TCS Daily

End the Scare, Report the Uncertainty of Global Warming

By Duane D. Freese - May 25, 2001 12:00 AM

"New research findings have identified declines in the extent of Arctic sea ice and its thickness over the past several decades. The average thickness from the ice surface to the bottom of the ice pack has declined by about 40 percent. A related study ... estimate(s) the probability that the observed trends could be caused entirely by natural variability is less than 2 percent. This research suggests that human activities are very likely contributing to the loss of Arctic ice."

That is how the U.S. Global Change Research Program public relations department characterized one of the group's top accomplishments last year. The report of the Arctic meltdown was greeted with doomsday headlines and as confirmation of humans being the source of global warming. In January, the World Resources Institute even trumpeted that finding as a reason President George W. Bush should resume climate talks and seek ratification of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, an action that would require a 30 percent cut in U.S. fossil fuel use at substantial cost to workers and the economy.

In recent weeks, though, there's been some good news about Arctic ice that the media have chosen to ignore. A Swedish researcher, performing a re-examination of the data garnered on Arctic ice by U.S. submarine measurements, reported in Geophysical Research Letters in March that there has been no thinning of ice in the Arctic Sea for the last dozen years. In April, at an international meeting of Arctic scientists, Greg Holloway, a Canadian scientist who has studied the Arctic for decades, provided a reason for the discrepancy: Arctic ice oscillates with the winds in 50 year cycles. The submarines' measurements didn't take the movement into account.

The point of this is not to say that the initial Arctic ice study was bad science or that the most recent reports are free of flaws. It is to caution the public and policymakers against being rushed to action by scaremongers and the media who broadcast their message. For the science of climate change, despite what proponents of the theory of global warming claim, is hardly settled. It is filled with uncertainty.

This is not a narrowly held view. It was the message delivered in a National Academy of Science's report, "Global Environmental Change: Research Pathways for the Next Decade." The report issued in 1999 was requested by the government as a critique of the first decade of research into global climate change and as a guide for the next decade.

It's important to appreciate the efforts of scientists drawn together to explore issues of public import. And the media often pick up NAS findings and report them to the public. What was noticeable about the "Pathways" report and subsequent follow-ups is the absence of attention by the press. The question is why? Is it because this report upset - as do the studies on Arctic ice -- the preconceived notions that the science of climate change is settled and mankind is its cause?

A key conclusion of the NAS scientists was that "a great deal more needs to be understood ... about global environmental change before we concentrate on 'mitigation' science." It warned that: "Anthropogenic global change (that is, climate changes caused by mankind) cannot be assessed without adequate understanding and documentation of natural climate variability on time-scales of years to centuries - in other words, without adequate baseline understanding." It found that "the impressive, and abrupt, swings in climate recorded over the past several thousand years may, if anything, understate the potential for natural climate variability."

The report noted uncertainties in measurement of sea level and temperature. It posed a dozen research questions about greenhouse gases that needed answering. It raised serious reservations about the modeling being used as confirmation of global warming. It called for better observations of conditions on the lands, oceans and in the atmosphere before drawing meaningful conclusions. Follow up NAS reports have reiterated many of these same reservations. A report "The Science of Regional and Global Change: Putting Knowledge to Work," for example, noted: "We still do not have sufficient knowledge or analytical capability to fully assess the magnitude of ... (environmental) changes."

Such findings point to the need not for rapid action by policymakers, as pushed by certain European diplomats and environmental organizations, but for more research on climate and its variability. And those researchers shouldn't be pressured by politics or encouraged by publicity to find a particular answer. They should be given the space, the time, the funding and support to seek and find the truth.

The science of climate change today does not call for rash action that could raise havoc with economies worldwide and even cause worse damage to the environment over time. Indeed, the science tells us such self-inflicted economic damage is unnecessary, unwarranted and foolish. It is time that story came out.


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