Wallace's World

Is Global Warming a "Crock of S*%t?"


(This column has been corrected. A previous version cited findings by the author that misstated conclusions of a scientific report by Wolfgang Knorr of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Bristol. The paragraph in question has been removed. The author, while admitting the mistake, stands behind the thesis of the column.)

"Global warming is a crock of s*%t!"

When Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of General Motors, said this in February 2008, it immediately became the most widely distributed quote regarding global warming on the Internet. After all, this was one of the major power players in the automobile industry, and he was implying that anyone who believed that global warming was real, man-made, and altering the planet was something akin to a moron. But the problem with that quote is that it's incomplete. I know. I was there.

It was at a small private luncheon at Cacharel in Arlington, Tex., when Lutz uttered those words. But the quote omits what he said next: "Don't misunderstand me, I'm not a climate denier." As he explained to those present, he simply questions the mindset that blames all the climate change of the past few decades on mankind.

Lutz's comments that day were far more balanced and thoughtful than anyone who heard that particular quote might believe. And therein lies the problem with the current discussions on global warming: The media have taken the position that the science is complete and settled. A unanimous agreement that global warming not only exists but is man-made—and we're almost past the point where we can still save the planet from it. Moreover, anyone who questions those absolute statements is quickly labeled a "Climate Change Denier." This label is intended to shame and discredit doubters, much like 500 years ago when church officials prosecuted anyone who preached the earth was not the center of the universe.

However, labeling to discredit someone by calling them a "denier" is a distorted and completely unjust position to take on such an important subject. In fact, virtually no one believes the earth has not gone through a period of unexplained warming. Therefore, the term "denier" is not just inaccurate, it's a complete and intentional mischaracterization of those wanting more open and honest scientific studies on the subject.

As for the position that the science is settled and there is no dissent, as Bob Lutz might say, "that's a crock of s*%t!"

Science Totally Not Settled

On Dec. 8, 2009, during the Copenhagen Climate Challenge, an open letter was sent to the U.N. Secretary General signed by close to 150 scientists involved in physics, climatology, meteorology, and geophysics. The opening two sentences say it all: "Climate change science is in a period of 'negative discovery'; the more we learn about this exceptionally complex and rapidly evolving field, the more we realize how little we know. Truly, the science is NOT settled."

Lest we forget, only 36 years ago it was widely believed we were on the verge of the next Ice Age. As Gary Sutton reported in Forbes on Dec. 3 last year, "In 1974, the National Science Board announced: 'During the last 20 to 30 years, world temperature has fallen, irregularly at first but more sharply over the last decade. Judging from the record of the past interglacial ages, the present time of high temperatures should be drawing to an end … leading into the next ice age.'"

Given the money and reputations now at stake, it should not be surprising that over the past year a number of scientists have tried to rewrite the history of the 1970s. Even during that period, these scientists contend, the majority were already warning that a far warmer future was coming.

Could Warming Produce … Cooling?

Thirty-six years later there is still strong disagreement on what climate change really means for our planet. Some have postulated that warming temperatures will cause mass extinctions or uncontrollable migrations to better climates. Not least of the problems, they worry, might be that temperatures rising as much as 11 degrees over the coming century would cause crop failures, resulting in mass global outbreaks of starvation.

Other scientists, however, claim that this period of warming will melt the freshwater glaciers of the north, flooding the Atlantic conveyor belt that brings warmer water up from southern regions and disrupting that current. Their scenario gives us, you guessed it, a new Ice Age.

It's the huge disparity among scientists about our planet's climatic future that makes so many wonder how legitimate and accurate "global warming" science really is. If the science were settled, as is claimed, those 150 scientists wouldn't have felt the need to distance themselves—by signing that open letter to the U.N.—from "politicians and media personalities" who claim it is settled. Michael Crichton, the late author, pointed out in a lecture on this subject one line from the 2001 IPCC report on climate change, "… therefore the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible."

The fact is that no one can even agree on whether or not the highest temperatures recorded in modern times came in the 1990s or during the Dust Bowl days of 1934. One thing is for sure, in recent decades it certainly hasn't been as cold as it used to be—but even here few understand that the climate has been validated as turning much colder in the three decades after World War II. That's right: While the greatest expansion of economic societies and the most large-scale industrial growth was occurring, spewing untold amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, the climate was cooling worldwide.

Impact of the Little Ice Age

Now, if you go back 150 years, the climate has gotten much warmer since the Little Ice Age that existed between the 16th and 19th centuries. While today we view that era's history from a far more mythic position—mankind, rugged individuals all, simply yearned for a better life and therefore emigrated to places like America from Europe—that view ignores the physical, pragmatic reasons that drove so many to abandon their ancestral lands forever.

Climatologists well understand that the Little Ice Age's effects on crops left many individuals in Europe starving and ready to travel, especially during the latter part of that history of climate change. The suddenly much colder weather contributed to the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, for example, causing a wave of Irish immigrants to flee hunger for a better life in America. Similarly, a decade later, La Reunion, a small communist farming cooperative on the west bank of the Trinity River in Dallas, shut down and moved into town; in May of that year it was still too cold and the ground too hard to plant their crops. That just doesn't happen anymore in Texas.

True, temperatures once wrought great damage in the lives of individuals and societies, but it was extreme cold, not the heat, that hurt. Today the mean average temperature in Dallas is 65.4 degrees, while Boston comes in at 51.3 degrees. That's a wider temperature spread than any apocalyptic forecast on climate, yet people survive in both cities and actually thrive.

It should also be noted that anthropologists studying mankind and human activity during what's known as the Medieval Warm Period (approximately AD 800–1300) find that people were much like we are now. People were taller than in subsequent centuries; there was more massive construction activity, such as the great European cathedrals; there was a thriving wine industry in England and farming in Greenland.

Then came the Little Ice Age. On that period's causes there is no scientific agreement even today, although many possible causes have been mentioned; among them are lower solar activity, known as the Maunder Minimum, and increased volcanic activity, shielding the planet from solar radiation. But it should be noted that there is even less agreement on what caused the warming period from 1850 to 1950.

Do Something, Even If It's Disastrous?

And so today we are being warned and exhorted that, unless serious measures are taken to reverse our contributions to greenhouse gases, humans have put the planet on an unsustainable course for potential crises right up to extinction. The irony is that, on the news, there is little agreement on what's caused massive shifts in the earth's temperatures over the past millennium, but complete agreement on what will happen in the future if we don't act fast.

Business and industry legitimately worry that if Draconian measures are put in place, everyone will suffer the consequent complete disruption to world economies. Certainly the concept of using cap and trade to raise energy prices to the point that it forces conservation has huge potential and many opportunities for fraud if not outright theft—and it would not actually reduce any country's emissions.

Der Spiegel, Dan Rather Reports, and The New York Times have all done articles on how this finance-driven concept "to save the planet" has already proved to have many serious deficiencies while billions of dollars exchange hands.

The real question is this: Why—when so many climatologists, meteorologists, and scientists today have come out and questioned not whether the climate is changing, but whether that change is primarily man-made—are the media claiming consensus and elected officials demanding action now? The proposed changes to our economic structure could easily upset and disrupt vast populations far more than another degree of warming, but the call for quick action continues.

A Species Able to Adapt

Seventy thousand years ago our race nearly went extinct, with only a few thousand homo sapiens alive at the time. Since that time the planet has undergone long periods when the climate changed dramatically, including the last major Ice Age, which peaked approximately 20,000 years ago. We have seen huge shifts in the weather, plagues, wars, floods, and centuries when crop failures were the norm—and today there are 6 billion of us on the planet. Apparently we are not that fragile.

But after two centuries in which technology and science were key to creating our modern world, we've put the quest for honest, open, and rigorous science on the back burner, because widely publicized and aired "pundits" blame the advancement of science and technology for putting the planet in danger.

Things on the planet are warmer than they used to be, just as in the 1970s things were colder than they once were. The industrial revolution and greenhouse gases were rising in both of these periods, so the spirit of impartial scientific inquiry demands that one look for other factors that may have changed in the equation.

That is not denying things are different from the way they once were. No. The people being labeled deniers are simply asking why the nearly 15% of respected scientists who don't agree with this climate hypothesis can't be heard or are quickly dismissed as quacks.

Weaknesses in Computer Modeling

Nor should one suggest we continue with lifestyles that are far more wasteful of energy than we need to be. Wasted energy is wasted money, so business logic should demand regular improvements in net energy use.

In the end, maybe the climate change evangelists are right and mankind is the reason the planet is warming. But if you read enough articles on the subject over a long enough period, you find that the factual weather data do not always line up with the scientific pronouncements that are being sold to us. For one thing, computer modeling is not all that accurate, nor do those machines have any more logic than what is programmed into them. In simplest terms, anyone who can program a relational database knows you can alter the code to where 2 + 2 = 4.25. The computer spits it out, but it's not true. Now extrapolate that out to where one is programming all of the factors known for weather, present, past, and future, and you understand the complexity is so great that no output from those programs can mean anything. It's called GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.

Now, are you willing to bet the world's economies on that logic? If you are, you are putting more lives in danger than global warming has. For many, the scientific contrarians actually have the better argument. We should test their theories, too, and see if their science holds up any better than today's so-called consensus.

Note: Ed Wallace has never been involved with or accepted any compensation from any industry involved in energy.

(This is the first of a multipart series of columns on global warming.)

Ed_wallace
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and is a member of the American Historical Assn. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:15 on Fox Four's Good Day, contributes articles to Businessweek.com, and hosts the top-rated daytime talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: wheels570@sbcglobal.net, and read all of Ed's work at his news site, www.insideautomotive.com.

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