Climate Expert: We Have the Technology to Set Global Temperature Warmer or Cooler

Published November 1, 2006

Patrick Michaels, Ph.D. was one of the first climatologists to cast doubt on alarmist global warming theory. His 1992 book, Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming, built a still-growing momentum of science-based skepticism regarding politically motivated global warming junk science.

Michaels is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a visiting professor at Virginia Tech University, and a research professor of environmental sciences (currently on sabbatical) at the University of Virginia. He is a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists and was program chair for the Committee on Applied Climatology of the American Meteorological Society. Michaels is a contributing author and reviewer of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In an interview with Environment & Climate News Managing Editor James M. Taylor, Michaels discussed the possibility of using science and technology to set the Earth’s temperature at an optimum level.

Taylor: Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen is the latest scientist to advocate the release of sulfur dioxide particles in the upper atmosphere should we ever wish to cool the Earth in response to anthropogenic global warming. Does this proposal surprise you?

Michaels: This proposal is nothing new. Crutzen is not the first scientist to propose this, nor will he be the last. However, having a scientist who has already won a Nobel Prize regarding atmospheric ozone research speak out in favor of this solution will certainly build additional momentum for the idea.

Taylor: To your knowledge, when did scientists first begin to seriously study altering the Earth’s climate to human advantage?

Michaels: As early as the 1970s, Russian climatologists and our own Central Intelligence Agency were very concerned about climate change. A 1974 CIA report called Potential Implications of Trends in World Population, Food Production, and Climate warned about international food shortages and other strategic issues related to anticipated global cooling.

Among the proposals the CIA bandied about to warm the planet and stave off the impending ice age was placing smoke generators on commercial aircraft wings. Another suggestion was to scatter dust all over Greenland to melt the ice cap and decrease the Earth’s solar reflectivity. Another idea was to place sulfur-burning flares on aircraft.

Taylor: Are today’s global warming fears different from the preceding global cooling fears?

Michaels: Two things in particular should make people pause and think before rushing to enact the costly, socially disrupting measures sought by global warming alarmists: First, this is the same news media and the same environmental activist lobby that so alarmingly warned about global cooling such a short time ago. Second, the alarmists’ proposed solution–dramatically cut fossil fuel use–is exactly the same solution that was proposed to fight global cooling.

How can cutting fossil fuel use both warm and cool the globe?

Taylor: So is the sulfur dioxide proposal unnecessary?

Michaels: The key thing here is that Crutzen is admitting–and keep in mind that very few people will admit this, out of fear of being pilloried by environmental activists and their media allies–that there is very little the Kyoto Protocol or other proposed carbon reduction schemes can do to limit any projected global warming. Kyoto will mitigate only 0.07 degrees Celsius of warming per half century, which is an amount too small to measure.

So I would argue that when the public fully grasps that “inconvenient truth,” you will see more and more proposals for climate engineering.

While the proposal may or may not be “necessary,” it is a useful option in a broader discussion. I often tell my classes, and propose in public lectures on climate change, that the real issue for the twenty-first century is not “how much will the planet warm,” which we can fairly confidently say will be at the low end of IPCC estimates, but “what do we want the temperature to be?”

We really do have, in a crude manner, the ability to set the surface temperature of the Earth to within 1 or 2 degrees Celsius of where we want it to be. The debate should be, “Where do we want to set it?”

Taylor: If we were to totally remove human influence, or use proposals such as sulfur dioxide releases to neutralize all human influences, what would our planet’s climate be?

Michaels: Before the Industrial Revolution, we were in the middle of the Little Ice Age. This was clearly the case throughout the Northern hemisphere, where for several hundred years winters were longer and summers were cooler than they were before or since. It is quite possible that this is the “natural” climate that would be continuing today if not for human influence.

Indeed, the 1945-1975 cooling might well have continued to this day if not for the intervention of carbon dioxide. We can see that since 1975, far and away most of the warming has affected winter temperatures, while late summer temperatures have actually cooled from the mid-1960s through roughly 2000. That is very consistent with projected human-induced greenhouse warming.

Because the summers have continued to cool, it is reasonable to assert that the cooling temperatures that we feared so much during the 1970s would have continued if not for recent anthropogenic warming.

This leads to the question, is recent human-induced global warming so bad? Which takes us back to the real question we should be asking ourselves, where do we want the Earth’s temperature to be?

Taylor: What do you think is the answer to that question?

Michaels: For several millennia, from about 9,000 to 3,000 years ago, large high-latitude areas in the Northern Hemisphere were warmer than they are today. That period accompanied the rise of civilization. Before recent climate hysteria, that period was referred to in climate textbooks as the Climate Optimum, because of its effect on civilization.

This Climate Optimum was accompanied by global temperatures above the temperatures that we currently have. And, importantly, this Climate Optimum did not result in the massive warming of Greenland and Antarctica or the disappearance of the polar ice caps.

Or do you want to set the temperature to where it was for 95 percent of the last 100 million years, which is warmer than the Climate Optimum and several degrees warmer than it is today? After all, Antarctica’s ice cap only began to build up about 30 million years ago.

This whole issue is a reasonable subject of debate.

Taylor: Given today’s media hysteria about global warming, will this discussion ever really take place? If so, when?

Michaels: This is a timely subject, and although Crutzen tends to over-exaggerate global warming potential, his proposal brings the terraforming discussion more into the mainstream.

This is a subject that will increasingly be discussed because people who look at the data know that there is very little that can be done in terms of Kyoto-style carbon dioxide limitations to alter the temperature trajectory of the planet. So, increasingly, direct intervention will be considered.

There are two monumental developments currently taking place in science. One is being noticed by virtually everyone, while the other is being noticed by virtually no one. The first is that we are perfectly capable of determining the genetic makeup of the planet by the genetic engineering of plants and animals. That is the one that everybody knows about.

The one that nobody knows about is that we are increasingly developing the technology to allow humans to control the planet’s climate as well as its genetics.

I believe this is a reasonable time to begin this discussion. But in scientific circles, this discussion has been going on since at least the 1960s. Science is getting better and better at this.

Taylor: What is the best manner in which to have this discussion?

Michaels: There must be a change from impolite and intemperate attacks to a reasonable exchange of data and ideas. The people who are most concerned about global warming must acknowledge the truth that there is very little that can be done from a carbon-cutting point of view.

The point is that if you don’t like what is going on, then it may be time to consider alternative options.

This will become more prominent in public discussions as people increasingly admit that proposed public policy options are ineffective. Eighty percent carbon dioxide reductions are impossible given current technology.