Three-conjecture strategy on global warming

Posted: Feb 20, 2002 12:00 AM
The Bush administration is doing its best to address the so-called global warming "problem" without creating unnecessarily harmful side effects. The president should be applauded for rejecting the Kyoto Treaty, which would have disrupted the world's economy and cost hundreds of billions of dollars in lost output and millions of lost jobs, particularly in the Third World. By proposing a voluntary, market-based trading system for greenhouse-gas-emissions-reduction credits, the administration, to its own credit, is striving to "address" global warming without falling into the trap set by the eco-opportunists who seek more to cool economic activity than the Earth's atmosphere. Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Global warming is not about sound science or saving the planet from overheating so much as it obstructs the spread of entrepreneurial capitalism and will radically stunt global economic growth. The politics of global warming are clear: Well-intentioned voters, frightened by some not-so-well intentioned agitators, have convinced elected officials to "address" the global-warming "problem." The scientific community in this area, heavily subsidized by government and generously supported by foundations with a concern for the environment, has, in effect, become a part of the global-warming lobby. This lobby is influenced by an academic tradition in university departments of philosophy and sociology that study the "sociology of knowledge," which perceives science less as an objective search for truth than a subjective social process of negotiation among differing interests. As geographer John Adams points out, "The greater the degree of scientific uncertainty, the more we are guided by assumption, inference and belief." In a classic text on the sociology of science, B. Latour and S. Woolgar explain: "'Facts' become stabilized only through a process of social negotiation among scientists who have a stake in the outcome." And self-described "eco-feminist" Elizabeth Bird explains the implications this way: "Scientific consensus is reached not when the facts 'speak' for themselves, but rather when the political, professional and economic costs of refuting them are such that further negotiation becomes untenable." The administration has now elevated three highly controversial and speculative conjectures to the status of hard scientific fact: 1) the Earth's atmosphere is warming; 2) global warming is undesirable; and 3) mankind is responsible for global warming. This "three-conjecture" strategy on global warming is extremely troublesome to those of us who cling to the old-fashioned notion that there is such a thing as "objective truth." The role of science is to discover truth in the laboratory and in the field, not to negotiate scientific truth in the streets or the voting booth. These conjectures presume that the environment and atmosphere ought to remain static, which implies that higher or lower temperatures are somehow abnormal. In fact, the environment and atmosphere are in a constant state of flux and many scientists believe we only recently have emerged from a "little ice age." The fact is, there is no scientific certainty that the Earth's atmosphere is in fact warming. Twenty-five years' worth of satellite observations reveal no increase in the atmospheric temperature just above the Earth's surface. Moreover, recent experimental data from the Antarctic suggest just the opposite -- Antarctica has been cooling for some time now, and the Antarctic ice sheet is thickening, not thinning as global warming theory predicts. There is no compelling empirical evidence that man's emissions of certain so-called "greenhouse gases" (primarily CO2) elevate the Earth's natural greenhouse-warming effect above what it would be if man lived in a pre-industrial civilization. Even James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the "father" of the global warming conjectures, now predicts that the planet will only warm about 1.5 degrees C over the next century, a miniscule amount even if true. If the Earth is in fact getting warmer, a number of more compelling rival hypotheses explain why without jumping in parlor-game fashion to the conclusion that "mankind did it, with greenhouse gas emissions, in the factories and power plants." The most compelling explanations for why global climate change might occur come from theories that account for long natural cycles of warming and cooling (for which there is ample empirical scientific confirmation) by the sun's thermonuclear activity and/or cyclical alterations in the earth's orbit relative to the sun. Even if conjectures one and three above were true, there still has been no comprehensive scientific weighing of the relative benefits and potential harm that global warming might produce to justify Draconian government effort to reverse it such as Sen. John McCain's bill to raise federal gas-mileage requirements to 50 mpg. A report last year in Science examined the issue of climate prediction, and the authors concluded, "We do not yet have tools to predict potentially socially significant regional climate changes in the next 100 years." With all due respect to Bush's really good intentions, I believe it is erroneous to propose even a voluntary, market- based government program to reduce so-called "greenhouse gases" without sufficient scientific evidence to warrant it. It's also disappointing that the proposal contains new tax credits for energy efficiency, clean technologies and increasing carbon storage, which have consistently failed in the past and would further debilitate an already dysfunctional and economically destructive tax system. I am afraid that even the administration's market-based approach could put us on a slippery slope to harmful and unwarranted government restrictions on the economy. I hope the administration succeeds. I fear it won't.