Warming or Cooling? You Be the Judge


“The people who have a quasi-religious belief in man-made global-warming are entitled to their religious beliefs, but they are not entitled to make the rest of us worship in their church.”

~ Grover Norquist

In 1991, the volcanic eruption at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines put more carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere than did the whole human race during the most recent century of the industrial era. Notwithstanding all the heat and fury released in the neighborhood of the volcano, the event had a cooling effect on the world as a whole.

Oblivious to this bit of natural history, the University of Minnesota is considering the award of an honorary doctorate in climatology to Albert Gore for sounding an alarm that human industrial activity is causing a global warming disaster. It was a surprise to me that the administration of this prestigious institution of higher learning considers Mr. Gore a climatologist. Their gullibility regarding Mr. Gore's predictive powers should raise the general level of skepticism. I wonder how this news was received by established professionals and academics in the field.

However, it is neither news nor scandal that the earth's climate is changing, and you don't have to be a climatologist to recognize it happens. As the refrain from the old drinking song goes: “We’re gonna have weather, whether or not.” The same sentiment applies to the global climate whether or not there are any humans alive to toast to or to burn any materials in its atmosphere.

The activities of industrious humans take place on only a small fraction of the Earth’s surface. Local in execution and in sensible effect, only in the fullness of time do the effects of human activity reach the vast fluid volumes of the oceans and atmosphere, and then only after much time has passed and the effects diluted to infinitesimal proportions. It takes generations of skilled and patient climatologists to track the consequences of such acts into global climate effects. Even then there is no assurance of a reliable determination.

So far in history, people and their institutions have had a negligible physical effect on the planet as a whole, strip-mining and clear-cutting to the contrary notwithstanding. Compared to the volcanic activity from within and the solar activity from without, mans’ surface shenanigans have had but a puny influence on global climate if any at all. Volcanic and solar activities dominate the natural outcome we call global climate. All we mere humans can do about this result is to prepare for and adapt to the consequences as best we can understand them.

It so happens that the politically popular effort to banish human-generated emissions of CO2 as a climate control measure is not one of the prudent measures man can take to harmonize with his environment. To forcibly curtail the emission of CO2 by humans is an attack on people, not climate change. After all, CO2 is a product of respiration and, at this stage of history, the number of people able to continue respiring in the manner to which they have become accustomed will decline as the energy derived from the burning of carbon-based fuels is arbitrarily limited.

Legislation aimed at curtailing carbon emissions by humans has been rationalized as a proper government application of the so-called precautionary principle. However, inasmuch as it would definitely impoverish humanity without a chance of accomplishing an iota of global environment protection, it seems an odd way for government to do its duty to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty…"

Carbon abatement legislation is ill-informed and futile, as the following narrative will show. It is a pathetic gesture analogous to the medieval ritual of self-flagellation supposed by the victims to purge the consequences of sin denounced by the church fathers. The modern environmental church fathers and their misanthropic band of alarmists prescribe anti-greenhouse medicine that, by their own calculation, can attenuate global warming by no more than a couple of degrees. But the attempt to roll back of carbon emissions that is involved will stymie the world's economic growth and dissipate most of its existing wealth in the attempt.

Even this small degree global temperature control assumes the doubtful hypothesis that human activity is the cause. But Mr. Gore and other like-minded environmentalists must make that assumption because otherwise they have no political campaign. Global temperature control is only a pretense for global human control.

Mr. Gore proposes to take the world to war. He has declared a world war on humans to protect the environment from spoliation by industry. He proposes to control human activity in an environment that is beyond human control. Since he is only an amateur climatologist, he may not fully realize his limitations. But he is a lifelong politician in the national arena. His real profession is people control. And that is as professional as it gets when it comes to controlling masses of people using the social apparatus of coercion.

How does a man get the idea he can affect the global climate? It is true that paving Manhattan preceded historically higher local noon-time temperatures in the City? Although this so-called heat island effect is real enough, it cannot be extrapolated world-wide to explain the heating of the whole Earth. For example, the local event cannot account for any melting of Greenland’s glaciers up the coast, let alone produce a perceptibly significant change in the world’s climate as a whole. Not even the nuclear explosions in the Pacific military theater during and after WWII made any world climate history.

Mr. Gore and his acolytes dismiss scientific accountability with the claim that human greenhouse gas emission is a moral issue that justifies political action come what may. The church in Rome made such a moral issue out of Giordano Bruno's teaching of Copernicus’s idea that the Earth moved around the Sun instead of the other way around. Ultimately, the church took political action to settle the argument: Bruno was silenced on the stake in 1600. His intellectual descendent Galileo subsequently faced a similar fate on substantially the same issue. He recanted to save his skin, but was heard muttering under his breath afterward “E pur si muove,” which is Italian for "And yet it moves." Science gave Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno the last word on the subject and the church allowed the moral issue to die quietly. Pope Clement VIII and Pope Urban VIII are remembered only for their attempt to suppress of the truth about the solar system. Mr. Gore and his church face a similar fate on the global warming issue.

While there is no scientific question that the Earth's climate is changing, it is still highly questionable whether it is warming up or cooling down at the present time and what is driving the changes. Determining the magnitude of change of the planetary climate as a whole at any instant of geological time is a project fraught with uncertainty. Global temperature distributions East to West and North to South are in constant flux. Relevant effects from whatever cause cannot be reliably measured let alone controlled. If an understanding of the phenomenon overall is so uncertain, how then should one regard the suggestion that human life plays a significant role in the matter? Which fly put what speck in the pepper shaker? It is probable that whatever global climate change may be attributable to human life is comparatively too small to be determined with any confidence.

Even if one believes the temperatures relevant to the state of the global climate are being reliably measured, the temperatures being reported by the authorities show less change during our lifetime than the inherent measurement error of the best available thermometric instruments. Never mind tree rings, ice cores, fossil worms, tea leaves and the like. This observation raises the question as to how to take the temperature of the planet in the first place. Archimedes’ answer to a similar question of global import comes to mind. This ancient Greek mathematician said he could move the Earth IF he had a place to stand and a lever long enough. I have a pretty good idea where Mr. Gore stands and where he has stuck his thermometer to ascertain what he wants to learn about the Earth's political climate. But I have no idea where to put the global thermometer for the physicist to read bona fide global temperatures. The climatologists are still searching.

Maybe the Earth is currently in the process of warming up. It has happened before, which we know only in retrospect. Maybe human life is culpable for such warming. This has never happened before and remains to be proven. One thing is for sure: popular consensus has nothing to do with the matter. Neither does the hot air of political debate of which there is plenty. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as a scientific consensus on this issue or any other. Scientists don’t vote on scientific matters because knowledge is not a matter of consensus. A consensus forms as a result of observational agreement, not the reverse. If nature was a person, he wouldn’t give a hoot what the public thinks of a matter of natural history. It is as Jonathan Swift scoffed: “Some people have no better idea of determining right and wrong than by counting noses.”

The science of climatology is like all the other sciences except more so – uncertain. The obligatory seed of doubt in scientific conclusions is a permanent bar to the legitimacy of political exploitation of them. On that account, science will never be able to justify the coercion of some by others, academic honorees not excepted. The hubris of public policy and the legislation that follows from it is alien to science and hazardous to human health.

This much is known with some confidence about global climate formation: one volcanic eruption put more CO2 into the atmosphere than a century's worth of industrial fuel burning. And the result of this event was global cooling, not warming. Hundreds of active undersea volcanic vents untouched by human hands heat the oceans and drive off megatons of previously solvated CO2 and H2O into the atmosphere. This has been going for ages and we still don't know if it is causing warming or cooling of the earth.

What about the so-called greenhouse effect? According to the University of Minnesota's favorite climatologist and Hollywood's favorite documentarian, carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by hydrocarbon-fuel-burning humans since the onset of the industrial revolution traps sufficient additional sunshine to doom the Earth’s climate to perpetual warming. Such warming is supposed to have dire consequences for the future of civilization as Mr. Gore knows it. Watch his computer make Florida and New York disappear under rising seas.

But physics paints a different picture. According to established physics, the most important greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is not CO2 but H2O (water). Moreover, the burning of typical hydrocarbon fuels in air produces a greater volume of water vapor than carbon dioxide. Even so, most of the gases in the Earth's atmosphere that came from combustion resulted from naturally occurring forest fires, not human activity. As the forests re-grow, they take back some of the carbon out of the atmosphere. However, the predominant source of greenhouse gas emissions is not combustion but volcanic activity. The fate of this carbon is hard to know.

In any event, the importance of both the greenhouse effect on global climate and the human contribution to it are widely misrepresented in the popular media. One misrepresentation is that carbon dioxide is the most significant radiation absorber in the atmosphere. Actually, the most important gas from this standpoint is water vapor. Another misrepresentation is that the greenhouse effect is preeminent in global climate formation. Actually, the most important role of the most important greenhouse gas in climate formation is not even a greenhouse effect. Water is not merely a strong solar radiation absorber. It also condenses in the atmosphere to form clouds, which scatter solar radiation back to space before it has a chance to be converted to heat in the atmosphere by gaseous radiation interchange. Such scattering overwhelms the relatively weak greenhouse effect of all the atmospheric gases combined. So even if the emissions resulting from human activity were a significant fraction of the whole greenhouse inventory (which they are not), the water associated with the dreaded carbon “footprint” will probably cause more global cooling than heating.

It should also be noted that the heat absorbed in the atmosphere by radiation interchange with the sun fails to reach the surface of the Earth directly. And by the time it is brought there by convection from the atmosphere, part of it is re-radiated back to space before it can do any more heating of the Earth’s surface.

Admittedly, modeling the Earth's global climate gets complicated very quickly. The reader should ask how I can presume to contest the mighty conclusions of the esteemed technical authorities at NASA and UNIPCC based on some elementary physics and naked eye observations. Surely the government's fancy computerized climate models programmed and run on super-computers by an army of bureaucrats with PhD's account for all the above considerations and more with unimpeachable authority.

Maybe so. But the questions remain. What if the inadvertent effect of human life on global climate is negligible? What, then, are the chances that concerted human effort can control the weather? Who is willing to live in poverty to give the government a chance to try?

Free men must judge for themselves. And they better judge and speak out on their conclusions very soon if they expect to retain any degree of freedom. If in doubt, say no.

March 1, 2007