ending year; climate fluctuates for many reasons. But the other package-deal premises of the Global Warming meme are completely without scientific basis. There is no scientific reason to believe that the minuscule greenhouse effect from 20th century fossil fuel burning can overcome the sun-shrouding effects of a major volcano or asteroid hit. We know that either of these types of events is going to happen sometime; we just don't know when (maybe 2036, if you're the betting sort). And either one will pitch the Earth right back into an Ice Age.
Ice ages are not fun. Even minor cooling events are hard on agricultural civilizations. (You may think you're living in a silicon civilization, but a few months with no sunlight will radically change your food vs. RAM preferences). Yes, if we were all living in concrete domes with home Mr. Fusion units, maybe Ice Ages would just be long periods of good skiing. But for now, we still depend on solar power for our food.
In the April of 1815, the Indonesian volcano Tambora erupted and spewed over a million tonnes of sun-darkening dust. 1816 was the "year without a summer"; the northern United States suffered crop failures and frost damage. The year 535 was even worse, bringing a literal Dark Age to Europe and freezing the crops of millions. These famines were caused by relatively tiny events, nothing like the Yellowstone eruptions or the Chicxulub asteroid impact. Major events would shut off outdoor agriculture for years. Of course we can always use growlights, right? Sure… if you use all the electricity on the planet for artificial lights, you should be able to grow about as much food as the farms of… Rhode Island. Everyone else will starve (well, except for the Mormons, of course). And maybe a few cannibals.
During major Ice Ages, most of the world's ecosystems were displaced. There were no California redwood forests in the Ice Age; they are a recent development nurtured by the (natural) post-Ice Age global warming. 18,000 years ago, deserts and ice sheets covered most of the world. There is absolutely no scientific reason to think that it won't happen again.
There is also no reason to think that there won't be inconvenient short-term warming effects. But we can't predict them; we can't predict the weather ten days in advance, let alone predict all volcanoes, ocean currents, hydrates, asteroids, interstellar dust clouds, nuclear wars, solar cycles, etc. etc.
The Kyoto Treaty and other "anti-Global-Warming" efforts are not scientific guarantees of "better" (better for whom? I live in Minnesota!) climate. They are just sacrifices to the thunder gods, in the hopes that they will grant us an unchanging world. That ain't gonna happen. The one sure climate prediction is that climate will fluctuate.
Ironically, so far government interference with the energy markets has increased Global Warming. The antinuclear movement in the US alone has caused the burning of 400 million tons more coal. Was this a good thing? We don't really know, but the evidence is that the CO2 released from fossil fuel burning is wonderful for ecosystems.
During the last Ice Age, CO2 levels fell to less than half of the modern level. They had recovered to .028% by the late 1800s. All our fossil fuel burning has raised the CO2 to a whopping… .038%. But we still have a long way to go to get back to Jurassic levels. Back in the good ol' days, when the ecosystem was really seething with life, the atmosphere was .3% CO2, about eight times greater than today.
These high CO2 levels made life very easy for plants with the original "C3" photosynthetic system. In addition to their direct CO2 fertilization effect, higher CO2 levels also help in droughts. With enough CO2, C3 plants can close their "stomata" (pores) more, and lose less water.
As CO2 levels fell during the Age of Mammals (and Ice Ages), "C4" plants (e.g., grasses) have tended to gain on older C3 species. Today, it is estimated that the optimum CO2 levels for agricultural productivity in C3 plants (which include wheat and other important crops) would be at least .070%. So we have to at least double the amount of fossil fuel that we have already burned… or more, if we increase the area of Earth that is hospitable to plant life.
Much of the world is desert even today. In fact, there is less total life in the sea than on the much smaller land area of our planet. Most of the ocean is "desert," in the sense of having very low densities of life. This is because most of the ocean suffers from a severe mineral deficiency. Iron is the limiting factor on ocean life over most of the world ocean. A tiny amount of iron will cause a huge increase in plankton growth. If the oceans were privatized, sea farmers would fertilize with iron…. And then we would really need to burn more fossil fuel to supply enough CO2. Fortunately, there is plenty left.
To Stop Global Warming
If one were really afraid of Global Warming, one would support:
- Nuclear power
- Privatization of lakes, rivers and oceans
- Privatization of the world's deserts, most of which would actually support CO2-absorbing crops if there were secure private property rights
- Elimination of the FAA (aircraft contrails do have the net effect of cooling the planet)
Has anyone noticed any "Anti-Global-Warming" groups that support nuclear power? Private property rights in the Third World deserts? Ocean farms?
Neither have I. Maybe that means that they aren't really worried about stopping Global Warming so much as they are about stopping Global Free Enterprise?
The fact is that we don't know whether the world will cool or warm. If you feel yourself believing confidently in Global Warming, remember that you would have believed in Global Cooling just as strongly in 1975.
If Global Warming Happens
If the good ol' boys that control the world's governments (and fossil fuel companies, and "environmental" organizations) continue to slow down the adoption of nuclear power, then the CO2 levels will continue their slow rise. CO2 will never be the most important greenhouse gas (the main greenhouse gas on this planet is the sinister pollutant dihydrogen monoxide. DHMO, as it is commonly known, causes 95% of the greenhouse warming effect. Government water projects in the US have contributed to higher DHMO levels, and thus to Global Warming.)
However, CO2 levels might cause a slight warming over the next thousand years. (Or they might not; we don't know whether they will overcome other factors). The terrible results of this would be that Minnesota, Siberia, Canada, and other real estate would become "SantaMonicaformed," so that people from California could live there. This would of course cause the collapse of real estate prices in California.
The other effects of a mild warming would be pretty benign. Both agriculture and wild ecosystems would be more productive. Rainfall would increase. Sea levels would rise, but the centers of the continents would be more livable. (And people have been building dikes for centuries. If the sea goes up a few feet, New York could just build dikes like the Dutch. Just don't put the Corps of Engineers in charge of watching them…).
If Global Cooling Happens
Global Cooling, unlike warming, can happen as suddenly as the collapse of the California real estate market. If a large asteroid or volcano strikes, there will be no growing season in that hemisphere that year. Personally, I plan to stock up on these, just in case. (I'm already fully prepared if Global Warming hits Minnesota… I'll just take off one of my parkas).
Whether the Earth warms or cools, the only way to produce the wealth and technology to adapt to changing climate is through the free market. Shutting down the economy through treaties and regulations is a guarantee that we won't have the resources to handle Nature's little surprises.
December 28, 2005
Bill Walker [send him mail] works in HIV and gene therapy research in Rochester, Minnesota.
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