The latest presidential debate revealed to 40 million viewers that global warming is an issue on which the candidates have clear differences, both on policy and in the veracity of their responses. Gov. George W. Bush argued that “some of the scientists … have been changing their opinion a bit on global warming” and that we need a “full accounting” of the issue before creating policy.
Mr. Bush is clearly correct here, and Vice President Al Gore is not countenancing the whole truth when he cites the supposedly unified opinion of scientists. Many scientists have reappraised global warming, most notably NASA’s James Hansen, who now argues that the rate of warming is much lower than initially forecast because plants are taking up carbon dioxide at an increasing rate. In other words, the planet is becoming greener. This is precisely the same position that has been maintained by the coal and oil industries for years. There has been no “full accounting” of global warming because no one has yet been able to devise a system whereby scientists who assess the problem do not also profit from defining it as a problem.
Mr. Gore tried this with his much-awaited National Assessment of global warming, which is now held up by a lawsuit. The Assessment team, much like Hillary Clinton’s health care consortium, apparently did an awful lot behind locked doors.
Mr. Gore also intoned that “many people see the strange weather conditions that the old-timers say they’ve never seen before in their lifetimes” and that “storms are getting more violent and unpredictable.”
Those claims are totally false, as anyone who studies weather knows. There are dozens of different weather parameters measured every day: high and low temperatures, rainfall, snowfall and wind speeds, for example. The chance that an individual will see one of those parameters at an extreme value in their lifetime is exactly 100 percent. Some day must be the hottest day in your life.
Furthermore, the chance an extreme value will appear in a given year also is high. Let’s work an example with monthly temperature and rainfall. There are 12 months in a year, each of which is ranked according to temperature and precipitation. That’s 48 chances in a year that a given month will be record warm, cold, wet or dry. Most climate information started being recorded in 1948, giving 52 years of data. Rounding the numbers off, if there are the same number of chances to set a record as there are years of observations, the chance a record will be set this year is 50-50.
Mr. Gore is fond of pointing to increased flood frequency in the United States, based on a study by federal climatologist Tom Karl. But other, equally esteemed climatologists at the U.S. Geological Survey just wrote to Mr. Gore’s assessment team admonishing that Mr. Karl’s result could be duplicated with random numbers.
According to the United Nations, hurricane severity is decreasing for the storms that strike the United States. Tornado deaths also are declining. New research shows that, along with global warming, the extreme U.S. coldest temperatures have risen sharply while extreme high temperatures have declined.
In the policy sphere, Mr. Bush’s most intriguing response during the debate was in code. Although the science promoting global warming is shaky at best, Mr. Bush is a big supporter of “clean coal technologies” and has proposed spending about $2 billion on their advancement.
This used to be a buzzword for getting pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides out of the combustion stream. But now it could mean more, such as getting carbon dioxide the biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect out, too. That’s a difficult operation, but engineers can do it today.
How much will this raise the cost of energy? It might not be as expensive as initially suspected. If this technology is imposed on all fossil fuels, coal still comes out as comparatively cheaper, because there are about a jillion tons of it under our feet. Under this scenario, if you believe global warming is serious, locking up federal land and prohibiting mining is about the dumbest thing you can do for the environment, as President Clinton recently did in Utah. It also isn’t very savvy. Coal miners in Democratic West Virginia just announced they support Mr. Bush, in large part because of their fear that Mr. Gore, in his jihad against global warming, will dial coal out of the nation’s energy stream.
Who says Dubya is slow? Mr. Gore reiterated in the debate that global warming is “the central organizing principal for civilization,” whereas Mr. Bush proposed a program that fights climate change and would have the enthusiastic support of both the fossil fuel industry and the United Mine Workers.
Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute. His latest article on global warming appears in the Cato Institute journal Regulation.