Commentary

Global Politics, Political Warming

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

Four years ago President Clinton announced a 50-point plan to curb so-called greenhouse gases, principally carbon dioxide. This week talks continue in Bonn, Germany, on an agreement to cut future emissions below 1990 levels. “The only thing we know for absolute certain is that voluntary programs won’t work,” contends Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Actually, we also know that activists are misusing science in demanding draconian restrictions to avert global warming. In fact, there is no consensus among climatologists that uncontrolled, human-induced warming threatens the planet. Or that the kinds of measures being discussed in Bonn would avert such a disaster.

The climate has long been a favorite of apocalyptics. Two decades ago there were fears of— a new ice age. Publications like National Geographic reported shorter growing seasons, summer frosts, and advancing glaciers. Time magazine observed that “the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing.” There were also books, including “The Weather Conspiracy: The Coming of the New Ice Age and Ice: The Ultimate Human Catastrophe.”

The latter, written by Fred Hoyle and published in 1981, proclaimed: “It is 12,500 years since the last ice age ended, which means the next one is long overdue. When the ice comes, most of Northern America Britain, and Northern Europe will disappear under the glaciers.” Mr. Hoyle advocated warming the oceans.


There should be no controls without genuine consensus both that disaster threatens and that new regulations would avert disaster.


But, happily, that crisis passed. So we moved on to global warming. The basic theory is that pollutants— so-called greenhouse gases— are accumulating in the atmosphere, holding in the heat, and causing the world’s temperature to rise. It remains just a theory, however, since climate change is a complex business.

Indeed, there is no one right temperature. After all, there was once an ice age. If we could choose, we should choose a warmer climate. Fewer people die in the cold, less money is spent on energy, growing seasons are longer. The real issue, then is whether the Earth faces an uncontrolled catastrophic increase in average temperatures.

Unfortunately, the debate has become highly political. Stephen Schneider, who once warned of a new ice age, has complained that “it is journalistically irresponsible to present both sides.” Despite being a scientist, he admitted: “I don’t set very much store by looking at the direct evidence.” Why not? “To avert the risk we need to get some broad-based support, to capture public imagination. So we have to offer up some scary scenarios make some simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have.” So much for genuine scientific discourse. Explained Mr. Schneider: “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

He’s not interested in direct evidence, presumably because, as even the Sierra Club’s Bruce Hamilton acknowledges, “If you look at the science, it’s all over the map.” Past polls have found that most climatologists do not believe human-induced warming has occurred. Activists cite the latest report of the UN.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but lead author Benjamin Sanger complains that “it’s unfortunate that many people read the media hype before they read the chapter.” He cites the report’s many caveats: “We say quite clearly that few scientists would say the attribution issue was a done deal.”

Disputes begin over data collection and temperature trends. The best evidence suggests far less warming so far this century than predicted by the models. Moreover, 90 percent of the warming occurred before 1940, when emissions of supposed greenhouse gases began to climb dramatically. In fact, as John Shanahan of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute points out, “the government’s own satellite data and balloon measurements over the last 18 years show a very slight cooling,” the opposite of “what the climate models predict should have occurred.”

Thus, there is good reason to avoid burdensome treaty commitments. Since the United States is already one of the globe’s most efficient energy consumers, massive emission cutbacks would mean fewer jobs, less production, and a lower standard of living. A Heritage Foundation study estimates the cost of proposed controls from 2001 through 2020 to be $3.3 trillion, or about $30,000 per household. It obviously matters whether environmental activists are choosing effectiveness or honesty when making their claims. It is not enough to delay the agreement’s compliance date as proposed by Mr. Clinton. There should be no controls without genuine consensus both that disaster threatens and that new regulations would avert disaster.

And that requires facts, not rhetoric. The burden of proof falls on those demanding the power to levy new taxes and impose new regulations. Unless such evidence appears, Americans should reject the Chicken Littles who cry that the sky is falling.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.