Commentary

Meltdown for Global Warming Science

How many times have we heard from Al Gore and assorted European politicians that “the science is settled” on global warming? In other words, it’s “time for action.” Climate change is, as recently stated by Hans Blix, former U.N. Chief for weapons detection in Iraq, the most important issue of our time, far more dangerous than people flying fuel-laden aircraft into skyscrapers or possibly detonating backpack nukes in Baltimore Harbor.

Well, the science may now be settled, but not in the way Mr. Gore and Mr. Blix would have us believe. Three bombshell papers have just hit the refereed literature that knock the stuffing of Mr. Blix’s position and that of his company, the United Nations, and its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC states repeatedly:

  1. We have reliable temperature records showing how much the planet has warmed in the last century.

  2. And computer projections of future climate, while not perfect, simulate the observed behavior of the past so well they are a reliable guide for the future.

Therefore, they say, we need to limit carbon dioxide emissions (i.e., energy use) right now, despite the expense and even though the cost will fall almost entirely on the United States, gravely harming the world’s economic engine while exerting no detectable change on climate in the foreseeable future.

The IPCC claims to have carefully corrected the temperature records for the well-known problem of local (“urban,” as opposed to global) warming. But this has always troubled serious scientists, because the way the U.N. checks for artificial warming makes it virtually impossible to detect in recent decades — the same period in which our cities have undergone the greatest growth and sprawl.

The surface temperature record shows a warming rate of about 0.17 degrees Celsius (0.31 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade since 1979. However, there are two other records — one from satellites, the other from weather balloons — that tell a different story. Neither annual satellite nor balloon trends differ significantly from zero since the satellite record started in 1979. These records reflect temperatures in what is called the lower atmosphere, or roughly between 5,000 and 30,000 feet.

Four years ago, a distinguished panel of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concluded there is a real disparity between the reported surface warming and the temperature trends measured in the atmosphere above. Since then, many investigators have tried to explain the cause of the disparity while others have denied its existence.

So, which record is right, the U.N. surface record showing the larger warming or the other two? There’s another record, from 7 feet above the ground, derived from balloon data recently been released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In two research papers in the July 9 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, two of us (Mr. Douglass and Mr. Singer) compared it for correspondence with the surface record and the lower atmosphere histories. The odd-record-out turns out to be the U.N.’s hot-surface history.

This is a double kill, both on the U.N.’s temperature records and its vaunted climate models. That’s because the models generally predict an increased warming rate with height (outside of local polar regions). Neither the satellite nor the balloon records can find it. When this was noted in the first satellite paper published in 1990, some scientists objected that the record, which began in 1979, was too short. Now we have a quarter-century of concurrent balloon and satellite data, both screaming that the U.N.’s climate models have failed, as well as indicating its surface record is simply too hot.

If the models are wrong as one goes up in the atmosphere, then any correspondence between them and surface temperatures is either pretty lucky or the product of some unspecified “adjustment.” Getting the vertical distribution of temperature wrong means everything dependent upon that — precipitation and cloudiness, as examples — must be wrong. Obviously, the amount of cloud in the air determines the day’s high temperature as well as whether it rains.

As bad as things have gone for the IPCC and its ideologues, it gets worse — much, much worse.

After four years of one of the most rigorous peer reviews ever, Canadian Ross McKitrick and another of us (Mr. Michaels) published a paper searching for “economic” signals in the temperature record. Mr. McKitrick, an economist, was initially piqued by what several climatologists had noted as a curiosity in both the U.N. and satellite records: Statistically speaking, the greater a nation’s gross domestic product, the more it warms. The research showed that somewhere about half of the warming in the U.N. surface record was explained by economic factors, which can be changes in land use, quality of instrumentation, or upkeep of records. This worldwide study added fuel to a fire started a year earlier by the University of Maryland’s Eugenia Kalnay, who calculated a similar 50 percent bias due to economic factors in the U.S. records.

So, to all who worry about global warming, to all who think people threatening to blow up millions to get their political way is no big deal by comparison, chill out. The science is settled. The “skeptics,” the strange name applied to those whose work shows the planet isn’t coming to an end, have won.

Patrick J. Michaels, senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, is author of the forthcoming book, Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media. S. Fred Singer is emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. David H. Douglass is professor of physics at the University of Rochester.