My father worked as a meteorologist for the United States Weather Bureau. He occasionally joked that it helped, now and then, when compiling a weather report, to look out the window rather than stay buried in the papers cranked out by various machines. Somewhat the same goes for the current concern for global warming. That the globe is dramatically warming is an article of faith for most environmentalists and many politicians. But scores of those who best understand what’s actually happening–looking at the evidence rather than computer projections–urge us to disregard TV snippets or Greenpeace press releases and study the facts. So argues Patrick J. Michaels, research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and past president of the American Association of State Climatologists, in Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, c. 2004). We can either rely on computer projections or factual observations, simulated scenarios or substantiated facts.
Truly the globe has warmed slightly during the past few decades. But it has, in the more distant past, been considerably warmer, and there is no reason to think the current warming is caused by human activity. Such warming will change some things, but the changes will be modest–nothing remotely like that described by alarmists who control the major media. For example: an article in Nature magazine (one of the most prestigious scientific journals) recently predicted that a single degree (C) increase would destroy 15 percent of all species on earth. But the earth warmed by more than a degree (C) a century ago and the planet’s species fared quite nicely! Summarizing his position, Michaels insists: “Global warming is real, and human beings have something to do with it. We don’t have everything to do with it; but we can’t stop it, and we couldn’t even slow it down enough to measure our efforts if we tried” (p. 9).
NASA’s James Hansen, whose 1988 congressional testimony launched public concerns for global warming, recently (2001) noted that we can now more accurately assess the threat, and in the next 50 years the earth will probably warm up by less than one degree (C). Hansen’s projection “is about four times less than the lurid top figure widely trumpeted by the United Nations in its 2001 compendium on climate change and repeated ad infinitum in the press” (p. 20). In part this is because only one-third of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are climate scientists. Even worse, its publications are not peer reviewed. The IPCC’s influential 1996 Assessment relied on ground-measured temperatures, but utterly ignored the highly significant satellite data (which indicate absolutely no global warming of the atmosphere!). Many ground temperature measurements are taken in areas that have experienced dramatic urban sprawl during the past century. Thus, for example, Washington D.C. is significantly warmer than it was 50 years ago, but a measuring station in rural Virginia shows no increase at all. It’s quite possible that much “warming” is simply the warming of areas adjacent to large cities, whose artificial environment (heat absorbing asphalt and heat producing factories and homes) falsifies the picture. It’s even possible that the surface-warming trend will be reversed within a few decades.
The public knows little of this truth because the press is uncritical (or scientifically illiterate) and many scientists are locked into a funding network that discourages dissent. Consider, for example, “the truth about icecaps.” In 2001 a Washington Post headline screamed: “The End is Near.” Rising water would soon flood seaside cabins on the Chesapeake Bay, the story declared. Senator Joseph Lieberman, in that year, repeated the alarmist mantra that melting polar icecaps would raise sea levels by “35 feet, submerging millions of homes under our present-day oceans” (p. 33). If he wasn’t reading the Post, he could easily have taken this scenario from a similar article in the New York Times based upon “the observations of two passengers on a Russian cruise ship” that sailed through the Artic Ocean. The passengers took pictures of the ice-free water and wondered if “‘anybody in history ever got to 90 degrees north to be greeted by water, not ice'” (p. 43). Though a bit of fact checking by the Times would have demonstrated the normality of this, headlines favor the abnormal and the story fueled the political agenda favored and financed by environmentalists. But the truth is, as Michaels shows–with numerous graphs and scholarly citations–Greenland’s icecap is growing and there’s no cause for alarm. And there’s especially no cause for alarm regarding the higher ocean levels predicted by Senator Lieberman! “In fact, the North Polar icecap is a floating mass, and melting that will have absolutely no effect on sea level; a glass of ice water does not rise when the cubes have melted. With regard to that other polar ice–Antarctica–most climate models predict little or no change” (p. 203).
Michaels applies the same scrutiny to allegations of species extinction. Alarmist studies of butterflies (one of which was the foundation for the Kyoto Accord so sacred to politicians like Al Gore), toads, penguins, and polar bears simply do not survive careful scrutiny. Though earth’s surface temperatures have slightly increased, there is no evidence that such warming has led to species’ extinctions. So too hurricanes and tornadoes, droughts and floods, disease and death, though often attributed to global warming by impulsive journalists such as Dan Rather, simply cannot have been caused by it. A case study for alarmism is the island of Tuvalu. For years environmentalists like Lester Brown and local officials of this tiny Pacific island nation have been issuing warnings, asking for “environmental refugee status in New Zealand” for its 11,000 people (p. 203). Tuvalu’s prime minister declared (a decade ago) that “the greenhouse effect and sea-level rise threaten the very heart of our existence” (p. 204). London’s Guardian, just in time for an important United Nations conference, certified such fears. “In fact,” Michaels says, the “sea level in Tuvalu has been falling–and precipitously so–for decades” (p. 204). Not to be bothered by the facts, however the Washington Post irresponsibly spread the word that melting ice caps in polar regions would soon engulf the island nation!
Perhaps more distressing than Michael’s factual presentation is his critique of the scientific community responsible for promoting the myth of impending doom. Just in time for the 2000 election, the U.S. National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change was published. Guided to publication by President Clinton’s Assistant for Science and Technology, John Gibbons, the report was carefully wrapped with all the ribbons of solid science. “Gibbons was a popular speaker on the university circuit, lecturing on the evils of rapid population growth, resource depletion, environmental degradation and, of course, global warming. His visual aids included outdated population and resource projections from Paul Ehrlich in which ‘affluence’ was presented as the cause of environmental degradation, a notion that has been discredited for decades” (p. 207). Equally dated were his data on climate change!
Gibbons guided the various bureaucratic committees that led to the publication of the influential National Assessment. These committees, “larded with political appointees,” were designed to deliver a document satisfactory to Vice President Al Gore, gearing up for his presidential campaign. “The resultant document was so subject to political pressure that it broke the cardinal ethic of science: that hypotheses must be consistent with facts” (p. 208). The National Assessment embraced the most extreme computer projections regarding global warming–one of which would have erred by 300 percent if applied to the past century! It ignored that fact that the most of the past century’s warming took place in the U.S. before there was any significant accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It even endorsed a Canadian study that predicted temperatures in the Southeast would soar to 120 degrees (F) by the year 2100–a totally ludicrous notion that could only occur if the Gulf of Mexico (and its moderating influence) evaporated!
Michael’s final chapter, “The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming,” alerts us to the insidious role played by popular theoretical paradigms and the lure of federal funding in shaping contemporary science. Today’s climatological paradigm reigns in powerful centers and encourages alarmist studies. It’s the paradigm underlying various laws, for legislators quickly trumpet what’s taken to be conventional wisdom and public concern. It’s also responsible for the fact that scientific journals rarely consider the possibility that “global warming is exaggerated” (p. 228). Add dollars to the equation–a grand total of $20 billion granted scientists since 1990 to “research” global warming–and you begin to understand why it’s promoted! The most prestigious journals–Science, Scientific American, Nature–simply will not tell the “obvious truth” that only minimal global warming is at all possible during the century to come! Sad to say, money talks in the allegedly “objective” scientific community as surely as it does in politics!
What Michaels hopes, writing this book, is that a small but courage coterie of scientists and journalists will begin to challenge the dominant paradigm. And certainly this book takes a step in that direction.
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For a fictional version of Meltdown, pick up a copy of Michael Crichton’s recent thriller, State of Fear (New York: HarperCollins, 2004). I’ve never before read a novel that has scores of graphs, footnotes to scholarly articles, and a 10 page annotated bibliography at the end! But they’re here, and it’s obvious he wanted to write more than a popular novel, which he’s certainly done many times! The novel pits a handful of dedicated, scientifically-informed heroes struggling to save the earth from the machinations of fanatical environmentalists, nominally led by a Hollywood actor, who are manipulated by professional environmentalists who are more concerned with money and power than environmental integrity. The environmentalists plan to trigger various global disasters and attribute them to global warming, coldly indifferent to their catastrophic results. There’s riveting action and snitches of romance. The plot’s suspenseful, and the pages turn quickly as one sinks into the story. And along with the dialogue and adventure, there’s the message!
So read the story and enjoy it. Then think about the book’s message, which was summed up by Crichton in a speech he gave in San Francisco in 2004 wherein he decried “the disinformation age” that results from “a secular society in which many people–the best people, the most enlightened people–do not believe in any religion” and embrace environmentalism. They cite their scriptures (environmental classics by Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich), recite their creeds (mantras regarding the plight of the planet and the evils of capitalism), join their cults (Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Earth First!), and denounce any challenges to their faith, especially including questions concerning global warming. But they are–like the Hollywood character in State of Fear–misinformed at best and Machiavellian at worst.
In the “author’s message” at the end of the book, Crichton says he spent three years reading environmental texts before writing the novel. What astonished him was how little we actually know about the state of the world. Some things are obvious: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the surface temperatures have both increased. But, “Nobody knows how much of the present warming trend might be man-made” (p. 569). The computer models generally cited in global warming scenarios vary enormously, and the best estimates suggest it will take 100 years to increase one degree centigrade. He believes things will be much better for earth’s inhabitants in 2100, and he thinks “that most environmental ‘principles’ (such as sustainable development . . . ) have the effect of preserving the economic advantages of the West and thus constitute modern imperialism towards the developing world” (p. 571).
Environmental activists–Sierra Club and Environmental Defense League types–generally promote the antiquated scientific views of their youth. Dramatic breakthroughs, such as nonlinear dynamics, chaos theory, and catastrophe theory, have fundamentally changed science without sinking into “the thinking of environmental activists” (p. 571). He finds the ideas of “wilderness advocates” routinely spurious, declaring them no better than those propounded by “developers and strip miners” (p. 572). What’s desperately needed is “more people working in the field . . . and fewer people behind computer screens” (p. 572). And we need honest, independent scientists whose research isn’t funded by special interests, especially environmental organizations and bureaucracies such as the EPA!
Read in conjunction with Meltdown, Crichton’s novel effectively quiets (or at least permits questioning) some of the fears fanned by fanatical environmentalists.
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In the summer of 2003, the Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado history, started about 10 miles west of my summer home in the mountains. Subsequently it crept five miles closer. We were evacuated from our place for two weeks, and suddenly “forest fire” took on a whole different meaning! The Hayman blaze was started by a Forest Fire employee (now in prison) who apparently wanted to gain fame by first reporting and then extinguishing it! The fire burned so voraciously, many analysts believed, because of forest service policies which make such fires inevitable. Thus I was drawn to read Robert H. Nelson’s A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., c, 2000). Nelson worked in the Department of the Interior for 15 years and knows the way Washington works! He is now professor of environmental policy in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland and has earlier written Public Lands and Private Rights: The Failure of Scientific Management.
The Forest Service has evolved in accord with the various political agendas that shaped it. During the first half of the 20th century, it mainly worked with timber companies to extract lumber from the nation’s forests. This fit the philosophy of Gifford Pinchot and the Progressives who constructed the “administrative state” (p. 2). The service also worked to suppress fires, to save the trees for harvesting. Lumber companies cut roads and cleared sections of the forest, helping to limit the expanse of fires that erupted. Cutting trees for lumber saved trees from burning. More recently, especially following the Wilderness Act of 1964, recreation has assumed a major role in shaping forest policy, and “preserving wilderness areas” has been promoted. There are now some 100 million acres reserved as national wilderness, and various kinds of preserved lands have expanded “from 51 million acres in 1964 to 271 million acres in 1993” (p. 9). To keep increasingly large areas “untrammeled by man” has become the objective of powerful interests, and there have, consequently, been “sharp declines in timber harvesting, mining, and other traditional uses of the national forests. The Clinton administration has actively sought to instill this ethos as the new core value defining the institutional culture of the Forest Service” (p. xiv). Millions of acres, unless mechanically harvested, will vanish when “catastrophic fires” ignite them.
In the midst of these policy shifts, the Forest Service steadfastly fought fires and allowed “the buildup of brush and dense thickets of smaller trees in many forests” that became powder kegs awaiting a spark to explode (p. 6). State and private forests have not suffered similarly, for they “have in general been more intensively managed, involving higher timber harvest levels per acre and greater application of labor and capital for thinning, disease control, reforestation, and other purposes. Yet, contrary to a common public impression, the more intensively managed state and private forests ‘appear to be healthier than [the] unmanaged forests,’ mostly in the national forest system” (p. 19).
The national forests, however, were increasingly “preserved.” By 1996, the Sierra Club had moved to a radical position, pushing for a ban on all timber harvesting in national forests, even if it removed excess fuels in an effort to reduce forest fires! Thus the radical reduction in timber harvest results not from a wood shortage but from “changing environmental values and shifting government policies” dictated by fervent environmentalists (p. 58). These values, Nelson argues, are primarily religious. “Environmentalism now claims in effect a unique access to the mind of God, reflecting the common substitution in the modern age of scientific truth for the earlier role of Judeo-Christian religion” (p. 131). President Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, said “‘we need not sacrifice the integrity of God’s creation on the altar of commercial timber production” (p. 67). He follows the lead of secular prophets, a long list headed by Gifford Pinchot who envisioned conservation as a means of realizing “‘the Kingdom of God on earth'” (p. 69). Today’s faithful tend to see preservation as a means of regaining the Garden of Eden! Wilderness areas are frequently referred to as “‘cathedrals,’ ‘sacred places,’ and other religious terms” (p. 73). Thus the Wilderness Society motto is a Thoreau declaration: “in Wildness is he preservation of the world.” Consequently, says “Thomas Bonnicksen, a respected professor at Texas A&M University, perceives that ‘zealots within the agencies, encouraged by some preservations groups and ideologues in universities, have taken over our National Park and Wilderness areas and converted them into their own quasi-religious temples.’ They have renounced the ‘original purpose of providing for “the enjoyment of the people” and instead are now aiming to “satisfy the spiritual needs of a small but influential subculture”‘” (p. 129).
To deliver the nation’s forests from this influential subculture, Nelson suggests, we should abolish the U.S. Forest Service and decentralize its functions. To allow states and smaller communities to decide what to do with forested lands would lead, he thinks, to better management, restored lumber harvests, healthier trees, less destructive fires. It would also diminish the influence of powerful environmental groups, with the Washington D.C. headquarters, that lobby politicians and finance “scientific studies” to sustain their power.