Take hot air out of global warming debate

Posted: Jun 20, 2001 12:00 AM
Sometimes the fastest way to fix a problem is to ignore it. For example, the quickest way to send a man to Alpha Centauri (the nearest star after the Sun) is to do nothing for at least a century. Right now, if we sent a manned rocket to visit Alpha Centauri, the occupant would die centuries before he got there. And when the rocket did arrive, people from Earth would probably already be there to greet it, hopefully in Star Trek uniforms. That's because some future generation will be able to do in days or hours what today's technology can only accomplish in centuries. Of course, some problems can't wait. If your house is on fire, who cares that five years from now they'll come up with a much better way to put it out. If you're dying today, it doesn't do you much good to know that they'll come up with a cure for what ails you tomorrow. In short, this is the real debate over global warming: Fix it now or fix it later. And, if you look at the facts, it's hard to see the case for fixing it now. The National Academy of Sciences recently released a report - at the request of President Bush - summarizing what we do and, more importantly, do not know about global warming. The report found, among other things, that "greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures to rise and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise." But even deniers of global-warming don't dispute that. The relevant questions are: How much warming is there? Is the warming a problem? How responsible are humans for it? And what should we do about it? The answers are: Not much; not much; not much and, you guessed it, not much. The NAS study was hailed by lazy journalists and opportunistic activists as definitive confirmation of the danger of global warming and irrefutable evidence that President Bush is an evil corporate stooge for killing the Kyoto treaty on global warming. But the real news in the report is that scientists don't have a very good idea of what's happening to the climate. For example, satellite data still don't show any warming at all and haven't for more than two decades. And all of the computer models that "predict" future warming can't explain past climate trends. Sure, pretty much everyone agrees that the Earth has gotten about 1 degree warmer over the last century. But that warming doesn't actually track human activity very closely. From the 1890s to the 1940s - when greenhouse emissions were low - there was a big warming trend. From the 1940s to the 1970s, things got cooler even as we pumped lots of gasses that were supposed to make things warmer. Don't you remember all of those predictions in the 1970s of another ice age? You see, "climate change" is a redundancy, like ice cold or slimy lawyer. The Earth's climate has been running hot and cold like a shower in a Third World hotel from the get go. For centuries, Europe was warm enough to support agriculture in places like Greenland and Iceland. But in the Middle Ages, Europe was much colder than it is today. The "Little Ice Age" of the 1300s to 1400s ruined northern agriculture, shortened growing seasons and helped hack a decade off life expectancies. As of now, it is impossible to tell how much of the current warming is simply part of the natural variation of a massively complex global climate. But let's stipulate that human activity is driving a significant fraction of global warming. And let's assume that global warming is bad (longer crop seasons and milder winters were once considered boons for the poor and the hungry). And let's disregard the fact that even the most dire warming estimates wouldn't have particularly dire consequences. And let's ignore the fact that Kyoto-style solutions are political impossibilities. Even after you do all of that, the solutions being proposed are still like sending the space shuttle to Alpha Centauri today. The Kyoto treaty's restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions would cost the United States about 3 percent or 4 percent of its gross domestic product (ital) every year (end ital) - and that's according to rosy Clinton Administration estimates. Meanwhile, India and China are exempt from any restrictions even though they will be the biggest producers of such gasses in the years to come. The Chinese and the Indians reject emissions curbs because, as developing nations, they believe such limits would keep them impoverished. Well, that argument goes for the United States, too. Economic progress is a barometer, albeit a crude one, for human technological progress. The richer we get, the more we can afford to study and improve the science of global warming and all sorts of other things, like alternative fuels. In a hundred years, the world (ital) may (end ital) be a bit warmer, but we may be able to fix the "problem" in a day.