Science & Technology

"Global Warming Is Real"

Dispatches from the International Conference on Climate Change


Editor's Note: reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey will be filing a series of regular dispatches from the Heartland Institute's controversial International Conference on Climate Change. Below is the first in that series.

New York, March 2—The Heartland Institute's International Conference on Climate Change kicked off this evening at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan. Joseph Bast, president of the Institute, began by announcing that the meeting of 500 participants had attracted more than 200 scientists, economists, and other policy analysts to address questions that he thinks have been insufficiently scrutinized by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to Bast, those questions include: (1) how reliable are the climate data; (2) how much of global warming is natural and how much is man-made; (3) how reliable are climate computer models; and (4) is reducing greenhouse gas emissions the best or only way to address climate change?

Heartland Institute senior policy analyst, James Taylor, told the participants that the organizers had invited many of the prominent "alarmists" to present their views at the conference. "Not a single one would come to speak," Taylor said.

The keynote speaker after the gala dinner was University of Virginia climatologist and Cato Institute Senior Environmental Fellow, Patrick Michaels. His talk was titled, "Global Warming's Convenient Facts." Michaels began by telling the audience, "Global warming is real and people have something to do with it." He also noted that one should not care a wit about the fact that humans are causing temperatures to increase. Rather, one should care how much the increase is likely to be.

Michaels pointed out that the surface records show average global temperatures increasing at a steady rate of +0.17 degrees centigrade per decade since 1977. He also hastened to put the kibosh on recent assertions that "global warming stopped in 1998." While global average temperatures have been essentially flat since 1998, Michaels argued that natural variations in the climate mask any increases due to greenhouse gases. In particular, cooler waters in the Pacific ("La Nina") and lower solar activity have conspired to drop average global temperatures. When these trends reverse, average global temperatures will rapidly rise to reveal the established long term man-made warming trend of +0.17 degrees centigrade per decade. Michaels warned against succumbing to the temptation to cite current flattened global temperatures as evidence against man-made global warming.

Michaels then turned to various climate change puzzles. Is Antarctica melting, he asked? Exhibit A in the Antarctica warming story is the 2002 collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf on the Antarctic peninsula. However, as Michaels showed, the peninsula is a very small area of the southern continent and most of Antarctica shows no warming trend. In fact, the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report (4AR), released in 2007, found that "current global model studies project that the Antarctic ice sheet will remain too cold for widespread surface melting." Michaels sardonically noted that former Vice President Al Gore did not say that sea level would rise by 20 feet in his movie, An Inconvenient Truth; he just showed animations of such a sea-level rise.

What about Greenland? Michaels displayed temperature records showing that Greenland's temperatures had been higher in the earlier part of the 20th century. In particular he cited a 2006 study by Danish researchers who reported, "The warmest year in the extended Greenland temperature record is 1941, while the 1930s and 1940s are the warmest decades." Michaels suggested that Greenland was losing about 25 cubic miles of ice annually. He further noted that there are about 690,000 cubic miles of ice locked up in Greenland's ice cap. At that rate of melting, Greenland's ice cap would shrink by less than 0.4 percent over the next century. According to recent reports, Greenland's ice cap is now losing about 57 cubic miles of ice annually. If that rate were sustained over the next 100 years, a little over 0.8 percent of the ice cap would melt away into the oceans.

Michaels also talked about the recent steep reduction in summer Arctic sea ice. However, he pointed to research by UCLA biological geographer Glen MacDonald and his colleagues who found that the Eurasian tree line reached as far as the shores of the Arctic Ocean 9,000 to 7,000 years ago. Why? Because "the mean July temperatures along the northern coastline of Russia may have been 2.5° to 7.0° celsius warmer than modern [ones]." This implies considerably reduced Arctic sea ice cover lasting for centuries in the past. Michaels noted in passing that polar bears survived that warmer period. Although Michaels did not mention it (one can't throw everything into one talk, after all), expanding boreal forests would darken the earth's surface which could in turn accelerate Arctic warming.

Michaels ended by asking, "How much will it warm?" He suggested that the constant rate of +0.17 degrees centigrade per decade is likely. What does he think we should do about that warming? Michaels worries that regulatory responses that aim to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions now will slow economic growth and technological progress, making future generations poorer and less able to address the challenges of man-made climate change.

The Heartland conference has presentations from over 100 participants over the next two days, so it's going to be hard to choose among them. For now, my second dispatch will focus on some of the scientific analyses of climate models and economic projections.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.