Heartland President Debunks Global Warming Myths

Published April 1, 2007

Joseph Bast, president of The Heartland Institute, gave a summary of the current state of global warming science in a February 7 presentation to the Nebraska Farm Bureau. Bast demonstrated the current global warming scare is like prior environmental scares that were soundly debunked once sufficient scientific data were gathered on the issues.

Although global warming is a scientifically controversial topic, Bast notes, scientists agree the warming to date has been modest and that natural variability may well explain some or all of it. Premature attempts to “do something now” will cause more harm than good, particularly to American farmers, he notes.

Alarmist News Coverage

Everywhere you look, there are headlines about the coming global warming crisis. The latest news hook was a report from the United Nations claiming, “most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Most of the so-called “news” stories about this report didn’t explain that what was released wasn’t a new “study” that increases our knowledge of global warming, but just a political document written by U.N. bureaucrats–not real scientists–and edited behind closed doors, not subject to peer review, and that it was just an executive summary of one part of a three-part study that won’t even be released for another three months.

Obviously, this is not how real science is conducted or released.

Same Tune, Different Lyrics

The media, nevertheless, love reporting unsupported scare scenarios. Last April, the cover of Time magazine declared, “Be worried, be very worried.” Amid lots of scary pictures of deserts, floods, and hurricanes, it said, “Global warming is already disrupting the biological world, pushing many species to the brink of extinction and turning others into runaway pests. But the worst is yet to come.”

But should we trust Time magazine? On July 24, 1974, Time published an article titled “Another Ice Age?” that read,

“… the atmosphere has been growing gradually cooler for the past three decades. The trend shows no indication of reversing. Climatological Cassandras are becoming increasingly apprehensive, for the weather aberrations they are studying may be the harbinger of another ice age.”

It’s not just Time magazine that’s unreliable on global warming. The popular press features possible crises on their front pages all the time, because bad news sells and they are in the business of selling copies of their publications and generating ad revenue, not reporting the truth about complicated subjects. As they say in the business, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

These are the same guys who told us Alar, saccharin, Red Dye #2, dioxin, a hole in the ozone layer, electric power lines, and cell phones were all causing cancer epidemics, and that Y2K would shut down the nation’s electric grid and banks.

Repeatedly Proven Wrong

They were wrong on every one of these issues. Cancer rates in the United States for the non-elderly population have been falling since 1970, and more recently for the total population including the elderly, and more recently still, even the absolute number of cancer deaths is now falling.

Somehow, the false predictions always appear in banner headlines on page 1, but the retractions appear on page 37, next to ads for septic tank pumps.

The major media will wake up eventually, and in 2010 or 2020 they will once again be trying to sell newspapers and magazines by predicting global cooling. The point is, nobody should trust the mainstream media to tell us what’s going on in the global warming debate.

Scientific Disagreement

The most important thing to understand about global warming is that there is a lot of disagreement in the scientific community about what’s going on. An international survey of climate scientists conducted in 2003 by German environmental scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch uncovered many interesting results. Specifically, most scientists don’t believe scientific knowledge is sufficient to predict future climate.

They also found most scientists don’t believe computer models “accurately verify climate conditions.” Most scientists believe global warming would have some positive as well as negative effects. And most scientists believe the science is too unsettled to form a basis for public policy.

An even more recent survey, conducted in 2006, of members of the National Registry of Environmental Professionals, uncovered similar results.

Fully 34 percent of environmental scientists and practitioners disagree that global warming is a serious problem facing the planet. Moreover, 41 percent disagree that the planet’s recent warmth “can be, in large part, attributed to human activity.” An overwhelming 71 percent disagree that recent hurricane activity is significantly attributable to human activity. Fully 47 percent disagree that international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol provide a solid framework for combating global climate change.

Warming Beneficial Overall

Despite all this disagreement, there is consensus on a few points, but these points lead to a conclusion very different from what the media claims. There is consensus that there has been a modest warming of about 1º Fahrenheit in the last century. During that time, human civilization, food production, and wildlife have flourished. Whatever harms this warming may have caused were overwhelmed by the benefits.

There is consensus that natural variability could explain some, all, or none of this warming. We don’t know because temperatures historically have sometimes increased without rising levels of CO2 and temperatures historically have sometimes not increased during periods when CO2 levels were rising. We know that variation in solar energy, clouds, and ocean currents all play bigger roles in affecting climate than does CO2.

There is consensus, generally unreported by the media, that if warming continues at its past rate, the results will be more beneficial than harmful for plants, animals, and human civilization. Warmer weather is good for human health–it’s why most people move south rather than north when they retire, and why morbidity and mortality rates are lower in warmer climates–and for wildlife and plant life, too.

And because most of the warming occurs at night, during the winter, and at higher latitudes, it means longer growing seasons and less stress on plants and all types of wildlife.

Robert Mendelsohn, a distinguished professor at Yale University, estimates a 2.5º Celsius warming by the year 2060–which is more than what even most alarmists predict–would generate a net benefit of $8.4 billion a year for the United States.

Computer Models Unreliable

There is consensus, finally, that the computer models relied on by the global warming alarmists are unreliable. Most of the models assume a rate of population growth that is twice what demographic experts forecast, and they assume global per capita CO2 rates will double by 2050, even though that rate was flat–no increase at all–between 1970 and 1999.

Change these dubious assumptions, and the predicted warming trend disappears.

All of which is to say that global warming is likely to be a much smaller deal than the media and some politicians have been making it out to be.

Legislation Threatens

But this doesn’t mean legislation won’t be passed or schemes cooked up in the name of “doing something about global warming” that would have a very big effect on consumers, taxpayers, and farmers and ranchers.

Nebraska and approximately 30 other states have already passed legislation in the name of “doing something” about global warming, and the federal government is spending billions of dollars a year in taxpayer dollars on it already.

High Costs, Little Return

The fatal flaw of all these schemes is their cost. They would require spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year–trillions of dollars during the coming decades–to reduce emissions by amounts too small to have a measurable effect on global temperatures. For example, the best estimate of the cost of the Kyoto Protocol, which would have required the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2010, is $375 billion in lost gross domestic product every year.

Kyoto would destroy 2.4 million U.S. jobs–jobs in manufacturing and agriculture–that would go to China, India, and the other 177 of the world’s 210 countries that aren’t subject to the Kyoto Protocol, or to the majority of European countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol but already are failing to stay inside its caps.

The 179 countries that are not bound by the terms of the Kyoto Protocol account for 76 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and 90 percent of the world’s population.

Implementation of the Kyoto Protocol would cost the average household in the United States about $3,400 a year in lost income and higher prices for consumer goods. Please think about that: $3,400 a year, about $300 a month, for a reduction in temperatures almost too small to measure.

To have any impact on the global climate, emission reductions would have to be global–not just by a few developed countries–and they would have to be steep, about 70 percent to 80 percent of current emissions. This isn’t just economically impossible, it’s technologically impossible as well. Why take “a first step” (as many climate alarmists call the Kyoto Protocol) if the necessary next steps are impossible?

Agriculture Would Suffer

Farmers and ranchers have a stake in the global warming debate. Through low-till or no-till farming, they might be able to sequester more carbon in the soil and maybe get paid to do so through carbon trading or a government program. Farmers could actually benefit from the global warming scare, even if it is phony and likely to hurt everyone else.

Or not.

A few years ago, I conducted research on the effects of global warming legislation on America’s farm community. I was lucky to work with some real experts, including Dr. Jay Lehr, Heartland’s science director and editor of McGraw-Hill’s Standard Handbook on Environmental Science, Health, and Technology and the new six-volume Water Encyclopedia; Terry Francl and John Skorburg, at the time both agricultural economists with the American Farm Bureau Federation; Dennis and Alex Avery, an economist and a biologist, respectively, with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues; and James L. Johnston, an energy economist recently retired from Amoco.

Together we produced two studies: “State Greenhouse Gas Programs: An Economic and Scientific Analysis” (February 2003) and “Greenhouse Gas Control: Implications for Agriculture” (August 2003). These studies arrived at three conclusions of particular interest to farmers and ranchers.

Permit Costs Overwhelm Credits

First, farmers are likely to end up paying more for emission permits than they are likely to earn selling credits for sequestering carbon in their soil and crops. The reason is that farmers emit much more in greenhouse gases than they now sequester or can reasonably expect to sequester in the future.

According to EPA, agricultural soils in the United States in 2001 sequestered 15.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, compared to total agricultural emissions of 526 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (coming primarily from methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertilizer application).

If farmers want to be paid to store carbon, they had better expect to be charged for emitting carbon.

Higher Cost of Production

Second, higher prices for fossil fuels would more than offset whatever amounts farmers are paid to sequester carbon. Caps on emissions, rising energy taxes, or a combination of the two would have the effect of raising energy prices.

Most economists believe a tax equivalent to $0.50 a gallon on gasoline would be required to achieve the Kyoto Protocol’s goal of cutting U.S. emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2010. My colleagues and I estimated the impact of such a tax on the cost of agricultural inputs–fuels and electricity, pesticides and other chemicals, fertilizer, and customer operations and hauling–and then calculated the per-acre increased cost to farmers.

For wheat it came to $16 per acre; for soybeans, $19 per acre; for corn, $45 per acre; and for cotton, $64 per acre.

This means while the government is paying the farmer a dollar or two per acre to sequester carbon, the businesses that sell them electricity, diesel fuel, heating oil, and fertilizer and that haul the products to market will be taking even more money out of farmers’ other pocket at the rate of between $16 and $64 per acre.

Sequestration Ineffective

Third and finally, we found carbon sequestration can play only a small role in responding to the possible problem of climate change. Farmers in the United States currently capture no more than 1 percent of total annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. We would have to increase carbon sequestration by 100 percent just to sequester 2 percent of total emissions, or by 1,000 percent to sequester 10 percent of total emissions.

Do you think we can do that? From 1990 to 2001, carbon sequestration in agricultural soils rose by only 14 percent.

The real promise for carbon sequestration lies in forestry and in developing countries. According to EPA, U.S. forests sequestered 759 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2001, 50 times as much as agricultural soils. An acre of forest can have 30 times the biomass of an acre of marginal farmland.

The only really good idea for fighting global warming with sequestration is subsidizing the end of deforestation and planting more trees in Third World countries. Deforestation in Third World countries currently accounts for emissions equal to three-fourths of the entire emission reduction called for by the Kyoto Protocol. If we could stop it, we’d be three-quarters of the way home without reducing our own emissions by a single metric ton.

There is no reason to get on the global warming bandwagon. The science just isn’t there, and it grows less convincing by the week. Farmers are likely to pay more than they stand to earn from selling carbon credits. And to the extent that sequestration has a role to play in combating the possible problem of global warming, the best place to do it isn’t in the United States but in developing countries, and not in planting corn, wheat, or soybeans, but in planting trees.

Joseph Bast ([email protected]) is president of The Heartland Institute, publisher of Environment & Climate News, and coauthor of Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (1994, 1996) and other books.