TCS Daily

Climate Science Rx: A Manhattan Project of Research

By James K. Glassman - June 19, 2001 12:00 AM

Remarks by James K. Glassman
Seminar on Climate Change
American Enterprise Institute, Washington, D.C.

Adam Smith wrote that "science is the antidote for enthusiasm and superstition." Unfortunately, in the hands of enthusiasts and superstitionists - or, in our own era, ideologues - unsound science can become a powerful tool for mischief and harm.

The current enthusiasm over global warming is based on either unsound -- or if you want to be more modest about it, unsettled -- science. We don't know much about climate. That's the truth. We need to know more. The recent report of a dozen distinguished climate scientists, issued by the National Academy of Sciences, uses the words uncertain or uncertainty 43 times in 28 pages, and that doesn't count such phrases as "we cannot rule out" or "not known."

The problem with climate policy as embodied in the Kyoto Protocol -- which was rejected by the Senate 95-0 in July1997 but signed anyway by Al Gore in December of that year and never submitted for ratification - is that it is a drastic solution based on unsettled science. Estimates of the damage of implementing the treaty to the U.S. economy range from $100 billion to $400 billion per year, or between $1,000 and $4,000 per U.S. family. And that doesn't count the damage to the world economy, especially to developing nations. Even if they are exempt from the treaty, they will be harmed because of the damage to the U.S., the engine of the world economy.

In addition, there is no need to rush to judgment: Global warming is not a here-and-now problem. It is a problem which, if it exists at all, will be subject to mitigation decades from now. According to the projections of models, if we delay three decades in beginning to make reductions in CO2, the cost by the end of the century will be one-half degree F.

So the case I make today is very simple: Find out what the problem is before you begin implementing a drastic solution. That is what the Rio Treaty, the document that preceded Kyoto said, and it was correct.

I particularly like the metaphor used by Richard Schmalensee, dean of the Sloan School of Management at MIT and an adjunct scholar at AEI: If you catch the faint odor of something burning in your house, the correct response is not to demand that the fire department hose down the place and chop it to bits; the correct response is to investigate whether the source is a raging fire or a piece of burnt toast. Right now, the investigation into whether global warming requires a hosing-down of the global house has only just begun.

What we need now is research - a Manhattan project, a serious, expensive enterprise of basic research, funded by government, industry and foundations.

Are there no-regrets policies that might begin to solve the problem (if it exists) today, at low cost? The truth is, there aren't many. Perhaps there is nuclear power, as Bob White said. It does not use fossil fuels, but getting plants on-line is a long-term matter. We should certainly examine the use of sinks - carbon sequestration through forests and under the seas, but that appears to be very expensive. As for voluntary limitations on CO2 emissions: frankly, that notion is a little absurd. I don't think many Americans would file a 1040 tax form and send along a check if it were voluntary - and limits on greenhouse gas emissions are a similar tax.

But one area needs change now: We have to let prices perform their conservation function. I was disturbed to read in the papers today that FERC has taken action to cap electricity prices in Los Angeles. Let prices reach their proper level, and they will dampen demand in situations of low supply. Don't mess with prices.

But it is research that we need now. When it is completed, we can move to costly mitigation - if necessary.

I am not scientist, but I strongly suggest that all of you make yourselves familiar with the science. It is not really so hard. A piece that I wrote with the Harvard astrophysicist Sallie Baliunas in the current issue of the Weekly Standard gives you the outlines. And I urge you to read the report issued last week by the National Academy of Sciences, charged by President Bush with reporting on the state of the science. It is not perfect, but - despite distorted reporting of its contents - it is generally fair and informative.

But let me lay out the facts as they are known:
  1. The surface temperature of the earth has increased by about 1 degree F over the past century. [SLIDE 1] The increase was sharp in the first half of the century. There was cooling from the 1940s to the 1970s and there was an increase in surface temperatures over the past 25 years. By the way, during the cooling there was another hysteria, similar to the current one. In a huge article, Walter Sullivan wrote May 21, 1975, in the New York Times under the headline: "Scientists Ask Why World Climate is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead": "A major cooling of the climate is widely considered inevitable. Hints that it may already have begun are evident. The drop in mean temperatures since 1950 in the Northern Hemisphere has been sufficient, for example, to shorten Britain's growing season for crops by two weeks.... In 1971, according to images from earth satellites, autumn snow and ice cover increased by 1.5 million square miles." And so on. An article in Newsweek suggested covering the polar regions with soot to trap solar heat in an effort to fight this "inevitable" new ice age.
  2. 1.
  3. The 1 degree rise in surface temperature on earth over the past century has had no adverse consequences. All the talk you hear about catastrophes is based on computer projections. As Dr. White said, there is no evidence of increased tornados or flooding or hurricanes. In fact, last year, no hurricane hit the U.S. mainland for the first time in a decade, and so far this year has been generally cool. November and December were the two coldest months in the history of the U.S. Weather Bureau.
  4. 2.
  5. While surface temperatures are indicated to have risen, those readings may not be reliable. At any rate {SLIDE 2], NASA satellites recording in a more sophisticated and comprehensive way have found no warming in readings taken from the surface to a few miles up in the lower atmosphere - a condition that could not obtain, according to computer models, if the air is being heated as a result of trapped, human-generated CO2.
Let me repeat. The earth's surface appears to have heated by one degree, but the claims of warming in the range of 3 to 10 degrees over the next century are just projections made by computer models that have never been tested. Even worse, the models do not match current climate conditions.

As the National Academy report put it: "Climate models are imperfect. Their simulation skill is limited by uncertainties in their formulation, the limited size of their calculations, and the difficulty in interpreting their answers that exhibit almost as much complexity as nature."

The premise of the Kyoto Protocol was that greenhouse gases, especially CO2, pumped into the atmosphere by human activity, were heating up the planet. There is no doubt that CO2 concentrations are increasing - by about 1 percent annually in this country - and there is no doubt that CO2 can cause warming through the greenhouse effect. But the big question is how much warming? A few hundredths of a degree F, or several degrees? To answer that question, we need to know how much of the increase is natural.

There is not the slightest doubt that warming and cooling of the earth has occurred in cycles. From 800 to about 1200, we had, as Dr. White said earlier, the Medieval Warm period - well before SUVs or industry of any sort. It allowed the Vikings to cultivate Greenland. Then, a cooling began that cut the lifespan of Europeans in 1300 to 1400. Cooling continued for centuries, to the detriment of agriculture. Then warming started again in the late 19th century.

The question about today's warming is, nature or humans? It is a matter that is unresolved. As the NAS report stated:

"Because of the large and still uncertain level of natural variability inherent in the climate record and the uncertainties in the time histories of the various forcing agents (and particularly aerosols), a causal linkage between the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the observed climate changes during the 20th century cannot be unequivocally established. The fact that the magnitude of the observed warming is large in comparison to natural variability in climate models is suggestive of such a linkage, but it does not constitute proof of one because the model simulations could be deficient in natural variability on the decadal to century time scale."

It all comes down to models, and the models are poor - utterly unproven. They cannot even get current conditions right. This is not the fault of the modelers but of the immense process they are trying to model.

Take aerosols - that is, airborne particles, like soot or sulfur dioxide. These represent "a large source of uncertainty about future climate change," according to the NAS report. For one thing, they seem to influence clouds, which, along with water vapor are the most important influences on global warming - far more important than CO2.

One important strand of research examines aerosols and clouds. It is being conducted by Richard Lindzen, the distinguished Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT, and a member of the NAS panel. Working with a NASA group, Lindzen is finding that the clouds may act as a thermostat, actually shedding heat back into space if it becomes particularly high in the atmosphere. The Lindzen group estimates that if doubling the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere could increase surface temperatures by 7 degrees F, the cloud effect alone would hold that increase down to less than 2.5 degrees.

A second important area of research, conducted by Dr. Baliunas of Harvard and others, has linked magnetic activity on the sun to rising temperatures on earth. The solar activity in recent years, as you can see from this slide [SLIDE 3] is the greatest in at least the past four centuries. Other work she has done shows a remarkably tight correlation over the past 240 years in the Northern Hemisphere between solar magnetism and surface heating. Wouldn't it be amazing is the answer to global warming were... the sun!

We just don't know enough today to proceed to any steps remotely like Kyoto - or, frankly, any forced mitigation at all.

In "The Economics and Politics of Climate Change," an AEI study by Bob Hahn in 1998, a case was made "that the developed nations of the world craft an agreement for the next decade that provides a slight emission limitation and allows for a series of case studies [that]...would allow for the participation of developing countries." It cites the carbon tax in Scandinavia and the notion of tradable permits.

I disagree. Even a "slight emission limitation" would be a profound political and public-policy error because it would acknowledge the need for mitigation and would lead inevitably to more extreme measures. We would not be able to tell for certain in the early years of the emission-limitation project whether it was having an effect, and the calls for more limits would grow deafening.

No, what we need now is simply more research - a crash project, a Manhattan Project, if necessary. The U.S. is currently spending about $1.7 billion a year on climate change research and much of that figure is only related to climate-change in an oblique manner. We are spending far more than the rest of the world, as the President pointed out, but it is not enough. We need to reduce the uncertainties in the estimates for global warming. Here is the problem in brief [SLIDE 4]: The effect of a doubling of CO2 is dwarfed by the levels of uncertainty involved in what we know about clouds, ocean flux and on and on.

As for the focus of research: The greatest areas of uncertainty are water vapor in the troposphere, clouds and aerosols such as sulfur dioxide. Aerosols, to cite just one problem, either absorb sunlight and increase the greenhouse effect or reflect it and contribute to cooling. It makes a big difference which. Incredibly enough, we also need basic monitoring of the climate and, as Sen. Hagel said, we need to develop good modeling, rather than relying on the poor models of others. And we need research, as Dr. White said, on carbon management. The current inadequacies are daunting. Here is what the National Academy of Sciences said:

"The ability of the United States to assess future climate change is severely limited by the lack of a climate observing system, by inadequate computational resources, and by the general inability of government to focus resources on climate problems."

That background, it seems to me, makes a Manhattan Project-style research program the most intelligent response to the possibility of global warming.

To implement a Kyoto-style remedy to a problem that may not be remedial by humans may turn out to be expensive and counterproductive - useless, at best. Even if the earth is heating, there may well be nothing we can do about it.

Frederick Seitz put it very well when he said that temperatures were cyclical while growth in CO2 was monotonic. In other words, the earth has been heating and cooling for centuries, but CO2 buildups are new, coming mainly in the second half of the 20th century - even though warming was pronounced in the first half.

How can CO2 affect temperature in a significant way, then? Maybe it can't. In that case, trying to cool the planet by human intervention is as futile as trying to stop it from raining tomorrow.

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