Full of Hot Air

A climate alarmist takes on "criminals against humanity"

Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists and Activists Are Fueling the Climate Crisis--And What We Can Do to Avert the Disaster, by Ross Gelbspan, New York: Basic Books, 254 pages, $22

Ross Gelbspan and I agree about one thing: The Kyoto Treaty, the international greenhouse gas agreement that took effect in February, will not accomplish much. Even if the U.S. ratified the treaty, the resulting cuts in carbon dioxide emissions--about 5 percent below 1990 levels in developed countries during the next seven years--would be far too modest to keep the air's CO2 content from rising.

Gelbspan and I disagree about the likely consequences of that failure. In Boiling Point, the former Boston Globe reporter predicts "disaster"--including mega-droughts, monsoons, refugees, a "Northern hemisphere deep freeze," malaria and dengue epidemics, "not even enough [water] to drink," and "far more allergies"--due to "escalating instability of the climate system."

Gelbspan, who wrote the similar 1997 book The Heat Is On: The Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the Prescription, says it's "excruciating" to watch "the planet fall apart piece by piece in the face of pathological denial," and he calls his book "a last-gasp attempt to break through the monstrous indifference of Americans to the fact that the planet is caving in around us." Skeptics who consider this scenario implausible are "Criminals Against Humanity"--the heading of a chapter that briefly (and inaccurately) describes my own work, which deals with local ecosystem change during past centuries. He calls for "rewiring the planet" to achieve "optimal calibration of competition and cooperation that would maximize our energy and creativity" while extending "the baseline conditions for peace--peace among people, and peace between people and nature."

Gelbspan thus exemplifies the M.O. of climate alarmists who portray the most extreme predictions as mainstream science without noting the uncertainties surrounding them, dismiss objections as financially or politically motivated, and insist there is no choice but to re-engineer the world according to their plan. These strident voices help shape the popular conception of what human-produced greenhouse gases are doing to the planet and what is required to prevent a Day After Tomorrow catastrophe. Their approach, which closes off investigation and shuts down debate through scaremongering and ad hominem attacks, is anti-scientific.

Despite his overwrought warnings, Gelbspan is keen to claim the mantle of science. He threads Boiling Point with supposedly science-based chapters (printed entirely in reader-unfriendly italics) called "Snapshots of the Warming." Among other things, these chapters depict glacier and ice sheet changes as harbingers of catastrophe. Yet Antarctica, by far the most massive ice sheet on the planet, has on balance gained mass during the period of recent measurements, 1992 to 2003; instrument records show a net cooling trend between 1996 and 2000. (The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced a warming trend during the last several decades, but it represents just 2 percent of the continent's land mass.) Measurements of the mass of the Greenland ice sheet, the largest in the Northern Hemisphere, are uncertain and may indicate slight shrinkage or growth. Thermometer measurements at the summit of the ice sheet show a recent cooling trend in summer, the season of ice melt. Mountain glaciers also tell a complex story; many retreated rapidly in the 19th century, well before the emission of most of the carbon dioxide from energy use. A few maritime glaciers have recently expanded.

Gelbspan notes that "the vast majority of the scientific papers on climate change are quite accessible if one is willing to take the time to read them." That implies a standard of scholarship unmet by the book's army of secondary sources, which include newspapers, magazines, wire services, and activist reports.

Gelbspan is also careless in his description of those who disagree with him. He fails to explain that the "greenhouse skeptics" he cites--those "criminals against humanity" �--accept that the industrial emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases has contributed to a warming trend during the last century. What remains at issue is the extent of this contribution and the magnitude of warming that can be expected during the next century. Computer simulations of uncertain reliability indicate that by 2100 the globally averaged surface temperature will rise approximately 2.5 degrees Celsius, which would seem to require a wholesale switch to nuclear power in the next few decades to avoid the devastation of energy poverty. But other lines of evidence suggest a change of 1 degree or less, which would be comparable to past natural change, making the transition to 21st-century energy technologies much more affordable. Boiling Point obscures this ongoing debate by repeatedly appealing to a nonexistent scientific consensus.

Gelbspan portrays dissent from his view of climate change as evidence of the fossil fuel industry's corrupting influence, which apparently extends to scientists, journalists, the current administration, even labor union leaders and environmental activists. Yet Boiling Point does not consider the financial, ideological, and personal interests that favor alarmism, such as the desire by scientists for more research funding; by activists for more donations, media attention, and political relevance; by journalists for better play and bigger book advances. (Such issues are considered in two books by active climate researchers that also offer succinct scientific reviews of alarmist news reports: Meltdown, by Patrick J. Michaels, and Taken by Storm, by Christopher Essex and Ross McKitrick.) The existence of nonscientific motives does not tell us which side is right; only careful consideration of the evidence can do that.

While Boiling Point alludes to scientific uncertainties concerning the "role of clouds, future rates of warming, and specific impact in particular geographic areas, to name a few [issues]," Gelbspan immediately redirects focus by declaring that "the overwhelming predominance of climate research today focuses on the [ecosystem] impacts of warming." If so, climate research has misplaced priorities. In fact, however, many researchers refuse to skip the hard work of achieving a scientifically sound understanding of climate change, a requisite for accurately estimating its impact.

Climate is a complex, dynamic system that involves the oceans, the atmosphere, biota, ice, and land, which interact with each other in multifaceted ways. An accurate computer simulation of climate does not yet exist. Quantitative impacts of natural and anthropogenic influences, of which the enhanced greenhouse effect is one, are works in progress.

To get a sense of the scientific tasks involved, consider some anthropogenic climate influences aside from greenhouse gases. Farming affects nearby soil moisture content, the reflectivity of sunlight, and other factors that may in turn affect local temperature and precipitation. Those local impacts, through complex physical processes, may produce wider climate change. Urbanization (pavement, buildings, and machinery giving off heat) has long been recognized as a source of artificially elevated local temperature. Aerosols emitted by industrial (and natural) sources have both cooling and warming properties. All those anthropogenic causes are distinct from the enhanced greenhouse effect and occur along with ever-present natural variability, which is also a topic of intense research.

Still, there are a couple of points on which scientists, including most skeptics, agree:

1) Surface temperature, measured by thermometers and averaged over the globe, has risen about 0.6 degree Celsius since the mid-to-late 19th century. The record shows three trends: a sharp warming trend until around 1940, no warming trend or a slight cooling trend until the 1970s, and a warming trend beginning in the late 1970s. Note, however, that good measurements with few breaks in the record exist for only about 20 percent of the globe, with most of the southern oceans and Antarctica inadequately sampled. In some locations the 19th century ended a several-centuries-long cold period called the Little Ice Age, the waning of which may explain some of the warming. Moreover, globally averaged temperature is a number of little value in estimating local ecosystem response because temperature change has specific local influences and local effects.

2) The air's carbon dioxide content has increased by approximately a third during the last 200 years. Beyond carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases (notably methane) have also been emitted by human activities. Put together, the energy added to the air by all human-produced greenhouse gases would be equivalent to increasing the air's carbon dioxide content alone by roughly two-thirds. The increase, though, has not been steady. Most of the gases have been added to the air in the last half-century, so they cannot have driven most of the warming trend observed in the early 20th century. The surface trend in the last decades of the 20th century was about 0.17 degree Celsius per decade. Contrary to Gelbspan, who refers to an "escalating pace of climate change," the warming trend has been steady.

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