This week, international leaders are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss what can be done to combat climate change. Since the Kyoto agreement of the mid 1990's, international cooperation on the issue has stalled. The United States Senate voted 95-0 not to ratify the Kyoto Accords and two of the largest producers of greenhouse gases, India and China, refused to sign on. Nearly fifteen years later, the political landscape has changed. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has won both an Academy Award and a Nobel Peace Prize for calling attention to the issue. Current U.S. President Barack Obama is more committed than his predecessor to address the issue, and his party controls Congress. Both the Chinese Premier and the Indian Prime Minister are attending the conference in Copenhagen. Despite this optimism amongst those anxious to do something about the problem, the conference occurs amidst controversy. A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study (http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2009/20090126_climate.html) suggests that global warming is essentially irreversible (the report suggests it would take 1,000 years for warming to begin to reverse after carbon dioxide levels are reduced to zero), raising questions about whether the actions proposed can even accomplish anything. And, on the eve of the conference, hacked e-mails between climate scientists were released suggesting that some of the scientists promoting the consensus view of climate science massaged their data to make it more compelling and worked to suppress the publication of contrary data (http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2009/11/24/taking_liberties/entry5761180.shtml). In the United States the, "cap and trade," legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions has stalled in Congress over concerns that it will raise fuel prices and increase economic hardship in this time of recession. Subsequently, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made an endangerment finding regarding green house gases, including carbon dioxide, stating that these gases, "threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations." (emphasis added, please see: http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/endangerment.html).
OVERVIEW OF CLIMATE SCIENCE:
Most of us are familiar with the basics of the consensus view of global warming. A well-known phenomenon called the greenhouse effect is responsible for trapping the heat of the Sun inside the Earth's atmosphere and heating the planet. To some extent, this is good because it makes life on Earth possible, but concerns have been raised that the planet is warming too much. Certain gases in the atmosphere increase this effect and are therefore called greenhouse gases. Many of these gases are produced as by product of the industrial activity of humans and carbon dioxide which is produced by, among other things, burning carbon containing fuels such as oil, gasoline, and coal, is one of the principle of the greenhouse gases. In the consensus view of climate science the warming of the planet may have catastrophic consequences. Most notably, it will cause rising sea levels as the polar ice cap melts, which may then produce coastal flooding and turn many into refugees. It must be halted or slowed to prevent this dire consequence and since it is caused mostly by human beings burning fossil fuels, we must curtail this activity to protect the planet.
The summary statement of consensus scientists is the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC (http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-wg1.htm). A few salient points should be noted about the consensus science. In the policymaker's summary of the most recent IPCC report (please see: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf for the following data), warming since 1850 has only amounted to 1.5 degrees F (or 1/1ooth of a degree per year) and the rise in sea level, presumed secondary to the warming and melting of the arctic ice cap, over this time period has only been 200 millimetres. Furthermore, the IPCC states that the sea level rise is only likely due to global warming and in their classification scheme, likely associations have a significant (33%) chance of not being related. Figure SPM-3 in the policymaker's summary shows a disconnect between warming and sea level rise (sea levels continued to rise even during decades when there was observed cooling) and the report concedes that the contribution of warming, glacier and ice cap melting, and Antarctic melting does not account for all of the observed rise in sea level. The IPCC summary also estimates only about half a metre (a little over eighteen inches) of sea level rise in the next century and that it will take a millenium to achieve the twenty-foot sea level rise predicted by alarmists. Although the IPCC predicts the possibility of as much as nine-degree F rise in temperature over the next century, their models suggest that with specific intervention but with simply a trend towards more balanced use of fossil and renewable fuels (the A1B scenario in the report) this can reduced considerably to 6 degrees F (please see table 10.4 in chapter 10 of the full report (temperatures in Celsius in the table: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter10.pdf). In summary, the consensus science view, as expressed by the IPCC, is that global warming is real, it is cause by man (very likely in the IPCC report, a category they view as having a 90% chance of being correct), has already cause problems and will cause future difficulties; but it should be noted that the current negative effects of climate change are rather minimal and the future projections of the IPCC fairly modest.
Contrast that with the alarmist view. Climate alarmists, such as former Vice President Al Gore, argue a view that is widely divergent from the consensus science. Even many of the scientists involved in the IPCC report make claims outside of the report that are far more alarmist than the consensus statement (Chris Landsea left the IPCC when the lead author of the Observations chapter, to which he [Landsea] was to contribute made statement attributing increases in frequency and severity of hurricanes to global warming, a conclusion that the data does not support. Please see: http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/prometheus/archives/science_policy_general/000318chris_landsea_leaves.html) . They argue that global warming is not merely a problem to addressed (and balanced against other problems are also pressing), but rather that it is a crisis that requires the adoption of any and all measures to stop it. In his film, An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Pictures, 2006), Mr. Gore asserts that we have already seen horrific consequences of global warming. He states that the devastating hurricane season of 2005 was due to global warming and that both the number and severity of storms, like Katrina, that year were attributable to climate change. He also asserts and increasing number of droughts as a result of climate change. But, according to the consensus report of the IPCC, global warming is not expected to increase the frequency of hurricanes and, although they predict an increase in storm severity the report clearly states the severity of no one storm in 2005 can be clearly attributed to global warming. Furthermore, the IPCC report states that increasing droughts are only likely related to climate change, indicating a significant chance (33%) that they are not (please see policymaker's summary: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf). Climate change alarmists also argue that the arctic ice cap will soon disappear and that a catastrophic 20-foot rise is sea level is imminent. In his film, Mr. Gore states we should devote as many resources to protecting ourselves from this rise in sea level as we do in protecting ourselves from terrorist attacks. Also in the film, Mr. Gore asserts that the arctic ice cap will be gone in the summer within 50-70 years. In his book, An Assault on Reason, he revised this estimate to 34 years (New York: Penguin, 2007). In his public remarks upon learning he was to share the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the IPCC, Al Gore asserted that summer arctic sea ice will be gone in 23 years (http://blog.algore.com/2007/10/i_am_deeply_honored.html) and in a recent interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell he estimated the life expectancy of summer arctic ice at no more than 10 years (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34345406/ns/politics-more_politics//). However, the IPCC consensus report estimates that late summer arctic sea ice will disappear toward the end of the next century [emphasis added] and a 20-foot rise in sea level would happen, incrementally, over the course of a millenium [emphasis added], not imminently causing widespread dislocation (please see both http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf and http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter10.pdf).
Another view that diverges from the consensus view is the skeptical view. While some skeptics question weather warming is even occurring, most acknowledge the warming but question weather the observed warming is due man-made carbon emissions or other greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere by industrial activity and the burning of fossil fuels and weather the consequences of the warming are necessarily catastrophic. These are important questions because if global warming is a natural phenomenon and not man-made, no action we could take will slow, stop, or reverse; and if the consequences of global warming will not be catastrophic then making large sacrifices and diverting resources from other priorities to combat it is inappropriate. A number of scientists are skeptical of the consensus view of global warming (Henrik Svensmark of Denmark, Russian Habibullo Abdussamatov, and Australian Ian Plimer, to name a few, can be added to four American skeptics interviewed by John Stossel here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vpuslrB_cY). The skeptical view focuses on other, natural, drivers of warming, rather than man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Even the IPCC report discusses natural drivers of climate change such as changes in the Earth's orbit (historically the driver of ice ages and interglacial periods) and solar irradiation. Skeptical scientists believe these natural drivers of climate change are underestimated by the IPCC. There are several facts not accounted for by the consensus view of climate change. The IPCC admits in its report that their theory does not account for the lack of warming in the Antarctic (http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf). As noted above, the correlation between warming and rising sea levels is also questionable. The IPCC discusses atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations as one of the prime drivers of global warming. In fact, they upgraded their certainty (from likely to very likely)that global warming was man-made based on the last ten years of data (prior to their 2007 report) showing the warmest decade on record and a sharp upswing in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 379 parts-per-million (ppm), when pre-industrial highs are estimated at no more than 280-300 ppm. However, there is a clear disconnect between atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. As the data in this figure from the NOAA show (see http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/img/climate/globalwarming/sio-mlgr.gif), in recent decades there has been a linear rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. However, in the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's, global temperatures were decreasing despite increasing carbon dioxide levels, which lead some to be concerned at the time about global cooling (see this article in Newsweek from April 1975 for the temperature trend over those decades: http://www.denisdutton.com/newsweek_coolingworld.pdf). Buried on page 13 of the most recent IPCC summary for policy makers (http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-spm.pdf) is the following statement, "Warming tends to reduce land and ocean uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide, increasing the fraction of anthropogenic [man-made] emissions that remains in the atmosphere." In other words, the oceans release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when they are warmer (gases are less soluble in warm water). In the IPCC report chapter on paleoclimate, this release of carbon dioxide from the oceans is described as the driver of rising carbon dioxide levels associated with pre-industrial periods of warming (http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/wg1/ar4-wg1-chapter6.pdf). Paleological data suggest that some of these pre-industrial warming periods were quite significant and the IPCC policymaker's summary points out that polar regions were significantly warmer than present 125,000 years ago and at that time the arctic ice had completely melted, resulting in 4-6 metre rise in sea level. This data calls into question whether atmospheric carbon dioxide is a driver of global warming, or a result of global warming, or some combination of both; and whether the current warming trend might be a natural phenomenon as the one 125,000 years ago was. Finally, the consensus view that global warming is a man-made phenomenon offers no explanation for the parallel global warming occurring on Mars (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/02/070228-mars-warming.html and also Nature 446: 646-649).
Skeptics argue that this data supports the notion that the primary driver of climate change is natural, and presumably solar. Although the authors are clear that solar activity does not explain all of the observed warming, Figure 4 in this 1998 paper by Lean and Rind (http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/docs/1998/1998_Lean_Rind.pdf) shows a striking correlation correlation between global temperature and sunspot number (including the aforementioned cooling period in the 195o's, 196o's, and 1970's). Figure 1 in this paper by Soon (http://www.agu.org/journals/gl/gl0516/2005GL023429/2005GL023429.pdf) also demonstrates a correlation between solar irradiance and temperature, including a decrease in solar irradiance during the cooling between 1940 and 1980. Henrik Svensmark has argued that solar activity governs low cloud cover and this low cloud cover has a profound effect on temperature. When there is more low cloud cover, heat is reflected away from the Earth and the Earth cools. When there is less low cloud cover, the Earth warms. Low cloud cover is generated by cosmic rays and the effect of cosmic rays on the Earth is dampened by an increase in solar activity. Therefore, increases solar activity, decreased cosmic rays, decreased low cloud cover, and warming and vice versa with decreased solar activity. This influence on cosmic rays may amplify the solar effect and explain why other researchers have concluded that the magnitude of solar irradiance is insufficient to account for the warming. Although Svensmark theory is not widely endorsed in the scientific community, there is data to support it, he has been able to experimentally show in a laboratory how cosmic rays influence cloud cover, and his theory has the added bonus of predicting the lack of warming in the Antarctic (please see link to review article here: http://www.spacecenter.dk/research/sun-climate/Scientific%20work%20and%20publications/svensmark_2007cosmoClimatology.pdf/view. Svensmark's plot of cosmic ray activity in Figure 5 is remarkable similar to the NASA-Goddard recorded temperatures plotted here: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A.lrg.gif).
The above brief review of actual climate science demonstrates that while data supporting the consensus view that global warming is a man-made phenomenon, related to greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, this data is by no means conclusive. Several observations are not explained by the consensus model and there is at least some data to support the notion that some, or even most, of climate change is a natural phenomenon. Even if the consensus view is correct regarding the cause of global warming, estimating its severity or impact remains difficult. As noted above, the IPCC projections are relatively modest, but still serious. Yet, such predictions are made from mathematical models at it is unclear from the discussion above whether the mechanism of climate change and relative importance of variables involved are understood well enough to create a valid model.
Scientific consensus is not a substitute for data. In fact, the mere fact that global warming is generally discussed in terms of scientific consensus is proof positive that the data, while compelling, is not conclusive. When data is conclusive, consensus is irrelevant. Although consensus opinion usually turns out to be correct, the history of science is full of examples of minority opinions (Copernican model of the solar system, Big-Bang Theory, infectious cause of stomach ulcers to name a few) were ultimately proven correct and overthrew the reigning consensus opinion. Therefore, the fact that there are still skeptical scientists and research data suggesting the possibility of an alternate view means that the science is not, "in," and the consensus view has not been proven.
Therefore, debate about what to do regarding global warming, if anything, is legitimate. The risk of global warming needs to be balanced against both the cost and likely effectiveness of the proposed remedy. Policy decisions need to incorporate this debate, not gloss over it. Demagogues like Al Gore and other climate alarmist seek to stifle debate through fear. They do not discuss the data and its limitations (as noted above, Mr. Gore has a penchant for ignoring or exaggerating the data), but rather state summarily that the issue has been settled (when we have seen above that it has not been) and that anything other than following their proposed remedy is evil. In An Inconvenient Truth, Mr. Gore asserts, "This is not a political issue so much as a moral issue. If we allow this [climate change] to happen, it is deeply unethical." Mr. Gore's rhetoric leaves no room for debate and is, in my opinion, deeply irresponsible.
Brushing aside such nonsense, what is the proper course? In his Sunday show on CNN on December 13, 2009, Fareed Zakaria presented a responsible consensus view. He argued that even if the chance of the catastrophic scenario is relatively small, it is real and perhaps some expense is justifiable as sort of an insurance policy against such a possibility. This is a very reasonable position, but this position then requires legitimate debate about what the appropriate cost for such an insurance policy should be. What climate change insurance premium would be reasonable? In his book, Physics for Future Presidents (W.W. Norton, New York, 2008), UCB Professor Richard Muller makes a similar argument and makes a compelling case that significant reductions in carbon emissions can be achieved with relatively modest interventions that he terms, "comfortable conservation."
Alternatively, the late Michael Crichton (http://www.michaelcrichton.com/speech-ourenvironmentalfuture.html) and Swedish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg (http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/podcasts/fareedzakaria/site/2009/12/13/gps.podcast.12.13.cnn) have argued that the science is too unsettled, the predictions too uncertain, and the utility of proposed interventions too unknown, to justify diversion of resources away from more pressing and immediate problems, such as global poverty. Standard of living in North America and Europe rose as a function of economic development. What developing nations need to escape poverty are cheap sources of energy. No renewable energy source even approaches the energy efficiency of gasoline (only butanolol, a potential biofuel, approaches gasoline in efficiency) and it is cheap, only about ten cents (U.S.) per kilowatt-hour. Coal is less efficient, but much cheaper at only a half-cent per kilowatt-hour. Contrast that with solar energy. The best solar cells are only 41% efficient, but these cost $100,000 USD per square yard. A reasonable commercially available solar cell is only 15% efficient and could power the electrical needs of a single family home for about $14,000 USD per cell. This means, the solar cell would have to last at least 22 years before requiring replacement for the buyer just to break even, assuming 2008 California power costs (Muller, Physics for Future Presidents, W.W. Norton, New York, 2008). With those costs in mind, it is clear that without the expansion of the use of fossil fuels in the developing world, billions will remain impoverished and millions will die as a result of that poverty. International cap and trade protocols that allow developed nations to pay underdeveloped countries to use less carbon fuels so that the developed nation can continue to use more will do nothing but ensure that impoverished nations remain impoverished.
CLIMATE POLICY IN A FREE SOCIETY:
This, then, is the debate. Are the consequences of doing nothing too dire to risk? Are the proposed solutions futile because climates change regardless of man's actions? Or, are the proposed solutions potentially effective, but not worth their costs? There are plenty of good arguments and all sides of this debate and in a free society policy is subsequently determined by vigorous debate of the issues amongst elected representatives expressing the will of the people. In a free society, demagoguery that glosses over controversy and labels one side as evil or immoral is unacceptable. By debating the actual data in support of and questioning man-made global warming, ultimately a political consensus may be reached that determines policy. Like it or not, in a free society the process of crafting policy is often slow as advocates attempt to persuade undecideds, through reason, that their position is correct.
However, the Environmental Protection Agency has hijacked this issue. The Constitution intends that regulation of economic or social behaviour should be decided by elected representatives. Congress makes laws that regulate economic behaviour and the President signs them. The President negotiates treaties with other nations and the Senate must ratify them. But now it matters little whether cap and trade legislation is stalled in Congress or whether there are votes in the Senate to ratify an agreement reached in Copenhagen. Now an independent regulatory agency has declared power to regulate carbon dioxide (and therefore carbon-fuels, and therefore the economic activity of every citizen) because it is a pollutant. The idea that carbon dioxide, a harmless gas that is exhaled by every man, woman, and child on the planet threatens the health and welfare of current Americans is laughable to say the least and yet the EPA has seen fit to declare it so and assume broad powers to control it without the least bit of responsibility to voters. Regardless of where we might stand on the climate debate, we should all be able to agree that this is appalling. The principle of the ends justifying the means is not an appropriate governing principle for a free and democratic society. It is the governing principle of totalitarianism.