Commentary

Smoke and Mirrors at the United Nations

Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which bills itself as the authoritative “consensus of scientists” on matters climatic, pronounced a possible global warming of 10ºF this century. This grave forecast got above-the-fold billing in many of the big daily newspapers.

Two weeks later, the basis for the panel’s forecast was shot through the heart in “Nature” magazine, and no one noticed (more on that in a moment).

The original forecast of IPCC was baseless. Even Bill McKibben, author of the gloom-saying “End of Nature” called it “science fiction.” Those who bothered to look (which apparently didn’t include many news editors) would have found that this calculation was only one of 245 made by the IPCC for climate change in this century.

Each of the 245 calculations is based upon a “storyline” for future energy use and technology. That’s U.N.-speak for “forecast.” But when people make forecasts they’re usually held accountable when they don’t happen. Over 10 years ago, the IPCC scientists recognized this problem and switched from “forecasts” to “scenarios.” Apparently that still entailed too much responsibility, so the calculations are now based on “storylines.”

The “storyline” behind the big warming forecast is a stretch. It assumes that the reason the earth hasn’t warmed as predicted is because the heating from carbon dioxide is being cancelled by another emission called sulfate aerosol. Remove sulfates and the greenhouse effect appears. (Sulfate aerosol goes in the air along with carbon dioxide when coal is burned for power production.)

The problem is that no one has measured the global cooling effect of sulfates. They are “assumed” to be canceling warming. This is because without them climate models predict that surface temperatures should be rising three times faster than has been observed.

The warm “storyline” assumes that sulfate emissions will drop dramatically in the next few decades. Further, it assumes that the current sulfate cooling is twice as large as the warming of the last 100 years. In other words, if burning fossil fuels emitted sulfates—and no carbon dioxide—we would be nearing an ice age.

None of this is based on fact. No one knows the energy trends and technological evolution of the next 100 years. Think of someone trying to predict 2001’s Internet technology from the perspective of 1901’s horse-borne society.

Further, assuming a massive cooling from sulfates is absurd. Almost all sulfates are produced in the Northern Hemisphere. And they don’t survive long enough in the atmosphere to get to the southern half of the planet. Consequently the southern hemisphere should be warming compared to the north. It isn’t. In fact, satellite data show that, on average, the southern hemisphere is cooling significantly—a fact that “Global Warming News” doesn’ t report.

Bad forecasts are based upon bad assumptions or bad facts. The worst fact about the IPCC’s forecast appeared in the Feb. 8 issue of “Nature,” in an article on the energy-absorbing properties of soot. According to the author, these properties contribute to global warming as much as sulfate aerosols contribute to putative cooling. The combination of the two is commonly called “smoke.”

Sulfates and black soot are made by burning coal, and they’re both about the same size. Any technology that takes sulfates away, including the abandonment of coal for electrical generation, will also take away the warming from soot. It’s a push. Dialing coal out of America’s energy equation has been the goal of greens for decades now, despite the fact that it produces the most energy for the lowest cost of any fuel.

That makes IPCC’s 10º sulfate-free-driven storyline just that: a story with no basis in scientific fact.

Scientists are notorious gossips. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing before it hits the journals. Dollars to donuts, there were plenty of IPCC scientists who knew this report was coming. They knew that the 10º warming storyline had no basis in fact.

Yet several big-name U.S. scientists signed off on the 10º nonsense while representing the Clinton Administration. In fact, at the Jan. 20 Shanghai U.N. meeting where that forecast was released, they made sure that sign-off was finished prior to the swearing-in of President Bush. As such, they showed their political stripes.

Perhaps the new president can find some other scientists to represent our interests before the U.N. publishes any more tall tales.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute, research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and author of The Satanic Gases.