Hot Air: What Causes Global Warming
Ball, Timothy, Canadian Dimension
The December 1989 issue of Forbes Magazine manifested a fear that I have been discussing in any forum possible for the last few years.
A brilliant red cover provides a backdrop to the captions, "The Global Warming Panic", "A Classic Case of Overreaction." This major business magazine presents an article that is well researched and focuses directly upon the major flaws in the argument about global warming as a result of the greenhouse effect.
It is an article that provides those in the business community who want it with all the ammunition they need to combat the pressure to change that is building from the political arena. Just when we were starting to convince the public and thereby the politicians that environmental problems need serious and longterm attention, we are likely to lose ground.
The major cause of the dilemma now facing us is that some scientists made public statements that cannot be supported scientifically. The media then took these statements and amplified the errors, and in doing so converted them to "truths". Now we have the problem that many of the claims about environmental damage and change do not bear scrutiny. A credibility gap is in danger of widening, to the detriment of efforts to establish policies. At the very time that sustainable development has become politically acceptable, supporters of the traditional definition of development as unbridled growth are being given comfort.
It is a feature of the 1980s that it is becoming almost impossible to have rational discussions about many issues without hysteria, emotionalism and irrationality taking over. Many issues demand action, but it is essential that clear and factual information be available before acting. The urgency is simply not that great that we cannot establish priorities.
The challenge for political leaders is enormous. They are beset by those who tell them the world environment is doomed. Some, such as David Suzuki, set a time limit for action of ten years. The media focus upon the extreme positions and select points that are dramatic. The public are thus given false impressions; in some cases incorrect information.
To add to their problems, politicians are given information by scientists who argue a singular view of a problem. As specialists, they are not usually familiar with the research being done in other disciplines. Nowhere is this more problematic than in climate and climate change.
The November 1989 issue of Scientific American expresses the problem in its section on Science and the Citizen, entitled "Not so Hot.":
When editors and newscasters routinely bandy about the term "global warming" without bothering to explain it, then the idea could be said to have entered the body of public knowledge, accepted by most as immutable fact. Yet the public's acceptance of global warming caused by the greenhouse effect belies the fluid nature of the science. The conclusion that the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases might lead to catastrophic warming of the earth's climate continues to generate debate among scientists. As investigators refine the computer models on which global climate projections are based, some estimates of probable warming are being lowered. Moreover, new data suggest that human activity may influence the climate in ways that have previously been neglected.
Many people, including environmentalists, do not understand the mechanisms of climate, and react emotionally. Few people understand what the greenhouse effect, the ozone layer of many other aspects of the physical environment are, or how they work. The result is that many discussions about these topics are discussions in ignorance; they tend to achieve nothing except the creation of more confusion and fear.
The greenhouse effect is a major example of the misconceptions and misunderstandings of the media, and consequently most of the public. Most believe it is something that has occurred in the 1980s as a result of human activities. The truth is that the greenhouse effect has been around for most of the earth's history. Without some of the gases of the atmosphere delaying the escape of longwave energy, the earth's average annual temperature would be approximately -20C; instead it is a habitable 15C.
There is no debate that the greenhouse effect exists. The question is whether there is any evidence that human activities are measurably affecting global climates. The answer is that there is not.
Unfortunately, James Hansen, a NASA scientist at the Goddard Institute of Space Studies, appeared before the U.S. Committee investigating global warming and said he was 99 per cent certain that the warming trend of the 1980s was due to greenhouse warming. This is a statement that Stephan Schneider, editor of the international journal Climatic Change, has said that even Hansen regrets making.
Yet Hansen's remarks were interpreted by Senator Wirth, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, as follows when he spoke at the 1988 Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: "According to his (Hansen's) studies we can now say, with 99 per cent certainty that the greenhouse effect is upon us and that such events as the North American drought are increasingly likely to occur." Where did the notion come from that the effect is recently upon us? There is no evidence that droughts would increase in frequency. In fact, the evidence is that droughts are a function of sunspot activity and have nothing to do with global temperatures per se.
Science or Fiction?
How could a man who chaired hearings on global warming have obtained such inaccuracies? In a 1983 editorial for Climatic Change, S.J. Rasool correctly and boldly drew attention to "...the growing problem of how to separate good science from good fiction, especially when the press coverage picks up the latter." Wirth represents a politician who has great influence on policy and yet is completely misinformed on this major issue.
One can hope the motive is a genuine desire to protect the environment. Sometimes it is necessary to overstate a case in order to bring attention. Usually, it is unsuccessful. At best it is a dangerous game. Now we are confronted with the sombre spectre of those, whether polluters or not, who have no wish to change their modus operandi, being given the ammunition they seek. The whole thing is in danger of backfiring, setting back the cause of reducing and eliminating those activities that may cause the destruction of our planet.
Global climates had been relatively benign and stable in the period following the Second World War. Adequate rains in the grain growng regions, especially North America, complemented by better seeds, equipment and chemicals, let to increased food supply driving growing economies. The climate patterns began to change in 1976, but this did not really attract scientific attention until the 1980s.
It is important to note that in the late 1970s the prevailing scientific view was that the world was cooling down and heading toward another ice age. A study by the National Defense University in the U.S. determined that a majority of the climatologists surveyed believed that global cooling would occur in the next forty years. A book entitled The Cooling, published in 1976, discussed the concept of climatocracy. This considered what would befall different regions as the climate cooled and their ability to produce food was altered. The cause of this trend of thinking was the fact that the world cooled from 1940 to 1980.
Now, some fifteen years later, the prevailing thinking is for warming, and a majority have climbed onto the new bandwagon. The practice of peer review of articles and research grant applications does much to prevent opposing or even questioning views being aired. It tends to ensure perpetuation of a particular viewpoint and mitigate against those who have doubts.
The January, 1990 Scientific American has an article that examines the causes for Ice Ages. It suggests that this most extreme climate variation is primarily due to changes in the orbital patterns of the earth around the sun. Our high school textbooks tell students that the earth's orbit around the sun is an unvarying ellipse. In fact the orbit varies from almost circular to more elliptical and back approximately every 100,000 years, a fact that causes significant climate change.
What is most disturbing about this information is that we have known about it at least since 1842 when the French scientist Adhemar suggested it as a cause of climate variability. The changes in sun/earth relationships as a cause of climate change were officially proposed by Milankovich in the 1950s, but did not receive general acceptance in the scientific community. It is almost impossible to explain this reticence. Unfortunately the problem persists.
Consider the following statement from a 1988 article by Karen Labitzke and Harry van Loon: "Serious" meteorologists still prefer to dismiss any claim that there is a noticeable relationship between the activity of the Sun and events on earth. And yet, to our own surprise, we have found a highly significant correlation between the state of the atmosphere and solar activity. (Van Loon and Labitzki, 1988 Geophysical Research Letters, p.58)
What a remarkable statement for scientists to make. They apologize for daring to challenge the prevailing wisdom, but cannot ignore the potentially heretical results and possible rejection by their community.
It is equally difficult to understand that although we consider the sun as the source of all energy and the driving force of climate it is assumed that the output is constant. Many of those who accept that it varies argue that the changes are so small that they have no impact on the climate. But you can account for all the known temperature change on earth by varying solar output by only six per cent.
What has been overlooked, despite evidence in other disciplines, is the effect of the solar wind on the climate. An article entitled "The Variable Sun" in the February, 1990, Scientific American discusses the relationship between variations in activity on the sun, and climate on earth -- precisely the issue that Van Loon and Labitzke discuss. Increasingly, the evidence is that global climate variation throughout history including the 1980s is primarily due to changes in the sun and not carbon dioxide, methane, or any greenhouse effect.
All of the predictions about global warming are based on very simplistic understandings about the variables and mechanisms. Ignoring variations in the sun is like trying to understand the operation of a car without considering the engine. It also forces the assumption that any variations measured must be caused by something in the atmosphere.
Part of the failure to include solar variation is caused by the need to specialize. Very few read the literature of other disciplines and even if they do there is a problem of understanding. Often the answers to scientific problems exist in other areas, but specialization and the volume of material being produced work against linkages occurring. Synthesis is extremely difficult. With the complexity of climate it is especially so.
I believe that in climate we are in a pre-Darwinian era. We have yet to produce a paradigm of climate. Symptomatic of this position in the evolution of understanding is that everyone tends to focus on one variable as the key to understanding and explanation. Thus believers aruge for single variables such as carbon dioxide, methane and numerous others. The reality is that climate is the sum of a myriad of factors.
We simply do not fully understand what causes climate change. Focus on carbon dioxide has detracted from this reality. Now the world is about to discover that they have been misled. There is no evidence that the climate variations are being caused by human activities. All are well within natural variability, indeed most are within the range of research and measurement error. Most frightening is that there will be a backlash as people abandon the environment cause. It is frightening because even though there is no evidence of human actions affecting climate, continued emission of pollutants and interference with the natural system will, if we continue at present rates, lead to changes.
There is one major question beyond all the flaws in the predictions about future climates. Why do we accept that global warming is a negative or harmful thing? The Standing Committee on Environmental Investigating Global Warming called for briefs "...including policies for reducing Canada's input to this environmental problem..." They have already accepted that global warming is being created by human activity despite the almost complete lack of evidence. They have also concluded that it is a problem. On what basis have they reached these conclusions? If they have already reached a conclusion is there any point in presenting a brief? What hope is there for objectivity under such circumstances?
The world has been as warm in the past as the more severe predictions suggest. The global temperature has risen, and fallen, as quickly in the past. During these warmer periods the region that is Canada experienced much more benign conditions, so why the concern? As with so many things it is necessary to examine the source of the message as well as the content.
A quick glance at the map will show that the configuration of climate zones places tropical wet regions at the equator and immediately poleward the desert regions. Africa, astride the equator, is the ideal example. When the earth warms up the deserts spread poleward; when it cools the deserts shrink. The only region that would be drastically affected by a warmer world would be the United States, especially the area west of the Mississippi.
I can appreciate American concern, but Canada, Europe, and Soviet Union and China would all benefit from a warmer world, especially with regard to food production. Canada's concern should be about global cooling as we cling to the northern limits of agriculture. Historic evidence shows that Canada would get warmer and wetter if global temperatures increased. Even if wetter conditions did not occur, Louise Arthur, agricultural economist at the University of Manitoba, has shown that Canada would not suffer and woul only need to make minor adjustments. The argument that droughts would occur more frequently is also incorrect, because it has been shown that these are related to the twenty-two year sunspot cycle.
I regret to tell you that most of the arguments about lack of knowledge and understanding of climate also apply to the ozone layer. The major error of assuming that solar output is constant is particularly problematic, as ozone is created by ultraviolet energy from the sun. Once again this forces a conclusion that changes must result from factors within the earth's atmosphere system.
Soil Erosion and Water Toxicity
We should not downplay the potential risks to the atmosphere, but if we continue to focus on the climate we run the risk of ignoring the more insidious and much more damaging problems, namely soil erosion and toxicity in our water. The atmosphere is primarily a gas, and because of its volatility, will respond to corrective changes more rapidly. The soil and water problems cannot be corrected as easily, if at all. Most people do not understand that it only takes the removal of a small portion of the soil to remove its fertility. On the prairies it takes approximately 100 years for three centimetres of soil to form under natural conditions. It is a resource that we simply cannot afford to lose, and yet it is blowing and washing away at increasing rates.
The buildup of toxic chemicals in our surface and groundwater are probably the most frightening. Every day we read of another example of these chemicals leaking into or being found in another body of water. How do you clean up a polluted aquifer? How do you replace eroded soils? These problems will require most of our attention and money.
Ironically but fortuitously, many of the problems of the atmosphere can be slowed or even reversed if we tackle the soil erosion problem. Planting windbreaks and practicing all the soil conversation measures currently available would reduce moisture loss, reduce dust, and increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed. These all benefit the atmosphere.
This article has only looked at one element of the environmental problems. It has attempted to show that what is understood to be 'the greenhouse effect' is generally misunderstood and that the evidence of global warming caused by human activity is virtually non-existent. The concern is raised that as this information is unearthed and brought before the public there will be a loss of momentum in the attempts to reduce environmental destruction. At the very time that politicians are beginning to heed the clamour and concern they are going to be bombarded with counterattacks. The overzealous and inopportune public statements of some scientists, the desire of media for sensationalism and the lack of understanding among the public has created a situation in which wrong decisions are made.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Hot Air: What Causes Global Warming. Contributors: Ball, Timothy - Author. Magazine title: Canadian Dimension. Volume: 24. Issue: 3 Publication date: April-May 1990. Page number: 22+. © 2009 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 1990 Gale Group.
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