TCS Daily

"The First Refuge of Scoundrels"

By George Taylor - December 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Oregon and Washington and 10 other states are suing the Bush administration over its refusal to regulate carbon dioxide emissions linked to global warming. The lawsuit stems from the recent declaration by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that carbon dioxide (CO2) and other "greenhouse gases" (GHGs) are not pollutants.


Regulating CO2 as a pollutant would significantly increase energy prices, especially for electricity. Consumers would pay substantially higher electricity bills in the future -- 43 percent higher in 2010 and 38 percent higher in 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Transportation and space heating prices would also rise significantly.


And what do we gain from such an expensive undertaking? Almost nothing. Dr. Tom Wigley, Senior Scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, calculated that if every nation met its obligations under the well-known Kyoto Accord of 1997, the temperature of the atmosphere would be only 1/8 of a degree F cooler in 2050 than if "business as usual" were to occur. Such a miniscule change would be undetectable.


And what about the evidence that CO2 is directly responsible for global warming? Computerized climate models predict rapidly rising global temperatures, but data from weather balloons and satellites indicate only minimal warming over the last 25 years. These same climate models formed the basis for the series of global climate treaties such as the Kyoto Accord. Scientists who backed these treaties said that the science is "settled" and "compelling"; in fact, scientific experts still strongly disagree on the evidence. The majority of State Climatologists, who are responsible for managing climate data and determining long-term trends in climate, remain unconvinced about the global warming "problem" and believe that natural climate variations are much more significant than human effects.


Again and again I hear things like "nearly all scientists agree that global warming is a serious problem that must be addressed now," or something of the sort. I'm sure you've heard it, too. My advice: don't believe it! Thousands of scientists and doctors have spoken out against the Kyoto Accord and similar greenhouse treaties. Those who favor the treaties have long claimed that only a small "fringe group" remains skeptical, and that there exists an overwhelming consensus of scientists who fear global warming. 


The writer and best-selling author Michael Crichton, M.D., addresses the rise of "consensus science":


"I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had. The work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus."


So let's look at what the science does tell us.


Eight of the 12 states in the lawsuit are coastal states and are fearful of sea level rise and coastal erosion resulting from global warming. In actuality, increased evaporation from the ocean is expected to lead to greater accumulation of polar ice and a lowering of sea level. This is confirmed by studies which have shown inverse correlations between sea level rate of rise and tropical sea surface temperature.


In Oregon, the 1990s were a warm decade, especially compared with the 1950s and 1960s. The warmest decade of the last century, however, was the 1930s, which occurred prior to the big growth in GHGs during and after World War II. This is true as well for the U.S. as a whole.


Severe storms and hurricanes have diminished in the past 50 years, even as the atmosphere has warmed somewhat. This if what we would expect, since atmospheric physics tells us that a warmer world causes a reduced north-south temperature gradient, which in turn causes a weakening of storms and severe weather.


Oregon agriculture will probably benefit from climate warming and higher precipitation. Higher CO2 leads to more rapid plant growth, since CO2 acts as a powerful "aerial fertilizer" for plants. Warmer nights and winters lead to a longer growing season. Evidence from history tells us that warmer climate periods are beneficial for human activities, food production, and health, while cold periods have had the opposite effect.


My bottom line: climate will change, but most of that change will be due to natural variations rather than human factors. Mandatory controls on energy use can cause economic hardship, especially for poor people and poor nations. The 12-state lawsuit to regulate CO2 emissions is a bad idea, and I regret that my state is one of the litigants.


George H. Taylor is State Climatologist for Oregon and faculty member, Oregon State University, Corvallis.


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