- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

There are few things more dangerous than a misinformed politician seeking to enact a politically correct regulation or legislation.

And there is nothing quite like presumed global warming to provoke politicians and journalists (and even some scientists) into expressing incoherent hysteria and alarm. A perfect example of both is the recent action by the mayors of Newton and Worcester, Mass., to curb global warming.

Whoever is advising these mayors on climate change policy has grossly misinformed them. For example, in an effort to show how important reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is, the mayors claim a scientific consensus exists that a 75 percent to 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gases is necessary. Such a reduction in CO2 , however, would end life as we know it, since most (if not all) plants would not survive at such low levels.

Moreover, the most important greenhouse gas is water vapor. The greenhouse effect of clouds also greatly exceeds that of CO2. However, thank goodness, I can’t think of any policy that would reduce these essential substances by between 75 percent and 85 percent.

What the mayors perhaps meant was that a reduction of 60 percent in emissions of CO2 might be necessary to stabilize its levels.

However, the carbon cycle is only poorly understood at best, and one can’t be sure if this is too much or too little. Nor is there any basis for expecting this to eliminate climate change, which occurs all the time — especially regionally — without any external forcing at all.

There is nothing controversial about these facts. Neither is there any controversy over the fact that the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to stave off climate change, will do almost nothing to stabilize CO2.

Capping CO2 emissions per unit electricity generated will have a negligible impact at best on CO2 levels. It certainly will, however, increase the cost of electricity, and place those states pursuing such a path at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Why would any elected official want that, even at the admittedly severe risk of appearing politically incorrect?

It is important to understand that the impact of CO2 on the Earth’s heat budget is nonlinear. What this means is that although CO2 has only increased about 30 percent over its pre-industrial level, the impact on the heat budget of the Earth due to the increases in CO2 and other man-influenced greenhouse substances has already reached about 75 percent of what one expects from a doubling of CO2.

Assuming that all of the very irregular change in temperature over the past 120 years or so — about 1 degree F — is due to added greenhouse gases — a very implausible assumption — the temperature rise seen so far is much less (by a factor of 2-to-3) than models predict.

If we are, nonetheless, to believe the model predictions, the argument goes roughly as follows: The models are correct, but some unknown process has canceled the impact of increasing greenhouse gases, and that process will henceforth cease. Do we really want to put the welfare of the nation, much less any one community, at risk for such an argument? I for one would hope for greater prudence from my elected officials.

Richard S. Lindzen is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been a contributor to climate science for almost 40 years, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a lead author of the second IPCC Climate Assessment.

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