Chimera of Global Warming

by William Yeatman on April 12, 1999

in Science

(This article originally appeared in the Washington Times.)

Ten years ago the Alps endured a virtually snowless winter. Environmentalists blamed global warming. A Swiss lobbying group, Alp Action, wrote in 1991 that global warming would put an end to winter sports in the Alps by 2025.

This year the Alps have had their greatest snowfall in 40 years, according to very preliminary data. Greenpeace has blamed global warming.

How in the world can that be? Is it possible to blame global warming for every weather anomaly, even if two consecutive events are of opposite sign?

Can such a claim have “scientific” justification?

If one regards the United Nations as an authority on such things, the answer, unfortunately, is yes. Global warmers, thanks to the good offices of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, can blame any weather event on pernicious economic prosperity and resultant greenhouse gas emissions.

The most recent IPCC summary on climate change was published three years ago. IPCC purports to be the “consensus of scientists” but in fact is a group of individuals hand-picked by their respective governments. Does anyone really expect Al Gore to send me to represent the United States at one of those meetings? (Thank you, no, I have been to one and that was enough.)

Absent my sage advice, here’s what the United Nations wrote in 1995: “Warmer temperatures will lead to . . . prospects for more severe droughts and/or floods in some places and less severe droughts and/or floods in others.”

As a punishment for not cleaning out the cat box, you might ask your kid to diagram this sentence. Rather than strain the graphics of this word processor, we’ll simply parse it. What the IPCC is saying is that global warming will cause in “some places” and/or “others”:

– More intense wet periods.
– More intense dry periods.
– More intense wet and dry periods.
– Less intense wet periods.
– Less intense dry periods.
– And less intense wet and dry periods.

So, according to the “consensus of scientists,” it’s OK to blame a flood, or, if you’re in the mountains, a flood of snow, on global warming. It’s also OK to blame a drought or a snowless Alp on global warming.

It’s even OK to blame weather that is more normal than normal (“less intense wet and dry periods”) on global warming.

The IPCC statement, which cannot be proved wrong, is a cynical attempt to allow anyone to blame anything on global warming. As Julius Wroblewski of Vancouver, Canada, wrote to me, this logic “represents a descent into the swamp of the non-falsifiable hypothesis. This is not a term of praise. Falsifiability is the internal logic in a theory that allows a logical test to see if it is right or wrong.”

A non-falsifiable theory is one for which no test can be devised, and the U.N. statement fits the bill perfectly. There is simply no observable weather or climate that does not meet its criteria, except one: absolutely no change in the climate, meaning no change in the average weather or the variability around that average.

Every climatologist on the planet knows that is impossible. Climate has to change because the sun is an inconstant star and the Earth is a nonuniform medium whose primary surface constituent, water, is very near its freezing point. Freezing (or unfreezing) water makes the planet whiter (or darker), which affects the degree to which it reflects the sun’s warming rays. A flicker of the sun, therefore, ensures climate change.

A hot young climatologist named Robert Mann, writing in Geophysical Research Letters, recently provided a powerful demonstration of this phenomenon. Using long-term records from tree rings and ice cores, he concluded that the planet was on a 900-year cooling streak between 1000 and 1900. Then we warmed up almost twice as much as we had cooled, but at least half of that warming was caused by our inconsistent sun. Two NASA scientists recently demonstrated that the sun has been warming throughout the last 400 years. As a result, if the last decade weren’t among the warmest in the last millennium, something would have been wrong with the basic theory of climate: The sun warms the Earth.

That doesn’t mean we haven’t supplied a bit of greenhouse warming, too. But greenhouse warming behaves differently than pure solar warming: It occurs largely in the coldest air masses of winter.

That’s a far cry from the United Nation’s nonsense about “some places” and “others” experiencing more unusual, less unusual or unusually usual weather. And it has nothing to do with avalanches or snowless winters, either.

Patrick J. Michaels is a senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and science adviser to the Greening Earth Society in Arlington.

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