What We Know about Global Warming

Published February 1, 2004

Is the climate really warming? Weather satellites measuring atmospheric temperatures day in and day out from pole to pole report only a minute rise that extrapolates to about half a degree Centigrade by 2100.

Is this rise caused by human activities, like the burning of coal, oil, and gas? That’s difficult to tell–climate varies naturally both up and down, so it could be partly non-human.

Is the observed warming significant? That’s a matter of judgment, but half a degree is barely detectable and not likely to have an impact.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that global warming will accelerate in the future. Would such a warming be good or bad? After all, it is quite unlikely the present climate is in any way optimal.

Meteorologists tell us that a warmer climate will on the whole produce more rain–and thus fresh water–but not more severe storms or hurricanes. The warming would be concentrated in high-latitude regions north and south and would mainly raise temperatures at night in winter. So Arctic winters might reach minus 38 instead of the present minus 40 degrees. There would be few complaints … even if polar bears and penguins could talk.

Economists tell us a moderate warming would be better for the economy and lead to a higher GNP and higher living standards worldwide. That is especially true, biologists tell us, if we also achieve a higher level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Contrary to all you might have heard, CO2 is not a pollutant, but an essential component of the Earth’s atmosphere. With the help of sunshine and trace nutrients, plants turn CO2 into food and fiber. More CO2–better growth of crops and forests.

Geologists tell us that levels of CO2 have been 10 to 20 times the present level–and life in various forms did quite nicely. But CO2 has been declining more or less steadily in the past 200 million years, reaching dangerously low levels during ice ages. Some worry that in the next ice age, soon to arrive, it may fall below the level to sustain plant growth.

Now suppose everything we know is wrong and that the precautionary principle should be applied. What can we do and what should we do? Actually, there is practically nothing we can do to change the course of climate–short of gigantic and risky planetary engineering, like putting megatons of dust into the stratosphere and similar fanciful schemes. Certainly, the much-touted Kyoto Protocol, which would force us to use less energy by boosting its price, would be completely ineffective; it has been rejected by the United States and ignored by China and other giant energy consumers.

Adaptation is the only sensible answer to climate change, whether natural or human-caused.

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the nonprofit Science & Environmental Policy Project (http://www.sepp.org) in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].