Commentary

An October Environmental Surprise?

In an election that promises to be close, command and control of the agenda—from “rats” to prescription drugs—is increasingly important, and timing is paramount. Proof is that in each of President Clinton’s victories, “October surprises” nudged the polls enough to turn squeakers into decisive victories. What’s coming this year, befitting the veep’s proclivities, is the first election year “environmental surprise.”

Those with foresight can already spy it along the planet’s limb. NASA scientists are leaking that Antarctic ozone depletion, which conveniently reaches its seasonal nadir around Oct. 20, is proceeding faster than ever. This doesn’t guarantee record depletion this year (in some years depletion has commenced rapidly, only to fizzle), but it certainly increases the chances. And the fact that NASA is already promoting lurid graphics—like the one that appeared in the Washington Post on Sept. 11—means, as usual, that its political antennae are up.

This is the same agency that discovered life in Martian rocks (later shown to be wrong) right at budget time. Now NASA is betting on Gore, who through his years in the Senate rewarded the space program handsomely. In a 1992 budget hearing, Gore announced that global warming should be “NASA’s number one scientific priority,” and the agency has been cashing the checks ever since.

Along about the time ozone bottoms out, the administration is going to release its “National Assessment of Global Warming,” which will forecast hell and damnation for us in coming decades unless we dramatically reduce our use of fossil energy—coal, oil and natural gas. How hard will it be for Gore to play this for political advantage? Can you hear the rhetoric? “The most eminent scientists in the nation all predict environmental disaster unless we curtail our use of oil, and my opponent’s largest contributors are the corporate polluters who created this problem,” Gore will intone.

Right about then, NASA will announce that the ozone hole has grown so large that it threatens the people of Chile, Argentina and South Africa, including the three million residents of Cape Town.

But how could the ozone hole still be growing, given that production of the putative cause—chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants (CFCs)—was stopped almost 10 years ago by a treaty called the Montreal Protocol? NASA will note that the rules of physics require that surface warming caused by increased greenhouse gases must be accompanied by a cooling of the stratosphere, and the colder it is up there, the more that ozone is depleted. NASA is itching to marry the distant cousins of global warming and ozone depletion before election day.

So what’s wrong with a little public service that just happens to occur at the same time the Clinton administration releases its global warming national assessment?

It turns out that the assessment is based on two computer models that simply do not work. When asked to simulate how the U.S. climate should have changed in the 20th century as a result of greenhouse gases, the computer models do worse than a table of random numbers applied to the problem.

Continuing to use these models to drive a forecast of national Sturm und Drang violates the number one ethic of science: If your theory doesn’t stand the test of the facts, it must be either changed or abandoned. What about oil and global warming? Recently, James Hansen, Gore’s original guru on climate change, said that reducing fossil fuel use is an expensive proposition that will do little to reduce global warming in coming decades. Instead, he argued, we ought to concentrate on other emissions whose control is not so economically detrimental.

Imagine the cost if we had rushed to do what Gore proposed in his book Earth in the Balance. Gas prices would be as high as they are in Britain, where we have witnessed the first riots created by global-warming taxes and where we may also witness the fall of a government because of unpopular global-warming policies. But that would be the second government to collapse. Last spring, the ruling coalition in Norway went under because it was against building two power plants, on the grounds that they would contribute to global warming.

Ironically, Hansen also works for NASA; but don’t expect to see him on television in October. Nor can we expect to see NASA’s own calculations show that ozone depletion will attenuate in coming decades because of the Montreal Protocol. Instead of these truths, look for environmental gloom and doom to dominate the end of October. And just how will Bush respond, as the clock winds down?

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author ofThe Satanic Gases.