A Dialogue on Global Warming

Published February 1, 2009

The world seems to be divided into two camps: Those who believe global warming is a dire catastrophe that requires urgent attention, and those who think it is a “scam” and excuse for government to raise taxes and impose more regulations. Sometimes it seems the two sides talk past each other, not really addressing the other side’s arguments.

We wrote the dialogue below, between an imaginary global warming believer and a skeptic, to address this concern. The skeptic “wins” this debate, as skeptics routinely do when an informed believer is pitted against an informed skeptic, because the skeptics have a better handle on the real science and economics of the issue.

Unfortunately, few people get to see live debates between global warming believers and skeptics. We hope that being able to read an imaginary exchange will be almost as good.

Believer: My friends, during the past few years, temperatures may have stopped rising, but they remain at historically high levels, probably the highest in a thousand years. Just because they have stopped climbing doesn’t mean they aren’t high by historical standards and evidence of a serious problem.

Climates are complicated systems; some of the warming that is actually taking place can’t be seen or measured because of short-term feedback loops, but this means it will get all the warmer, all the faster, once those loops change direction.

Skeptic: Actually, temperatures in 2008 were as low as they were in 1980, meaning all the warming of the past 10 years has been cancelled by the current cooling trend. But let’s concede that even a decade is too short a period to determine a true trend. How about 10,000 years? Compared to the 10,000 years since the last ice age epoch ended—the same 10,000 years that accompanied the rise of human civilization—today’s temperatures are unusually cold, not unusually warm.

The 10,000 years since the last ice age ended are known as the Holocene Interglacial. During the first half of our present Holocene Interglacial, temperatures were approximately 3 degrees Celsius warmer than they are today. During the most recent 5,000 years, temperatures have fluctuated more, but they still have been warmer than today on average.

Today’s temperatures only appear warm if we fail to remember that the Little Ice Age, which dominated the climate from approximately 1300 A.D. to 1900 A.D., was easily the coldest time during our present Holocene Interglacial. Sure, temperatures rose 0.6 degrees Celsius during the twentieth century as the planet recovered from the Little Ice Age, but this still leaves us significantly colder than the long-term average of temperatures that accompanied the rise of human civilization.

Believer: Carbon dioxide is by definition a greenhouse gas: It traps heat in the atmosphere like a blanket. No one doubts that human activities are responsible for the rising concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, which are now the highest in 1,000 years. Only idiots and industry shills say it’s just a big coincidence that CO2 is rising and temperatures are also rising.

Skeptic: The effect is real, but it is much smaller than global warming believers claim. Scientists know, as a matter of physics, that all things remaining equal, a full doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide from preindustrial levels would increase global temperatures by only 1.1 degrees Celsius. From the dawn of the Industrial Revolution until today, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by only 40 percent.

Human greenhouse gas emissions may be affecting global temperatures on the margins, but this human-related warming is by no means alarming. Remember that temperatures during the Medieval Warm Period were roughly 1 degree Celsius warmer than today, and for half of the past 10,000 years global temperatures were roughly 3 degrees Celsius warmer than today.

The science shows that human-related warming would have to occur for many centuries before it would cause temperatures to rise merely to the levels that accompanied the rise of human civilization 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Believer: Most of the so-called “skeptics” are not scientists, or if they are scientists, they are elderly (and haven’t kept up with new computer-assisted advances in climatology) or slightly crazy people who are on the fringe (e.g., Richard Lindzen—he’s not really a climatologist).

Skeptic: That’s quite a charge coming from a group most visibly led by a politician (Al Gore) and an astronomer (James Hansen). Where is the supporting evidence for such stereotyping?

Since 2007, more than 31,072 American scientists, including 9,021 with Ph.D.s, have signed a petition that says, in part, “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

* A 2003 international survey of climate scientists (with 530 responding) found only 9.4 percent “strongly agreed” and 25.3 percent “agreed” with the statement “climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes.” Some 10.2 percent “strongly disagreed.”

* A 2006 survey of scientists in the U.S. found 41 percent disagreed that the planet’s recent warmth “can be, in large part, attributed to human activity,” and 71 percent disagreed that recent hurricane activity is significantly attributable to human activity.

* A recent review of 1,117 abstracts of scientific journal articles on “global climate change” found only 13 (1 percent) explicitly endorse the “consensus view” while 34 reject or cast doubt on the view that human activity has been the main driver of warming over the past 50 years.

The list of “skeptical” scientists reads like a Who’s Who of atmospheric science. But don’t take my word for it—take it from The New York Times’ lead science correspondent, Andrew Revkin, a noted ally of the alarmist camp. In a moment of candor when speaking before a Vermont audience, Revkin admitted, “For every Ph.D., there is an equal and opposite Ph.D.”

Believer: Even if there is some doubt about the science, this should not cause us to delay taking action just in case, especially since the worst-case scenario is disastrous. Fighting global warming is like taking out an insurance policy on your home, car, or life. You have to spend a little now, to insure against disasters in the future. This is just sound, responsible conduct. The deniers seem to think we should just proceed with “business as usual” until we run out of fossil fuels and the planet is burnt to a crisp, and then “the market” will somehow get us another planet to live on!

Skeptic: A good insurance policy is one that balances risks and costs, and it certainly shouldn’t bankrupt the person who buys it.

As President-elect Barack Obama acknowledged during a January 2008 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, under his plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, “Electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.” In fact, studies conducted by such neutral entities as the Congressional Budget Office, EPA, Yale and MIT economists, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s economic models, all indicate that carbon dioxide restrictions would take a devastating toll on the American economy.

For example, according to the Energy Information Administration’s economic models, last year’s proposed Lieberman-Warner bill, if passed, would have cost the average U.S. household between $4,000 and $7,000 per year, would have increased unemployment by at least 2.5 percent, and would have reduced our Gross Domestic Product by 2.6 percent each and every year.

To put that in context, if the economy grows by 2.6 percent in a given year, that is considered a pretty successful year in economic terms. Under greenhouse gas restrictions such as Lieberman-Warner, a growth rate of 0 percent—in other words, perpetual recession—would be considered pretty successful economic performance.

And what would we gain from such an “insurance” policy? Fully 75 percent of the global growth in carbon dioxide emissions comes from rapidly developing nations such as China (the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide emissions) and India, which vow not to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions regardless of whether the United States and other Western nations reduce theirs.

Our incredibly painful carbon dioxide cuts would amount to little more than a drop in the bucket compared with the ongoing growth in emissions from China, India, and other rapidly developing nations. So we’d be bankrupting ourselves for exactly nothing.

Fortunately, considering such political realities, climate scientists tell us that abrupt climate catastrophes do not require such expensive “insurance.” According to a survey of more than 500 scientists conducted by climate scientists at Germany’s Institute of Coastal Research, fewer than half of climate scientists agree that “assuming climate change will occur, it will occur so suddenly that a lack of preparation could result in devastation of some areas of the world.”

This is in keeping with what we know about the temperature history of the past 10,000 years, as temperatures for most of this period were significantly warmer than today.

In short, we don’t need to rush into rash and economically devastating action—like lemmings jumping off a cliff—to “insure” ourselves against speculative global warming concerns that will occur with plenty of advance notice if they occur at all.

Believer: All these protests from industry and their front groups—The technology doesn’t exist yet! It’s too expensive! It will cost jobs! It will hurt the poor!—are bunk. They always say this, but then they discover ways to reduce emissions at a fraction of the predicted cost.

Look at automobile emissions, sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants, and refrigerants and the ozone layer. Technology will solve this problem, too. If global warming was Iraq, or Citibank, you know the government would be pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into it, we’d get the technological breakthroughs needed in about 10 years, and we’d be living in a world no longer dependent on oil and coal, with all the environmental, health, and geopolitical benefits associated with that transition.

Skeptic: I wish it were true that a reasonable investment in renewable energy technology could deliver us a clean, cheap-energy future. But the federal government has been investing in renewable power research and technology for decades, with virtually nothing to show for it.

Billions of federal dollars are diverted to the renewable power industry every year, yet the industry still cannot come close to producing power anywhere near as economically as conventional fuel sources such as coal and gasoline.

It is silly and economically ruinous—especially in today’s dangerous economic environment—to throw good money after bad and extract even more money from taxpayers to bankroll the renewable power industry.

Perhaps if the renewable power industry didn’t have such a longstanding record of abysmal failure, it might be smart to consider forcing you, me, and the rest of America’s taxpayers to give our hard-earned money to those businesses. But there is no indication that a rapid increase in already-substantial taxpayer handouts to the renewable power industry will do anything other than get sucked down the drain just as rapidly as our current and past handouts have done.

The renewable power industry should have to show us at least a little return on the literally billions of dollars already being funneled into the renewable power industry every year before it demands substantially more.

James M. Taylor ([email protected])  is a senior fellow, and Joseph L. Bast ([email protected]) is president, of The Heartland Institute.