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Global Warming: Just a Lot of Hot Air?

by Fred Kilbourne

Editor's note: In "Point/Counter Point", Donald Bashline and Fred Kilbourne discuss the following article, which is reprinted with permission from The Actuarial Update, March 1998, Volume 26, Number 3.

Last January in signing the Kyoto Protocol to the 1992 Climate Change Treaty, the United States government agreed to reduce greenhouse emissions over the next dozen years to 7 percent below 1990 levels. This represents a one-third reduction in projected levels of emissions by the time the oldest baby boomers become eligible for Medicare. Estimates of the economic cost of such a significant cut in energy production vary widely, but most believe that over $100 billion will be lost annually to the U.S. economy. Is such drastic action justified to spare our grandchildren from the nightmare of global warming? Or is there a political agenda that underlies these internationally imposed restrictions on our economic life?

In the spirit of our profession, which teaches that the work of science is to substitute facts for appearances and demonstrations for impressions, including misimpressions fomented to promote a political agenda, I have sought and found a great deal of information about global warming, some nuggets of which can fairly be described as facts. Here's a sampling for your consideration.

Whether the globe is warming or cooling depends on your time frame. The earth's crust offers tangible evidence of a cooling trend over billions of years. Nearer at hand, we are now in an inter-glacial warm period that began about 11,000 years ago. Even closer to our time, the "Little Ice Age" that began in 1450 lasted about four centuries, until the mid-19th century when Sir Henry Bessemer devised a process to turn iron into steel by transforming coal into greenhouse gases. (Keep in mind that coincidence does not necessarily denote causation.) Now the plot thickens.

There is a general agreement among scientists that our atmosphere has warmed about 1 F since 1850. However, no such agreement exists as to whether any of that warming has occurred over the past half century. Satellite data available over the past two decades show a cooling trend at a rate of about 1% F per century. Surface measurements over the same period show a warming trend at a rate of about 2% F per century, but they do not take account of the "urban heat island effect" (measurements are taken disproportionately near hot human centers). Global circulation models predict greater warming, but these models perform poorly in validation tests based on past experience. So what is an actuary to make of this somewhat noisy data in trying to understand the future of global warming? Well, here's a suggested range of reasonable actuarial opinions based on these facts: the 21st century may be expected to experience global warming of perhaps 2% F, or global cooling of perhaps 1% F, but we probably need more information to make any estimate at all.

What about greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2)? To what extent, if any, are they attributable to human activity and responsible for global warming? Here are some facts: Greenhouse warming has been with us for billions of years; without it, the earth's surface temperatures would be about 60% F colder than currently. CO2 levels 200 million years ago were more than five times as high as they were 150 years ago, and the current rate of increase is about 60 percent per century. Furthermore, there is no serious dispute that much of this increase is due to fossil fuel combustion by humans. Note, however, that the worldwide combustion rate has increased greatly over recent decades, a period during which global warming is hardly a proven fact. Thus, greenhouse gases, yes; global warming, maybe; connection between the two, dubious.

In 1996, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report that concluded "the balance of evidence suggests that there is discernible human influence on global climate." This report was widely hailed by the international environmental lobby and helped shape the discussions that led to the Kyoto Protocol.

But the scientific community was less impressed. Commenting last year on the IPCC report, Dr. Fred Seitz, past president of the National Academy of Sciences, said, "I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process." Changes made to the report once it left the hands of its scientific authors, he said, were intended "to deceive policy makers and the public into believing that the scientific evidence shows human activities are causing global warming." Support for this view comes from a comparison of the final IPCC report with the draft prepared by IPCC scientists. Not only is the "discernible human influence" statement not in the draft report, but the following statements by the scientific team were deleted in the final report: "...no study to date has positively attributed all or part of [significant climate] change to anthropogenic human-induced) causes. Nor has any study quantified the magnitude of a greenhouse-gas effect...an issue that is of primary relevance to policy makers." "None of the studies cited...has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific causes of increases in greenhouse gases."

My conclusion is that global warming is far more a matter of politics than of climate. Further evidence comes from the words of a leading advocate of international intervention. In 1990, Tim Wirth, then Democratic senator from Colorado, said, "We've got to ride the global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy." In 1996, U.S. Under Secretary of State Wirth welcomed the IPCC report as plausible scientific cover for his "do-the-right thing" political agenda. "The science calls on us to take urgent action," he said. "Human-induced climate change, if allowed to continue unabated, could have profound consequences for the economy and the quality of life for future generations." Wirth has since taken the job of administering media magnate Ted Turner's billion-dollar grant to the U.N.

Even if global warming occurs, it may very well have positive rather than negative results for mankind; historically, this has been the case. If needed, alternate methods of reducing atmospheric CO2, such as planting trees, may be effective at a small fraction of the economic cost of emission control. Over the past several decades, media-induced "scientific" scares have proved to be essentially wrong with regard to acid rain, alar, asbestos, cranberries, cyclamates, dioxin, global cooling (the apocalypse du jour two decades ago), high-voltage power lines, irradiated foods, nuclear power plants, radon, saccharin, and more.

In Stalin's Soviet Union, where science was subordinate to the state, the bizarre theories of the dictator's favorite geneticist, Trofim Lysenko, crowded out real scientific inquiry: After all, the doctrine of the New Socialist Man needed support from a theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics, even if research results had to be...well, adjusted a bit. Stalin, Lysenko, and the USSR are all dead, but pseudoscience in the service of politics lives on. How else to explain the international rush to reorder our economies to solve a problem that may well not exist?