A recent column on global warming. (4.47 / 17) (#94)
by sakico on Sat Mar 03, 2001 at 06:11:21 AM EST
(This is no longer available on their website, so I don't feel that badly about posting it here.)
Halifax Herald - Sunday, October 29, 2000
Nine myths about climate change
Both sides in the debate over greenhouse gas emissions
exaggerate their claims
By Tim Patterson and Tom Harris
THE GLOBAL warming controversy has
started to resemble a House of Commons
On the government side we have climate change alarmists who confidently
assert that industrialization has caused the temperature increases observed
in the past century. Enormous changes are required to our energy
consumption patterns, they say, or we are headed for an environmental
disaster of unparalleled proportions.
On the opposition side are skeptics who dismiss the whole thing as
irresponsible scaremongering. They maintain that we should continue with
business as usual" and not slow the engine that has brought us to a level of
material prosperity unmatched in human history.
Like many of our politicians, both sides in the debate discredit new findings
that could cast doubt on their ideologies. Both sides exaggerate. And of
course, both sides have hidden agendas that taint their messages. What is
the concerned lay person to believe?
The modern global warming debate was ignited in 1988, when NASA
climatologist James Hansen testified before a joint U.S. House and Senate
committee that there was "a strong cause and effect relationship between the
current climate" - then a blistering drought - "and human alteration of the
atmosphere." His computer models predicted an average global temperature
rise of 0.45 C between 1988 and 1997 due to greenhouse gas buildup.
Despite enormous uncertainties in his simulations, it wasn't long before the
politically correct view of the future included a global warming catastrophe.
Since then, special interest groups on both sides have reduced the global
warming controversy to a number of oversimplified myths, ideas that are
scientifically wrong or, at best, quite uncertain.
At the recent climate change meeting in Quebec City, federal and provincial
environment and energy ministers clearly demonstrated what can happen
when one side succeeds in suppressing dissenting views: not a single
government press release acknowledged that the premise on which the
conference was based, namely that climate change is being caused by
humans, may in fact be false.
Let's examine some of the propaganda surrounding this issue . . . and some
of the facts.
1.The greenhouse effect is a threat to life on Earth.
FACT: Were it not for the greenhouse effect, our planet would be locked in a
perpetual ice age with average global temperatures 33 C lower than they are
now. All life on Earth owes its existence to the blanket of greenhouse gases
2.The most important greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (CO2).
FACT: Water vapor causes 98 per cent of the greenhouse effect, with
additional contributions from CO2 (about 0.04 per cent of the total), methane,
nitrous oxide, ozone and other trace gases. An increase in the production of
water vapour at the equator during the 1998 El Ni?o climate event caused
worldwide average temperatures to spike by almost one degree Celsius that
year. The human contribution to the atmosphere's total water vapour content
is trivial by comparison.
3."Things are going to be better on Earth because we're putting more CO2 in
the air." - Fred Palmer, CEO of Western Fuels Association, Inc., a major coal
FACT: CO2 is a basic building block of life and the major nutrient of plants.
Studies have shown that recent CO2 level increases have led to a "greening"
of North America and Europe that has resulted in significant increases in crop
productivity. So, for humans, and other animals that consume plants, CO2 is
the very elixir of life.
However, associated with the CO2 released when fossil fuels burn are a host
of real pollutants. Coal combustion produces sulphur dioxide, which cripples
people and acidifies lakes. The nitrogen oxides emitted cause ground-level
ozone, or smog, that damages lung tissue. Coal burning also results in the
release of mercury and other toxins into the environment which poison people
and wildlife, and the list goes on.
Unbridled growth in the use of coal (as advocated by Palmer) and other fossil
fuels is a recipe for serious problems, no matter how good CO2 may be for
4.Alarmists say the Earth has been getting warmer for decades. Skeptics say
there's been no global warming for 70 years.
FACT: The Earth is warming . . . and it is getting colder . . . and it is staying
the same. It all depends on what time frame you are speaking about and
where (and how) you look.
Over millennia, the planet is certainly getting colder and the next major ice
age appears to be around the corner. Fears of a coming glacial period
dominated the seventies when Iceland's fisheries were destroyed by
advancing sea ice, winters in North America were unusually cold and it was
first realized that global temperatures had fallen steadily between 1940 and
However, the past century saw a global temperature rise of about 0.6 C, most
of it before 1940. The largest portion of the warming for the second half of the
20th century was limited mainly to winter in the coldest continental air masses
of Siberia and northwestern North America.
Between 1975 and 1980, we saw a rapid temperature rise and, since then,
the temperature has not changed significantly. All this variability has been
occurring during a period of continuous rise in CO2 and other greenhouse
gases due to human activities.
So where do Environment Canada and environmental groups get the idea
that our planet has warmed in recent decades?
The answer is simple - they are using the wrong data.
Until recently the best we could do to estimate the Earth's overall temperature
was to average data collected at ground stations around the globe. These
readings are notoriously inaccurate as most come from developing countries
that do not properly maintain their stations or records. In addition, there are
two other problems with data collected at the Earth's surface.
First, nearly all these stations are land-based, even though three-quarters of
our planet is covered with water. There are far too few temperature-sensing
buoys deployed at sea to give an even remotely accurate assessment of
atmospheric temperature trends in these vast areas.
Second, urban sprawl has enveloped many temperature sensing stations in
"heat islands" significantly warmer that the surrounding countryside. The
warming measured at these sites is therefore problematic in determining
The only way to properly take the planet's temperature is to use sophisticated
space-based sensors mounted aboard Earth-orbiting satellites. Two decades
of orbital observations have shown no meaningful trend, up or down.
5.As the Earth warms, there will be more extreme weather.
FACT: Historical evidence indicates that weather has been more moderate
and human civilizations have flourished when our planet has been warmer.
Here's an example: Between 900 and 1300 AD, the Earth warmed 1 to 2 C,
depending on latitude, about what climate models now predict for the 21st
century. This warming resulted in one of the most favourable periods in our
history. Food production surged due to mild winters and longer growing
seasons. Primary agricultural regions had fewer droughts and floods so
human populations rose accordingly.
Concerning fears of near-future extreme weather events, Tom Wigley of the
U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Science explains, "There is no
consensus between (computer) models on changes in . . . temperature and
precipitation. Even the best models perform poorly in simulating such
Sir John Houghton, chief scientist of the United Nations-sponsored
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), adds, ". . . there is little
agreement between models on . . . changes in storminess . . . (and)
conclusions regarding extreme events are obviously even more uncertain."
6.Scientists are able to make meaningful climate predictions based on
observed, and anticipated, changes in CO2 levels.
Environmental activist David Suzuki and Monte Hummel, President of the
World Wildlife Fund Canada, said recently in an open letter to Prime Minster
Chretien, "A doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has the potential to
destroy over 35 per cent of the world's terrestrial habitats (due to climate
change) . . ."
FACT: Credible global warming forecasts are not possible until we have a far
better understanding of the science involved. Here's why:
1. Atmospheric CO2 is part of a highly complex, and poorly understood,
system called the carbon cycle. Within this system, 745 billion tons of carbon
pass through the atmosphere each year, exchanging CO2 with other
components of the carbon cycle such as the oceans, soil and plants. Of the
seven billion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere each year from
human activities, three billion tons remain there, causing the observed
increase in the CO2 level. Another two billion tons of carbon are absorbed by
the oceans each year, leaving two billion tons unaccounted for.
Scientists assume that there must be a yet-unidentified carbon sink,
something that is sopping up this excess carbon. One popular hypothesis is
that the biosphere itself could be the sink, since CO2 is critical to plant
2. It is not known whether temperatures rise as a result of, or a cause of, CO2
Most climate models start with the basic assumption that changing CO2
concentrations drive temperature variations. However, in carbon cycle
models, the opposite is assumed; carbon cycle modelers first impose
temperature changes and then calculate the resulting changes to the world's
carbon reservoirs (including CO2 levels in the atmosphere).
This is more than an academic argument. If temperature changes drive CO2
levels, and not the other way around, then even the most severe reductions
in our production of CO2 would have no effect on global climate.
3. Current computer models simply don't work. These simulations are so
primitive that they are unable to determine today's climate when starting with
known past temperatures and rates of CO2 level rise.
After the U.S. spent $10 billion on this issue, Hansen now admits his computer
simulations were wrong and that today's climate change models are
unreliable. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
Hansen explains "The forces that drive long-term climate changes are not
known with an accuracy sufficient to define future climate changes."
7.Historical records confirm that global warming has resulted from higher
atmospheric levels of CO2.
FACT: The hypothesis that rising CO2 levels result in a direct increase in
temperature originated in 1896 with Swedish chemist, Svante Arrhenius.
However, the concept was abandoned in the 1940s because global
temperatures had not even remotely matched the 1 C rise predicted by the
theory. Since then, the rate of global warming has slowed despite the
acceleration in industrialization and CO2 emissions.
Considerable evidence now supports the carbon cycle modelersā on the
assumption that atmospheric CO2 levels respond to temperature changes,
not the reverse.
Ice core records show that at the end of each of the last three major ice ages,
temperatures rose several hundred years before CO2 levels increased.
At the beginning of the most recent glacial period 114,000 years ago, CO2
remained relatively high until long after temperatures plummeted.
Climatologists Marcel Fligge and Sami Solanki demonstrated in a recent
edition of the respected journal Geophysical Research Letters that the
warming or cooling of the Earth during the past four centuries closely matches
variations in the sun's brightness.
Whether they were looking at the Little Ice Age of the latter 17th century, the
rapid warming in the early part of the 20th century or the relatively
unchanging temperatures of recent decades, our star's output and global
temperatures were closely correlated. NASA's Paal Brekke explains, ". . . the
sun may be a much more important contributor to global climate change than
8.North America is not a net contributor of CO2 to the Earth's atmosphere.
Skeptics drew this conclusion from a recent study led by Princeton University
scientist Jorge Sarmiento.
FACT: While it is true that the Princeton team identified North American
forests as a surprisingly large sink of CO2 in the period studied (1988-1992),
Sarmiento said recently, "We intentionally stayed away from identifying North
America as a net source or sink since we feel that this way of viewing things is
misleading." He explained that their measurements lacked the accuracy to
draw such a definitive conclusion and that much of the absorption was due to
the re-growth of forests previously cut down. As these forests age, their
contribution to CO2 uptake will diminish.
In addition, the study's authors emphasized that ". . . carbon dioxide from all
parts of the Earth mix together rapidly, certainly much more quickly than a
local sink can act. Thus, today's results should not be interpreted as
justification for claiming that pre-existing carbon sinks in a given region act to
offset that region's combustion-produced carbon dioxide." In other words,
pollution sources in North America contribute just as much as the rest of the
world to rising CO2 levels.
Also ignored by skeptics was the fact that the strength of CO2 sinks vary by a
factor of almost five from year to year and may also vary in location.
No one knows if the study results still apply today.
9.The Kyoto Accord, and other climate change initiatives, are focused solely
on environmental problems.
FACT: Houghton calls global warming a "moral issue." Reducing greenhouse
gas emissions will, he says, "contribute powerfully to the material salvation of
the planet from mankind's greed and indifference." Christine Stewart, the
former Canadian environment minister, said "No matter if the science (of
global warming) is all phoney . . . climate change (provides) the greatest
opportunity to bring about justice and equality in the world."
Paying developing nations billions of dollars to buy the pollution credits
awarded by "environmental" treaties may be the real objective of many
alarmists. The transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries should be
discussed for what it is, not incorporated into environmental agreements.
Despite his apparent acceptance of the theory of human-induced climate
change, Ontario's Minister of the Environment, Dan Newman, best summed
up what should be our next step when he said in an open letter to federal
Environment Minister David Anderson, ". . . to fully inform decision-makers
and citizens across the country as further steps are contemplated, the federal
government must ensure that credible and thorough analysis of
environmental and economic impacts be undertaken and made available.
"Obviously, such research is a key part of the development of future
implementation plans, and must be received and considered prior to their
In closing the recent climate change meeting, environment and energy
ministers congratulated themselves concluding that they had "made
significant progress with respect to climate change."
Meeting attendees seemed unaware that elaborate schemes "to combat
global warming" may well be akin to combating continental drift - very unlikely
to work, of highly uncertain value and unbelievably expensive.
Tim Patterson is a geology professor at Carleton University. He uses
microfossils and geochemistry to study evidence of climate change in lake
and oceanic sediments. Tom Harris is a freelance writer and speaker based in