Commentary

Global Warming: No Urgent Danger; No Quick Fix

It’s summer, it’s hot and global warming is on the cover of Newsweek. Scare stories abound. We may only have 10 years to stop this! The future survival of our species is at stake!

OK, the media aren’t exactly nonpartisan, especially on global warming. So what’s the real story and what do we need to know?

Fact: The average surface temperature of the Earth is about 0.8 C warmer than it was in 1900, and human beings have something to do with it. But does that portend an unmitigated disaster? Can we do anything meaningful about it at this time? And if we can’t, what should or can we do in the future?

These are politically loaded questions that must be answered truthfully, especially when considering legislation designed to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the main global warming gas.

Unfortunately, they’ll probably be ignored. Right now there are a slew of bills before Congress, and many in various states, that mandate massively reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Some actually propose cutting our CO2 output to 80 percent or 90 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050.

Let’s be charitable and simply call that legislative arrogance. U.S. emissions are up about 18 percent from 1990 as they stand. Whenever you hear about these large cuts, ask the truth: How is this realistically going to happen?

I did that on an international television panel two weeks ago. My opponent, who advocated these cuts, dropped his jaw and said nothing, ultimately uttering a curse word for the entire world to hear. The fact of the matter is he had no answer because there isn’t one.

Nor would legislation in any state or Washington, D.C., have any standing in Beijing. Although the final figures aren’t in yet, it’s beginning to look like China has just passed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Like the United States, China has oodles of coal, and the Chinese are putting in at least one new coal-fired power plant a month. (Some reports have it at an astonishing one per week.) And just as it does in the United States, when coal burns in China, it turns largely to carbon dioxide and water.

What we do in the United States is having less and less of an effect on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere.

We certainly adapted to 0.8 C temperature change quite well in the 20th century, as life expectancy doubled and some crop yields quintupled. And who knows what new and miraculously efficient power sources will develop in the next hundred years.

The stories about the ocean rising 20 feet as massive amounts of ice slide off of Greenland by 2100 are also fiction. For the entire half century from 1915 through 1965, Greenland was significantly warmer than it has been for the last decade. There was no disaster. More important, there’s a large body of evidence that for much of the period from 3,000 to 9,000 years ago, at least the Eurasian Arctic was 2.5 C to 7 C warmer than now in the summer, when ice melts. Greenland’s ice didn’t disappear then, either.

Then there is the topic of interest this time of year — hurricanes. Will hurricanes become stronger or more frequent because of warming? My own work suggests that late in the 21st century there might be an increase in strong storms, but that it will be very hard to detect because of year-to-year variability.

Right now, after accounting for increasing coastal population and property values, there is no increase in damages caused by these killers. The biggest of them all was the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. If it occurred today, it would easily cause twice as much damage as 2005’s vaunted Hurricane Katrina.

So let’s get real and give the politically incorrect answers to global warming’s inconvenient questions. Global warming is real, but it does not portend immediate disaster, and there’s currently no suite of technologies that can do much about it. The obvious solution is to forgo costs today on ineffective attempts to stop it, and to save our money for investment in future technologies and inevitable adaptation.

Patrick J. Michaels is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and is on leave as research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia.