NY Times: Greenhouse Gases May Avert Next Ice Age

Published January 1, 2004

A quarter-century ago, climate change alarmists were claiming the world was on the brink of a new ice age. Now they argue we are baking the planet.

According to the New York Times, the alarmists may have been right the first time.

In a remarkable departure from its usual global warming alarmism, the New York Times on November 11 editorialized that global warming, if it is occurring, could benefit mankind. The apparent change of heart comes as scientists begin to better understand the Earth’s susceptibility to ice ages.

Although greenhouse gases and other inputs into the atmosphere have some influence on the Earth’s climate, the major determinants of temperature on the planet lie far beyond our atmosphere. The energy output of the Sun and the Earth’s orbit around it have a greater effect on climate than do moderate changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which itself represents only a small part of our atmosphere.

Although they don’t fully understand why the Sun influences our planet’s climate, scientists do know quite a bit about what those effects are and their timing. According to the New York Times, “the next ice age almost certainly will reach its peak in about 80,000 years, but debate persists about how soon it will begin.”

Scientists have determined that in geological modern times, ice ages have been a regular and significant feature of the Earth’s climate. Ice ages of slightly more than 100,000 years have predominated, being broken up by intervening warming periods of roughly 10,000 years. Our current warming period began roughly 10,000 years ago.

Observes the Times, “The equable conditions of the Holocene, which has lasted 10,000 years so far, have enabled the flowering of agriculture, technology, mobility and resulting explosive population growth that has made the human species a global force. Any substantial climate shift is likely to pose enormous, though probably surmountable, challenges.”

Delaying the Inevitable

So, where does global warming fit in?

“Orbital changes are in a slow dance leading to a peak 80,000 years from now,” said Dr. Eric J. Barron, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State University. “I can hardly imagine that human influences won’t have run their course by that time.”

While humans likely cannot prevent the next ice age, we may be delaying its onset. According to the Times, if carbon dioxide emissions have as much influence on global climate as warming alarmists believe, “It may seem that human-driven global warming, although perhaps a disaster on the scale of centuries, may be a good thing in the long run if it fends off the next ice age for awhile.”

Already, there is mounting scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are resulting in more proficient crop production, and that most planetary warming will be in the high latitudes during winter. As Russian President Vladimir Putin recently told the World Climate Change Conference, “We are a northern country and a temperature two to three degrees warmer would not be scary, [and] maybe it would be good.”

Added Kirill Kondratiev, head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, “The only people who would be hurt by abandoning the Kyoto Protocol would be several thousand people who make a living attending conferences on global warming.”

With or without global warming, the Times reports many experts are convinced the current warmth should end “any millennium now.” Not only is the next ice age overdue, but the scientific evidence suggests the Earth typically transitions from warming periods to full-fledged ice ages in a matter of decades. This, as the Times noted, has many scientists wondering: Is it really wise for policymakers to be considering drastic steps to forestall warming?

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].