Commentary

Tsunami of the Absurd

Last Monday, the Voice of America broadcast a story linking tsunamis and global warming. Naomi Oreskes, an associate professor of History at the University of California, said the tsunami that slammed the Asian and African coastlines underscores the need to take action on global warming.

The argument runs, many people live in the path of potential tsunamis. If global warming were to lift the sea level, coastal peoples would be more vulnerable to massive future inundations.

This was environmental demagoguery at its most vile. Riding your issue on the backs of 130,000 dead people goes beyond the pale, even for the global warming crowd.

Mathematics is obviously not Ms. Oreskes’ strong suit, and she’d be a failure as a fact checker. There is plenty of quantitative data on sea-level rise and historical tsunamis and it all paints her argument in a bad light.

Start with the Topex-Poseidon satellite, designed to precisely measure sea levels worldwide. According to a 2001 paper published in Science by Cecile Cabanes, sea levels in the northeastern Indian Ocean — where the tsunami was most devastating — are going down, not up.

The record that she relied upon was very short, beginning in 1993, so Cabanes related temperatures measured by submarines to the satellite-sensed sea levels, and was able to calculate global changes back to 1955. That entire record does yield a sea-level rise for the same region. It’s about half as long as your index finger: 1.75 inches.

Current estimates for the maximum onshore height of the recent tsunami are in the range of 40 feet, but don’t be surprised if they go higher, as scientific crews have yet to measure the most devastated regions.

That sea-level elevation increment caused by global warming is 1/274th of that caused by the tsunami.

Krakatoa island, a volcano in the same region, disappeared beneath the ocean on August 26, 1883. Indonesia took the brunt of the tsunami. According to Simon Winchester’s book, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, the wave reached between 110 and 120 feet in elevation. The additional increment of inundation that would have been caused by sea-level rise, if Krakatoa blew today, would be 1/788th of the total.

The global warming crowd argues that it is future changes in sea level that we should be concerned about. But the best estimate for the future rate of global warming is that it will be very close to the rate already established. That translates to an increment of about four inches in the next 50 years.

After then, who knows? Our technologies are likely to be very different 100 years from now — much more efficient — and there’s no guarantee that they will even burn fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases.

One has to assume that respectable academics who talk about tsunamis know these numbers, and the nugatory nature of global warming compared to seismic inundations. So, why argue the sky is falling?

In fact, such behavior is predictable. The way we now fund science, issues compete with each other for the monopoly largess of our one research provider, the U.S. government. In order to twist Uncle Sam’s ear, the problems — global warming, AIDS, chemical threats — are cast in the starkest possible terms.

No one ever got large amounts of money out of Washington by saying that his issue might not be a problem. But the level of distortion this time, where a few inches are judged to be an important addition to 40 or 100 feet, has become a tsunami of the absurd.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media (2004).