California Battles the Chimera of Global Warming

Published July 1, 2004

California’s state legislature, led by the otherwise apparently reasonable Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, is once again exhibiting serious mental impairment when it comes to passing regulations in the name of environmental protection.

This is the state that requires bags of sand for backyard sandboxes to bear labels saying “this product is known by the State of California to cause cancer” and pays bounties to lawyers who sue home businesses that make such environmentally suspect things as scented candles. Its latest proposal is to limit carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks in hopes of staving off “global warming.”

The proposal stems from a law signed by former Governor Gray Davis in 2002 that requires the California Air Resources Board to set emission standards this year for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. California consumers would pay several hundred dollars more for every vehicle they buy under proposed regulations, which aim to cut tailpipe emissions from most new vehicles by nearly 30 percent over the next decade.

California is the only state that can set its own vehicle pollution standards because it began regulating air pollution before the federal government did. Other states can adopt either the federal vehicle pollution standards or those established by California. Schwarzenegger has expressed support for the law and promised to fight any challenges by automakers or the federal government.

The number of absurd assumptions required to believe this new regulation would actually protect the environment exceeds the odds against winning the recent record-breaking Powerball lottery. Wishful thinking aside, reducing carbon dioxide emissions from California cars and trucks cannot have any effect on the global climate, owing to a few simple facts of physics.

Transportation accounts for about a third of carbon dioxide emissions in California. The new cars and trucks covered under the proposed regulation account for only a few percent of total transportation emissions each year, and the proposed law would reduce those emissions by about 30 percent. So the law would reduce California’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 1 percent.

The U.S. accounts for about a quarter of global human greenhouse gas emissions each year (a share that is falling fast as developing countries industrialize), and California for only around 5 percent of that, so California, even with its highly industrialized economy and affluent population, accounts for about 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon dioxide makes up only 4 percent of the Earth’s greenhouse gas component. In the past 60 years mankind has increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere by about 30 percent, mostly due to burning fossil fuels. A 30 percent increase in a gas that constitutes only 4 percent of the greenhouse effect means the human presence on Earth may have increased the total greenhouse effect by just over 1 percent.

Laboratory physics tells us that a doubling of the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which scientists say may occur by the end of this century, would increase the amount of trapped heat by about 4 watts per square meter of surface area. (These are the same watts you use to measure the energy of your light bulbs, so picture a very dim 4-watt bulb.) The sun continuously contributes massively more heat than this, some 342 watts per square meter, to the outer layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. Thus, at most, we humans may increase the total heat available at the Earth’s surface by 1 percent.

So … simple facts and the thermodynamic laws of physics tell us the proposed law would likely reduce the human impact on world climate in the order of 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent. That means the proposed law would solve about one millionth of 1 percent (10^-08) of the global warming problem.

Even this overstates the possible effects, since improving fuel economy to reduce car and truck emissions is likely to encourage people to drive more, leading to more congestion and more emissions, and other changes in behavior in California and in other states that would cancel out some or all of the possible emission reductions.

Schwarzenegger really should know better. Having defeated so many villains in the movies, he ought to recognize in “global warming” a chimera that cannot be fought, much less beaten.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. is science director of The Heartland Institute and editor of Wiley’s Remediation Technologies Handbookand other major science reference books. His email address is [email protected].