TCS Daily

Who Is In Denial?

By Sallie Baliunas - December 12, 2002 12:00 AM

The Bush Administration last week finished a three-day conference on the science and potential risks posed by climate change. The Administration's critics wasted no time. They pounced Monday and called for the U.S. to push ahead with the Kyoto Protocol and condemned the White House for being "in denial on warming" (Boston Globe, 12/9/02), for trying to "stall any meaningful action" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 12/9/02) and saying that the U.S. must stop being "unilateralist" and "must listen to others" (Los Angeles Times, 12/9/02).

What the debate over climate change needs today are fewer uninformed assertions and accusations in major newspapers, and a more sober assessment of the science. Here are just of few of the most relevant facts often ignored by Kyoto's proponents.

The Kyoto Protocol assumes human activities - such as burning fossil fuels to power automobiles or electricity generators - cause global warming. Here are the facts.

Greenhouse gases, clouds and aerosols in the atmosphere trap some of the solar radiation reflected from the Earth's surface. This causes a natural "greenhouse effect" that warms the earth and makes it habitable. Those gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and water vapor (H2O). Water vapor provides most of the greenhouse effect.

During the last 300 years, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have risen from 275 parts per million (ppmv) to around 360 ppmv, a 30% increase. Most of the increase has been recent, caused by fossil fuel burning and deforestation.

Those who fear human-induced global warming believe that unless we curb CO2 emissions, the greenhouse effect will intensify and warm the planet with disastrous consequences.

Contrary to Kyoto rhetoric, the increase in atmospheric CO2 content - while clearly linked to post-WWII industrialization - is not a significant driver of global warming. Here's why.

Over the last 150,000 years, CO2 levels have closely paralleled temperatures. However, detailed analysis indicates that CO2 levels often rose and peaked several hundred years after temperature did. That means climate change drives major changes in CO2, not the reverse.

Climate has been both warmer and colder in the past, before significant fossil fuel use. From about 900 to 1300 AD, for example, the climate was warmer than it is today. A 500-year cooling followed, then a warming trend since the mid-1800's.

The 20th century surface temperature record shows three trends: First, a warming trend of about 0.5 C, peaking around 1940. Next, a cooling trend occurred from 1940 until the late 1970's, followed by the recent warming trend. But 80% of the CO2 from human activities was added to the air after 1940. That means the early 20th Century warming and the mid-century cooling trends were largely natural, not CO2-driven.

Computer simulations of human-made global warming predict significant temperature warming not only near the Earth's surface but also from one to five miles altitude, in a layer called the lower troposphere. But NASA and NOAA records show that the temperature of the lower troposphere varies as a result of natural factors. No meaningful human-caused warming trend - as forecast by the computer simulations - can be found.

Computer simulations all have forecast warming trends much steeper over the last several decades than what was actually seen. The forecasts exaggerate somewhat the warming at the surface, and profoundly in the lower troposphere. Further, computer models that Kyoto's proponents point to predicting catastrophic human-induced global warming have consistently failed to reproduce accurately past and present climate changes. So the100-year forecasts predicting catastrophe are suspect.

There is strong evidence, moreover, that variation in the Sun's energy output is a much more significant driver of surface temperature than human-made greenhouse gases. Temperatures over the past 250 years show a strong correlation to the energy output of the sun (see chart below). The sun's shorter magnetic cycles are more intense, suggesting periods of a brighter sun, then a fainter sun during longer cycles.

Changes in the Sun's magnetism (as evidenced by the changing length of the 22-year, or Hale Polarity Cycle, dotted line) and changes in smoothed Northern Hemisphere land temperature through 1986 (solid line) are closely correlated. The record of reconstructed Northern Hemisphere land temperature substitutes for global temperature, which is unavailable back to 1700 (S. Baliunas and W. Soon, 1995, Astrophysical Journal, 450, 896).

Science and new technology have always provided solutions to problems that mankind has faced. The matter of climate and energy supply will be no different.

For example, a new program - the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) - was recently launched at Stanford University, with the support of several visionary companies. The program seeks to raise efficiency - a laudable goal on its own merits. As energy technologies advance, carbon dioxide emissions per unit of economic output will continue to decline, as history shows it does when technology and economic growth work to advance energy supplies. Powered by the private sector and unfettered by flawed Kyoto-type governmental mandates, the approach is pro-science, pro-technology, pro-environment and pro-people.

Western governments and businesses should continue their leadership positions in studying climate science still further to obtain a better understanding before risking the detrimental economic consequences of a Kyoto Protocol based on incomplete and dubious science. When it to comes to climate change, humans haven't been the culprits. But by using science and technology, humans will develop the ways to best adapt to the world's ever-changing climate.

Dr. Sallie Baliunas is Enviro-Sci host of TCS. Dr. Tim Patterson is a professor of geology (paleoclimatology) in the Department of Earth Sciences at Carleton University in Ottawa. Allan M. R. MacRae is a professional engineer, investment banker and environmentalist. Views expressed are not necessarily those of any institution with which the authors are affiliated.

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