Public Disservice: Melting Myths

July 26, 2006 • Commentary
This article appeared on Nation​al​re​view​.com on July 26, 2006.

The last two weeks of July are normally the hottest of the year, so it’s no surprise that we’re being deluged with public‐​service announcements about the horrors of global warming. Radio and television stations are compelled to transmit these announcements at no charge because of a long‐​standing policy that they must provide “public good.” “Don’t Litter” and “Fasten Seat Belts” come to mind. Now the notion has been expanded to “Fight Global Warming.”

By defining it as something we all should fight, these announcements tell us warming must be bad — something no comprehensive treatise on the science and economics of climate change has ever demonstrated.

Ogilvy and Mather, a prestigious public‐​relations firm whose for‐​profit clients include IBM and Motorola, produced the global‐​warming ads for free on behalf of Environmental Defense, a major environmental nonprofit that clearly advocates certain types of global‐​warming legislation.

Like their ads for Motorola, Ogilvy and Mather’s global‐​warming announcements are clearly targeted towards sullen youth — a brilliant idea, considering the appallingly low level of scientific knowledge our children have in comparison to their counterparts around the world. But scientific exploration requires critical skepticism, and these ads are full of unquestioned certainties.

Perhaps the most egregious is a radio ad, called “The Gift.” It mentions dying coral reefs, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, devastating floods, and hurricanes, and accuses us of leaving them all to our children.

The ads ignore facts that are widely accepted in the scientific community. Take hurricanes. The frequency of category 4 and 5 storms — the really destructive ones — has increased as the planet warmed. Good sound bite, with only one problem: It’s back to where it was in the 1940s and 1950s, long before human beings started warming things up.

In fact, as late as the 1970s, scientists were more concerned with planetary cooling, as revealed in the 1974 CIA report, “Potential implications of trends in world population, food production, and climate,” that presented cooling‐​related food shortages as a major strategic threat. The report first appeared in public in the New York Times on May Day, 1976. Soon, global cooling abruptly reversed into global warming. Crop yields rose.

The public‐​service announcements are all similarly big on melting polar ice caps and consequent rises in sea level. The Arctic cap loses ice in the summer, but no one bothers to mention that we only began collecting data on it in 1979, at the end of the second‐​coldest period in the Arctic in a century. The ice had to be abnormally expanded then.

It’s also floating ice, and melting it and doesn’t change sea level at all. And, for all the headlines about loss of ice in Greenland, which does contribute to rising sea levels, the mean temperature there was much higher from 1910 through 1940. Between then and the late 1990s, temperatures in southern Greenland — the region where ice is melting — declined sharply. One has to presume that Environmental Defense knows this.

Around the world, in Antarctica, for the last few decades, average temperatures across the continent have been going down. Snowfall has increased, resulting in more continental ice. In fact, every modern computer simulation of 21st century climate has Antarctica continuing to accrete ice.

Ogilvy and Mather marketed their public‐​service announcements through the Ad Council, whose website says that “reversing the global warming trend is possible.”

This suggests that humans have the power to turn planetary warming into cooling — a scientific absurdity. We have neither the technology, the means, the money, nor the political will to do this.

Consider the Kyoto Protocol, a “baby step” in the fight against global warming. It “requires” the U.S. to reduce its emissions of carbon dioxide to seven percent below 1990 levels by 2008–2012. Requirements vary by a percent or so for most other signatories such as Canada and the EU nations. Yet if every nation of the world met its Kyoto targets, the amount of warming that would be prevented is .07 degrees Celsius per half‐​century — an amount too small to even measure, as average surface temperatures fluctuate by about twice that much from year to year.

Neither the U.S. nor the EU nor virtually anyone else will be able to fulfill the Kyoto targets. EU emissions rose last year, while U.S. emissions remained unchanged. “Reversing” warming would require reducing carbon‐​dioxide emissions by 60–80 percent, which is simply impossible. The world economy would implode.

Ogilvy and Mather’s corporate website feature a quote from founder David Ogilvy: “We pursue knowledge the way a pig pursues truffles.” But what about knowledge on hurricanes, ice caps, and the real possibilities with respect to global warming?

The best course is one in which we continue to use our economic wherewithal to invest in successful companies, which are generally those that produce things efficiently or produce efficient things. Stating that would be a public service. The ads you’re seeing and hearing are not.

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