Disappearing frogs and out-of-control fires: Must be global warming!

Published September 1, 2002

In the May 4 edition of the Globe and Mail, a leading Canadian newspaper, Alanna Mitchell reports on a research paper from the March 28 issue of the journal Nature. A string of authors found ¡°a coherent pattern of ecological change¡± they had not predicted. (Imagine that!) That pattern, they conclude, must be caused by global warming: What else?

For example, the researchers say British frogs are disappearing because newts are breeding earlier, meaning ¡°frog spawn becomes newt lunch.¡± Mitchell asks: Does it matter? Maybe British newt ponds can go on for decades with fewer and fewer frogs¡ªand then one day the pond¡¯s ecosystem simply collapses. She adds ominously: We just don¡¯t know.

Mitchell apparently hasn¡¯t been reading the frog stories at http://www.sepp.org. And when she interviewed Eric Post of Penn State University, author of the Nature paper, it apparently never occurred to her to ask the obvious: What about the much greater climate fluctuations in the recent past? How did frogs survive them? Instead, Mitchell reported, Post came up with the frightening thought that ¡°ecology is non-linear.¡± Global ecologies will crash, he fears, just like the Larsen-B ice sheet in Antarctica. (Or maybe like the sudden eruption of a volcano? Or perhaps an earthquake?)

But never fear. There are always the modelers, eager to create new disasters on their computers.

Like ecologist Jay Malcolm of the University of Toronto. He extrapolates the Nature results, linearly, from 0.6¡ðC to 5.8¡ðC. His conclusions, published by the World Wildlife Fund (who else?): More than 80 percent of land ecosystems, including Canada¡¯s boreal forests and tundras, would suffer extinctions. He likens this total collapse to the extinctions produced by an asteroid impact 65 million years ago. ¡°We¡¯ve now elevated ourselves to the role of asteroids,¡± Malcolm declares dramatically.

What will survive this apocalypse? ¡°Cockroaches, crabgrass, and maybe humans,¡± he says. ¡°As for the rest, it¡¯s a big question mark.¡±

All of this in a respected newspaper. It¡¯s giving science, especially ecological modeling, a bad name. Should we just laugh it off … or should we cry?

Holy smoke!

We¡¯ve been waiting¡ªand it hasn¡¯t taken long¡ªfor someone to say our recent wildfire epidemic is the result of global warming. Bob Herbert of the New York Times obliged us on June 24:

Enormous wildfires have been raging in bone-dry regions of the West and Southwest … In Colorado, which is enduring its worst drought in decades … the long drought and continued hot weather provided the conditions that enabled this [fire] to explode into an unprecedented conflagration … ¡®Can you say global warming?¡¯¡±

Sure. We¡¯ll even help Bob along with a little quantitative analysis, something that appeared to be missing from his column.

As loyal readers realize, the manifestation of global warming so far appears to be in the coldest months of the year in the coldest places on the planet. So how about this headline: Economic Depression Stopped by Global Warming.

That kind of effect-and-cause headline is precisely what we see whenever climate change is purportedly found to be responsible for some calamity or another. So why not be just as blatant when some beneficial effect can be linked to human-induced global warming?

Last winter, the U.S. economy was heading for an all-out depression, but it didn¡¯t happen. Because of global warming.

According to an analysis conducted by Stanley Changnon, dean of American climatologists, and his son David, a professor at Northern Illinois University, the warm and relatively snow-free winter of 2001-2002 saved U.S. consumers about $21 billion. Reduced heating costs alone generated an extra $7 billion in disposable income. Natural gas prices fell, owing to the reduced demand. Nearly $1 billion was saved in snow removal costs. Housing starts were up, and in some traditionally snow-bound locales, construction continued throughout the winter, netting an extra $2 billion for that industry. Transportation also benefitted from fewer weather-related delays, and there was only one major weather-related catastrophe (a large ice storm) the entire winter.

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science and Environmental Policy Project. Singer¡¯s The Week That Was columns can be found at www.sepp.org.