TCS Daily

Melting Matters

By Roger Bate - October 2, 2003 12:00 AM

The largest ice shelf in the Arctic is breaking up and most of Europe just experienced a very warm summer. As expected, those professors, lobbyists and green protestors who make their living promoting the coming apocalypse due to global warming made a fuss about it. Canadian polar scientists are blaming accelerated regional warming for the ice shelf collapse and their European counterparts continue to make the most of the now dwindling European heat to further their agenda to promote the notion that climate change is dangerously sending us towards oblivion.


The latest concern is that melting glaciers and collapsing ice shelves will lead to a massive water crisis. The left-wing British newspaper The Guardian claims that 'climate change is causing increasingly rapid melting of the ice' and that this will damage 'communities that rely on meltwater for irrigation, hydroelectric schemes and drinking'. The loss of ice will 'increase sea levels worldwide'. Even where glaciers are expanding in Scandinavia (and Alaska) this is apparently due to increased snowfall 'also caused by climate change'. So whether it is an expanding or a receding glacier, human-induced climate change is to blame.


For two decades, scientists have recorded the collapse of massive ice shelves in the Antarctic but the study by Laval University researchers published recently is the first evidence of a similar climate effect in the northern polar region. The Arctic is one of the few areas on the planet where there has been consistent warming over the past 30 years, about 1.5F above normal, and so any signs of ice change are immediately linked by the world's media to man's greenhouse gas emissions. But even the experts admit they don't really know why the ice shelf is changing. "There are likely to be more surprises like this. We simply don't understand the sea ice system in the Arctic," said John Stone, a senior climate change expert with Environment Canada.


Recent high European temperatures (about 5 F higher than the normal long run trend) definitely caused glaciers to recede. But last winter also delivered an increase in the number of atmospheric high pressure systems over the Alps, which caused a significant drop in snow flurries; consequently glaciers were not replenished.


According to David Collins, professor of physical geography at the University of Salford, European glaciers melted more this year than at any time in his professional experience. In the long run 'when the glaciers disappear, there will be no meltwater at all, and it will reduce as the glaciers get smaller and survive only on the highest mountains', he said.


Further afield the situation is considered to be just as dire. A recent study by University of Oxford scholar Stephen Harrison said that African glaciers would disappear within 20 years if trends continued. Most worrying is the impending demise of the glaciers at the headwaters of the River Nile. Furthermore, in central Asia Kazakhstan's glaciers have lost 125 billion cubic yards of water in the past fifty years.


There are significant flaws with many studies on glaciers, the most significant being a selection bias in those projects that are funded. For the past decade the EU has mainly funded studies that discover receding glaciers, deliberately not studying whether glaciers are receding. Given the number of glaciers in the world, one will always find some, even perhaps a majority, that are receding. But given the inherent selection bias it doesn't prove a great deal when the media talk up studies showing receding glaciers. If one wanted to study Scandinavian glacier expansion, funding by EU Governments would not be so forthcoming. This problem sheds doubt on, and unfairly undermines, well-conducted studies (probably including those done by Drs Collins and Harrison), since one is uncertain what is being omitted in research in Europe.


The resulting media hand wringing has reinforced European support for the Kyoto climate protocol, and increased attacks on the United States for not complying with it. But regardless of what the Europeans say it is extremely unlikely that America will comply, not least because its own glaciers are increasing in size (at least the major ones in Alaska). Also the more balanced funding to US research institutions is leading to studies that analyse receding, as well as advancing, glaciers on a global basis. The result will be a furthering of American scepticism about impending doom, ultimately polarising opinion against Europe's pro-Kyoto stance.


Furthermore according to a recent study by Yale economist Robert Mendelsohn, there is likely to be a small net benefit to the US from global warming. In addition, recent economic studies in Europe show that the financial stagnation from attempting to reduce emissions is significant. Germany is already losing billions of dollars a year and Spain, Britain and the Netherlands will lose as badly. Growth rates, already low in Europe, will fall even further. America has just escaped a recession and President Bush, coming into an election year, will do nothing to harm his re-election hopes.


European Governments may feel that recent media coverage on the imminent danger of climate change (and the thousands of deaths due to the summer heat) will stop complaints about high gas prices. But EU leaders faced a revolt two and a half years ago when they tried to raise energy taxes from their already high levels. In Britain -- which with Italy has the highest gasoline taxes in Europe -- working men and women staged sit-ins at gas stations. And this kind of protest will probably increase once the cold of winter sets in across Europe -- lower after-tax incomes make paying exorbitant heating bills that much more difficult.


Roger Bate is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


TCS Daily Archives