June 1997

(This article originally appeared in the Washington Post)

Global warming is about to heat up and enter the presidential sweepstakes for the year 2000. The fun starts in December, when the United States is going to agree to an amendment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as the “Rio Treaty,” that requires the signatories to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. That’s the end of the easy part. Then the administration (read: Vice President Gore) is going to have to sell it to the Senate, which must approve treaties by a two-thirds majority. The amendment, which is likely to mandate a reduction of current emissions of between l0 percent and 20 percent by the year 2020; will carry an impressive price tag, perhaps several percent of gross national product per year by the time reductions become serious, according to several economists. It will first go to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Jesse Helms, the senior senator from North Carolina. Think it’s going to get out of there alive?

Along the way, Gore is going to have to confront a growing contingent of scientists who are increasingly unhappy with the glib forecasts of gloom and doom. Once dismissed as “a small but vocal band of skeptics,” usually supported by industry, the critics of the global warming thesis now have a rather formidable armada of facts.

As pointed out by Ross Gelbspan in [The Washington Post] four weeks ago, some of these scientists, myself included, enjoy industry research support. (In my case, 84 percent of my university research is funded by taxpayers.) His figures show an average of 835,000 per year to a few people. The U.S. government spends $2.1 billion per year on global change research and it’s hard to believe so much would be spent on researchers who would say “no problem.” Accepting Gelbspan’s contention that there are 2,000 climate scientists (there are actually about 60 PhDs in climatology in the entire United States), that’s a cool million dollars per scientist, every year. How could the vice president lose the global warming argument with these odds?

Easily. Arguments against highly deleterious global warming have a charm and internal consistency that the arguments of the critics– who emphasize caution and uncertainty– lack. It’s worthwhile to review the way the global warming thesis evolved. In 1990, the first Scientific Assessment of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a document that is the underpinning for the Rio Treaty, stated, “When the latest atmospheric models are run with the present atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, their simulation of climate is generally realistic on large scales.”

Several critics cried foul. The “largest scale” of simulation of planetary climate is surely the average surface temperature, and it was apparent, even back in 1990, that the computer models used to simulate global warming were predicting much more warming than had been observed. Since then, it has become generally accepted that the “generally realistic” models were saying that it should have already warmed between 1.3 degrees and 2.3 degrees Celsius, globally, with the higher figure for the Northern Hemisphere. The observed warning of the earth’s surface temperature since the late 19th century is about one and a half of a degree. The first IPCC assessment is a busted forecast.

Why it took the U.N. five years to realize this is anyone’s guess, but it sure did generate a lot of frequent flier miles for skeptics like me. Finally, in their second Assessment, published in 1995, the IPCC admitted the skeptics had a point: “When increases in greenhouse gases only are taken into account …. most Climate models produce a greater mean warning than has been observed to date, unless a lower climate sensitivity [to the greenhouse effect changes] is used …. There is growing evidence that increases in sulfate aerosols are partially counteracting the [warming] due to increases in greenhouse gases.”

Sulfate aerosols are tiny bits of dust also emitted during the combustion of fossil fuel that cool global warning by reflecting away the sun’s radiation.

Translation of the 1995 report: Either it’s not going to warm up as much as we said it was, or something (like sulfate aerosol) is reducing the warming. I bet that many in my profession will do everything in their power to prove the latter and disparage the former, because no one wants to write the letter, “Dear Mr. Vice President: We are sorry but we goofed. Thanks for the $$. Hope you get your carbon tax. Yours truly, the Consensus of Scientists.”

Thus began a frantic effort to save face. Ben Santer, a fine and aggressive scientist from the Lawrence Livemmore Laboratory, published an article in Nature magazine last year that seemed to show a remarkable correspondence between the evolution of planetary temperature patterns and a model that included both the warming from the greenhouse gases and the cooling from sulfates. This result argued against the skeptics’ proposition that our planet was simply not prone to big-time warming. Santer’s study period began in 1962 and ended in 1987.

The critics immediately pointed out that the model he relied on had only half of the known changes in the greenhouse effect. The fact is critics and proponents of the global warming thesis agree that human activities like driving cars and burning coal have changed the amount of warming radiation in the atmosphere only about 2.5 watts (or about one-quarter the power of a good flashlight). The central issue is how much this affects the world’s climate.

Santer’s model had attempted to answer that question based on the assumption that the “change” in the amount of warming radiation was only 1.25 watts.

When the right number is put in to Santer’s model, things get even hotter than in the old models that were already abandoned. Worst of all, from Santer’s point of view, when all of the available data, which ran from 1958 through 1995, are used, the correspondence between the model and reality vanishes.

Then there’s the problem of the satellite measured temperatures. These measurements, accurate to .01 degrees Celsius, find a statistically significant cooling trend in the lower atmosphere since they started taking measurements in 1979. The old models, which the U.N. said in 1990 were “generally realistic,” predicted a warming of about .6 degrees Celsius since the satellite measuring started, and even newer models predict warming of .35 degrees of Celsius. This warming simply isn’t happening according to the satellite data.

The satellite data also match up perfectly, on a year-to-year basis, with temperatures measured in the lower atmosphere by weather balloons. This is a completely independent corroboration of the lack of predicted warming.

Then there’s the problem of identifying the type of warming that is going on. Warming up the planet’s coldest air masses clearly creates little harm, because no plant or animal can feel the difference between -40 degrees and -35 degrees. Greenhouse physics predicts that warming is more likely in the coldest air masses. Indeed, there is some evidence that this is already occurring in Siberia and northwestern North America in winter. But it’s no threat. It’s pretty hard to melt ice caps at temperatures that are way below freezing.

Conversely, a warm, humid air mass, where things are living and growing, doesn’t respond much at all to greenhouse changes. So we expect to see less change in the summer. In fact, most observed summer changes are either small or insignificant, even in Siberia. All totaled, the effects of winter warming and little summer change lengthens the growing season, costs less energy and is, in general, hard to label as a big negative. Do this, and put in the most likely changes in the greenhouse effect for the next century, and you get 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming in a new climate model from the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. From the new model of the United Kingdom Meteorological Organization, the same exercise will give you 1.3 degrees Celsius of warming. Or look at Tom Wigley’s completely independent calculation in Nature last year. Same number: 1.3 degrees.

The message is that this is less than half of the warming predicted by the U.N.’s “Consensus of Scientists” in 1990. And further, it’s now appreciated that most of this has to be in winter, as the rising temperature in Siberia is now informing us.

So the vice president is going to have to defend expensive and disruptive measures in the face of a very modest climate change whose most noticed effect will be to lengthen the growing season and reduce energy demand. The Senate will use the strength of the skeptics’ arguments to turn down any amendment to the Rio Treaty–which may actually be a blessing for Gore.

Defeat will enable the vice president to campaign in 1998 and 2000 on the attractive but spurious claim that Helms and the Republican leadership are going to kill our children because they won’t stop global warming. With global warming, as with Gore’s presidential ambitions, losing is winning.

Patrick Michaels is professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute.

Assumptions, Assumptions!

The Washington Post (Business Page, June 12, 1997) reports that the World Resources Institute has just released a study looking at 16 models which predict the economic impacts of global warming and global warming policies. The studies predictions range from a 4.3 percent decrease in GDP to a 3.5 percent increase by the year 2020 as a result of decreasing emissions to 1990 levels.

The study argues that both the best-case and worst-case scenarios contain unrealistic assumptions. The worst-case scenario, for example, assumes that no cost-effective alternative energy sources will emerge, while the best-case scenario assumes many readily available alternatives already exist or will very shortly. Other assumptions deal with energy conservation, changes in developing countries emissions, and the costs of global warming. A study by the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, for instance, has concluded that global warming would result in a small economic gain for the United States. Other models assume high health benefits from reduced emissions.

Global Emission Trading : Rube Goldberg Wouldve Been Proud

William L. Fang, Deputy General Counsel of the Edison Electric Institute, delivered a paper to a conference of the Royal Institute of International Affairs questioning the suitability of the United States SO2 trading system as a model for an international emissions trading system to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG). The U.S. system, for example, deals with one gas (SO2) and one primary source (public utilities). There are, however, multiple greenhouse gases of which there is no primary source. According to Fang, “Sources range from large utility and industrial plants to residential and commercial heating systems to individual automobiles and trucks and more for CO2, from landfills to natural gas pipeline systems to coal mines to land use changes for methane, to fertilizer applications for nitrous oxides, etc.

Fang also brings up the problem of monitoring and enforcement. The EPA, for example, collects hourly data on SO2 emissions at great cost under the premise that such strict monitoring is required to prevent cheating by the utilities. Some kind of monitoring is necessary but, asks Fang, “Does this approach make sense, even for sources of GHGs that can be monitored? At what cost? What level of regulatory oversight would be needed? How would sources that cannot be physically monitored be handled? How would credit for GHG sinks be determined, such as for CO2 sequestration from planting trees?”

Finally, Fang points out that the Clean Air Act Amendment establishing the SO2 trading system “significantly expanded [the EPAs] enforcement authority . . . What agency or organization will fulfill this role for a GHG trading programme? What level of oversight should be provided for an international trading programme? Who will keep the books on international trades? What remedies will be available if one country strictly enforces its programme but feels other countries do not?” asks Fang. These are important questions to be sure. The U.S. must consider carefully before it rushes to create an international bureaucratic monster.

Amendment to Improve Treatys Chances

According to Nature (“Europe seeks to head off oil-exporters veto on climate treaty,” June 5, 1997), the European Union (EU) has submitted an amendment to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) that would allow adoption of the climate change treaty by a three-quarters majority of countries instead of requiring a consensus.

This is an attempt to prevent the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) from vetoing a treaty that would hinder petroleum use worldwide. OPEC is demanding compensation for the lost revenues resulting from decreased fossil fuel use. Since such a provision is unlikely to be included in the treaty, the OPEC nations could attempt to block “consensus”.

Australia Threatens Withdrawal

Australia has threatened to withdraw from the FCCC if mandatory greenhouse gas reductions are imposed. Citing the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics finding that reducing emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 will cost Australians $7,000 each, Prime Minister John Howard stated Australia would rather withdraw from negotiations than accept such costs.

Environmental groups warn that such a move by Australia would brand it as “an international pariah” risking the possibility of “major economic dislocation from international sanctions.” Such threats demonstrate that treaty proponents may go to extreme lengths to impose binding limits on the industrialized countries (Greenwire, May 8, 1997).

Fudge Positively Correlated With Higher Temperatures

“Climate modelers have been cheating for so long its almost become respectable,” writes Richard Kerr for the journal Science (“Model Gets it Right Without Fudge Factors,” May 16, 1997). Since no computer model to date has been able to simulate the present climate, modelers have used “flux adjustments” to make the simulation correspond to reality. According to David Randall of Colorado State University, “If you cant simulate the present without arbitrary adjustments, you have to worry.”

A new computer model, developed by thirty researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, can now simulate the present climate without the flux adjustments. The model can run for 300 model years without drifting from a realistic climate, a feat current models cannot match. A doubling of CO2 in the model raised global temperatures 2 degrees Celsius. The IPCC estimated warming of 2.5 to 4.5 degrees C.

If the model is correct “two-thirds to three-quarters of the [temperature variations of the] last 130 years can be explained as natural variation,” making the detection of modest greenhouse warming even more difficult. The model suggests, though still in simplistic form, that “future greenhouse warming may be milder than some other models have suggested and could take decades to reveal itself.”

Carbon Trumps Sulfur

New research may force scientists to revise their explanation of why rising carbon dioxide levels have not led to significant increases in temperature. When temperatures did not rise as expected in the early 1990s scientists believed that large quantities of sulfur particles, issued from Mount Pinatubo in 1991, were to blame. Scientists hypothesized that sulfur particulates, a product of industrial activity, forms a thin shield around the earth which reflects solar radiation, cooling the planet. Sulfate aerosol pollution was said to be masking the global warming predicted by climate models but never observed.

A team of researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle measured the carbon and sulfur particles over an industrial area which included New York, Washington, and Virginia. They found that carbon particles overwhelmed sulfur particles. Since there has been no net warming, as would be expected, the sulfur theory took a hit. According to Peter Hobbs, one of the researchers, “I guess, in a sense, you could say its back to the drawing board. Weve only got data from one region, but if it proves to be typical, then were going to find that the computer simulations we all use are not nearly complex enough. You cant rely on them to be accurate if they dont have the right programming” (Sunday Times, London, June 8, 1997).

Furthermore, Benjamin Santer who postulated the sulfur shield theory, admitted at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting, that if his analysis were extended beyond 1987 (the limit of his Nature article) the sulfate+greenhouse models no longer show a correlation between sulfate density and temperature observations. Both Santer and NASAs James Hansen told the audience that in recent years greenhouse gases have overwhelmed sulfates without the expected increase in temperatures (World Climate Report, Vol. 2 No. 8).

Uniform Temperatures: Fewer, Smaller Storms

A study published in Geophysical Research Letters has found that the temperature difference between the equator and the poles has decreased, according to an article in Science News (“Earths temperature grows more uniform,” May 31, 1997). The two latitude zones studied both showed warming over the last 111 years but the northern zone experienced greater warming than the southern zone, decreasing the temperature gap at a rate of 0.30 degrees C to 0.46 degrees C per century. According to meteorological theory a smaller temperature gap between the polar and equatorial regions will reduce either the number or frequency of storms.

Annoying Confidence Levels

Responding to the question of how long we must wait before we can say global warming is upon us, Mark Cane, senior scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, stated, “See, part of the problem in answering a question like that … depends on how much certainty do you require before you say something…. if I say … is there evidence of global warming now due to human causes, I would say, there is. And there are certain things happening that convince me pretty much. If I were to put this to the kind of test that we like to use where we say,… is it 99 percent certain? Or 95 percent certain or something like that? OK? Then it gets much tougher to say that thats happening” (Talk of the Nation, NPR, May 16, 1997).

Of course, this is why confidence levels are so important. Not only do they separate random from causal events but they also make it more difficult for scientists to impose their own biases and perceptions on the evidence before them. Though Al Gore blames every news-making weather event on global warming, scientists must test whether such occurrences are plausibly linked to higher temperatures. If the correlation does not meet a strict confidence level, then an honest scientist, regardless of his belief in climate change, will reject the hypothesis.

Exerpted Remarks of Congressman John D. Dingell before the National Energy Resources Organization, June 10, 1997

Let me turn now to climate change. You know that I have also been skeptical of the administration’s policy since the US committed to the ‘Berlin Mandate’ back in 1995. As you know, that agreement bound the developed countries to new obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — and explicitly barred negotiators from requiring any new commitments of the developing nations. Subsequent negotiating sessions have demonstrated how unwise this process agreement was, as the developing world repeatedly reminds our negotiator the we traded off any right to demand more from them.

Standing back from these procedural concerns, I have four major criticisms of the Administrations policy on climate change:

First, it has overreached on science. It is one thing to conclude, as the UN’s scientific body did in 1995, that there is a link between human activity and climate change. It is quite another to leapfrog over the many uncertainties in the IPCC report and set specific emissions targets and timetables.

Second, the administration has not done its homework. Last fall an administration witness told the energy and Power Subcommittee that the long-promised “analysis and assessment” of the economic impact of future agreements would be finished by January of this year. We now are told that it may be done by late July — a mere six months before the conference of the parties meets to discuss treaty amendments in Kyoto.

Third, against this backdrop of inadequate knowledge and preparation, official US policy has shifted from supporting voluntary action to requiring mandatory action. In January, the US proposed an international cap and trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, in spite of the fact that it does not yet know with any certainty the full extent of the problem, how to address it, or what the consequences will be for the US economy.

Let me end my remarks on climate change by pointing out that any amendment to the treaty would come before the Congress in two forms: First, for Senate Ratification and second, for approval of implementing legislation. If the Administration continues on its current course, it will face a very hard road indeed in trying to live up to the obligations it apparently is planning to take on in Kyoto next December.

The Heat is Off

Ross Gelbspan, author of The Heat Is On, laments in the Washington Post (“Outlook,” May 25, 1997) what he claims to be an enormously successful campaign by a “tiny band of scientists” to create the “perception that scientists are sharply divided over whether it [global warming] is taking place at all.” These scientists, he claims, have taken advantage of scientifically naive newspaper editors to wield influence far greater than their numbers. He even goes so far as to paint them with the same brush as tobacco company scientists who deny the dangers of smoking. Rather than attack the scientific statements of these so called skeptics Gelbspans Post article concentrates on their funding sources, implying that one need look no further to debunk what is being said.

Unfortunately, for Gelbspan, Science just published an article which suggests that some scientific skepticism is still justified. Even Gelbspan cant chalk this up to editor naivet. Worse, Gelbspan gets many “facts” wrong. For instance, he leads the article with a story of a Rhode Island sized chunk of ice which broke off the Larsen ice shelf in Antarctica. He doesnt mention that this occurred following two of the coldest years on record for Antarctica. Furthermore, Science (“Rapid Sea-Level Rise Soon From West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse?” 21 February 1997) recently published an article by Charles R. Bentley of the Geophysical and Polar Research Center, in which he argues the West Antarctic ice sheet is very stable and it is very unlikely that climate warming could trigger a collapse in the next century or two. Bentley calculates that there is a 0.1% chance of this happening and could only occur through natural causes.

PCSD to Advise President on Global Warming

According to the BNA Daily Report for Executives (May 16, 1997), the Presidents Council on Sustainable Development a presidential commission charged with devising a sustainable development strategy for the U.S. has been asked by President Clinton to offer recommendations on “adaptations in the U.S. economy and society that maximize environmental and social benefits [of reducing greenhouse gas emissions] and minimize negative economic impacts.” This is a tacit admission by the administration that there will be negative economic impacts from climate change policies. The question is how is a hodgepodge of environmental and civil rights activists, business CEOs, and government bureaucrats going to devise a plan to address it.

Political Difficulties for Global Warming Treaty

The Wall Street Journal (“Global-Warming Treaty Faces Host of Political Clouds,” May 27, 1997) reports that the global warming treaty to be negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, in December, faces many political obstacles. Treaty proponents are complaining that the Clinton Administration is having difficulty selling the American public on the need for an international treaty to stop global warming. While the coal, oil, steel, electricity, chemical and automobile manufacturing industries are opposing the treaty as expected, the greater obstacle has come from the labor unions who believe that a treaty restricting emissions will lead to lost jobs.

Labor spokesman Bill Cunningham has said it is “amazing that harsh, arbitrary flat-rate reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (imposed only on developed countries), are being proposed and contemplated without regard to their impact on working people . . . (Its) even more galling when we find that there is no scientific evidence (this) will solve the greenhouse problem. In fact it might even exacerbate it.” (John Shanahan, “Greenhouse pact and labor” The Journal of Commerce, April 10, 1997).

The administration is claiming that part of the problem is insufficient education. According to Eileen Claussen, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs, Europeans “have a strong green constituency that knows more about this than the American public.” The U.S. is proposing a “flexible” compliance scheme. A uniform target, for instance, may be set to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels by 2010 and at ten percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Within the limits of the target countries will be able to purchase and trade permits that allow them emissions within the target. The flexibility of the plan arises from the ability of firms to determine the most efficient way to reduce emissions and to purchase more or fewer permits based upon their relative ability to do so.

The treaty faces other obstacles internationally from China, Brazil and India who want an exemption from the treaty. The oil rich nations are also opposed to the treaty, as is Australia.

Climate Change? Not Yet!

Finally someone has brought the climate change debate back down to earth. Amidst claims by environmentalists that we are in the throes of runaway global warming, the prestigious journal Science (“Greenhouse Forecasting Still Cloudy,” 16 May 1997) has put everything into perspective. According to Science, climate experts are a long way from proclaiming that human activities are already heating up the earth. Even Benjamin Santer, lead author of chapter 8 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report admits as much: “We say quite clearly that few scientists would say the attribution issue was a done deal.” Known as the holy grail amongst scientific circles the search for the “human fingerprint” is far from over with many scientists saying that a clear resolution is at least ten years away.

Why all the uncertainty? Forecasts of global warming rely on computer models which attempt to simulate the earths climate. Climate change proponents have always been quick to point out that the models predict a discernible amount of warming resulting from CO2 buildup. What they are hesitant to discuss is the relative confidence they have in their own models. And in fact confidence levels are low, for two main reasons.

One is the lack of computer power. There are 14 orders of magnitude in the climate system. So far researchers have only been able to model the two largest: the planetary scale and the scale of weather disturbances. To model the third scale (thunderstorms) would require a thousand times more computer speed.

Even if researchers could model smaller scales they would run into the second obstacle: a very sketchy understanding of the earths climate. Researchers, for example, are still debating the impacts of clouds on the earths climate. Until these questions are resolved it is difficult to build models that make accurate predictions. As one modeler put it, “The more you learn, the more you understand that you dont understand very much.” Unfortunately, the executive summary of the IPCC report did not, according to Brian Farrell of Harvard University, “convey the real uncertainties the science has.”

The Spin on Hurricanes

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has just published Calmer Weather: The Spin on Greenhouse Hurricanes, in which Robert C. Balling, Jr., Director of the office of Climatology and Associate Professor of geography at Arizona State University, reviews the scientific literature on the connection between climate change and hurricane activity. According to Balling, “as with so many other elements in the greenhouse debate, the theoretical and empirical evidence is not very supportive of this claim.”

Research has shown that Atlantic hurricane activity from 1970 to 1987 was less that half of that observed from 1947 to 1969. Additional research found that warmer years actually produced fewer hurricanes than cooler years. Furthermore, there is strong evidence from satellite measurement that the planet has actually cooled over the last two decades.

“Blaming hurricanes on recent warming is flawed on all fronts: not only is there little to no linkage between global warming and hurricane activity, but there seems to have been no warming in recent decades either.” Balling concluded that, “There is little reason to expect an increase of hurricane activity throughout the upcoming century.”

To order copies of Calmer Weather, call CEI at (202) 331-1010.