The Global Warming Treaty and its shaky science are under attack by the largest group of scientists ever. A petition, initiated by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine and endorsed by more than 15,000 scientists, urges President Clinton not to sign the Climate Protocol negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, last December.
But treaty supporters are counterattacking. First off the mark is the science establishment, represented by the Council of the National Academy of Sciences. In a widely reported April 20 press release, the NAS Council grouses not so much about the petition itself but about a scientific summary paper that was sent to potential signers. The Council, hastily convened by telephone, does not contest the content of the summary paper, which is based entirely on peer-reviewed articles from scientific journals; the main complaint seems to be that the format of the paper may resemble an NAS publication.
As far as the petition itself is concerned, the council - minus its abstaining and nonvoting members, and without having polled the NAS membership as a whole -states tersely that it "does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the Academy." This statement may well be correct; but it can better be interpreted as a rejection of the Academy's conclusions by a large fraction of the scientific community, including many NAS members who signed the petition.
The 15,000-plus signers, about two-thirds of whom hold advanced academic degrees, question the uncertain science underlying the Protocol, noting it does not agree with atmospheric data. (While computer models predict a strong warming trend, observations from weather satellites and weather balloons show a cooling trend over the past 20 years.) Many of the signers are experts in the pertinent scientific fields of atmospheric physics, meteorology, oceanography, geology, biology, agriculture, and in relevant engineering specialties. They concur that a modest warming would be generally beneficial for humanity and, further, that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide would improve the growth of agricultural crops and forests - about which there is no disagreement. They firmly oppose the Kyoto Accord, which would raise the cost of energy and all goods, hobble economic growth and destroy jobs. Accord supporters' charge that a few bogus names turned up on the petition is inconsequential when measured against the credentials of thousands of genuine signatories.
All that the council statement musters in defense of the Kyoto Accord is a scientifically outdated NAS/National Research Council report, titled "Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming." Quoting from this 1991 report, the Council concludes that "even given the considerable uncertainties in our knowledge of the relevant phenomena, greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses. . . . Investment in mitigation measures acts as insurance protection against the great uncertainties and the possibility of dramatic surprises." (Unfortunately, little guidance is given about how much insurance is prudent beyond "no-regrets" policies, like energy conservation, that make economic sense even in the absence of a global warming "threat.")
But this exaggerated concern about global warming contrasts sharply with an earlier NAS/NRC report, "Understanding Climate Change: A Program for Action." There, in 1975, the NAS "experts" exhibited the same hysterical fears - this time, however, asserting a "finite possibility that a serious worldwide cooling could befall the Earth within the next 100 years."
The 1975 NAS panel claimed to have good reason for their fears: Global temperatures had been in steady decline since the 1940s. They considered the preceding period of warming, between 1860 and 1940, as "unusual," following as it did the "Little Ice Age," which had lasted from 1430 to 1850.
In "The Cooling: Has the next ice age already begun? Can we survive it?", published in 1975 by Prentice-Hall, its author Lowell Ponte captures the then-prevailing mood: "The NAS report was shocking, for it represented a warning from some of the world's most conservative scientists that an Ice Age beginning in the near future . . . was not impossible." Contending that we may be "on the brink of a [10,000 year] period of colder climate," the NAS urged an immediate near-quadrupling of funds for research. "We simply cannot afford to be unprepared for either a natural or man-made climatic catastrophe [of global cooling]."
At about the same time, as Mr. Ponte relates, a group of "leading climatologists," meeting in Bonn, Germany, warned that "the facts of the present climate change are such that the most optimistic experts would assign near-certainty to major crop failures within a decade [because of global cooling]. If national and international policies do not take these near-certain failures into account, they will result in mass deaths by starvation and probably in anarchy and violence that could exact a still more terrible toll . . . ."
By 1975, the climate had indeed been cooling for about 35 years and many scientists were becoming increasingly convinced that another Ice Age was imminent. These experts included climatologist Stephen H. Schneider, who later demonstrated his intellectual flexibility by becoming one of the strongest proponents of global warming. Lester R. Brown, head of the Worldwatch Institute, was then a major enthusiast for cooling, crop failures and famine. Whether freeze or fry, he is still predicting global famine.
Mr. Ponte's book claims that "since 1970, half a million human beings in Northern Africa and Asia have starved because of floods and droughts caused by the cooling climate. . . . In the continental United States severe floods have destroyed billions of dollars' worth of property in the Mississippi Basin, the Great Lakes region, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. . . . Parts of the nation were hit with what the National Weather Service called 'record cold.'. . . Rain and floods described as 'the worst in a century' struck large areas of Washington state."
In Europe, the 1960s were years of unusual cold, but the "odd warmth" of the 1970s was also considered a feature of global cooling. Warned British climatologist Hubert H. Lamb, "Like chills and fever, these are all signs of a planet catching climatic cold."
Mr. Ponte lectures the public: "Global cooling presents humankind with the most important social, political and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for 10,000 years. Your stake in the decisions we make concerning it is of ultimate importance: the survival of ourselves, our children, our species."
Any of this sound familiar?
Only a year later, by 1976, global cooling suddenly ended - but not the scientific hype about future climate catastrophes. In criticizing the 15,000-plus-signature petition, the Council's press release promises to put any doubts to rest with yet another NAS "expert" report, to be issued later this year. No doubt, given their track record, the solution will involve massive funding for costly insurance schemes "before it's too late."
S. Fred Singer, an atmospheric physicist, is president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project in Fairfax. He is emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and former director of the U.S. Weather Satellite Service.
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