TCS Daily

Theater of the Absurd

By Robert E. Davis - March 8, 2004 12:00 AM

On March 3, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held yet another in a string of congressional hearings on global warming. These events have become popular theater inside the Beltway since the late 1980s, as troupes of scientists perform in front of "concerned" senators who know that any policy they might espouse will have no detectable effect on planetary temperature for the average lifetime of each of their constituents, while having a considerable impact on their wallets.

Let's assume for a moment that a gradually warming planet is cause for great alarm. To stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at late twentieth century levels, we would have to:

1) immediately convert to nuclear energy and

2) replace a free-market energy system to one driven by government-mandated energy consumption caps.

Neither of these sounds like a strong basis for a presidential campaign, unless one has no intention of winning (see Ralph Nader).

From day one, the Bush administration's position has been clear -- implementation of greenhouse gas restrictions will harm the U.S. economy and create job loss with no measurable scientific benefit. That science is settled.

Recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) chided the Bush administration for relying on selective data and sources to support their case. This is no doubt true, as it represents standard political practice as employed by all political parties since the advent of democracy. In fact, it is the essence of Debate.

(At least the Administration is logical. UCS is well-known as the organization more responsible than any other for the destruction of the greenhouse-emissions-free nuclear power industry, all the while claiming great concern about greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels.)

But on March 3, the "world's greatest deliberative body" was in no mood for debate, even with a small "d". For 90 minutes, the committee heard about the inevitable destruction of planet Earth that will arise from climate change with nary a discouraging word or a peep of dissent from any senator or panelist. Senator John McCain (Arizona), who organized the hearing, along with Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ) expressed special indignation about the Union of Concerned Scientist's report -- a topic which McCain promised would be the subject of future dog-and-pony shows in the Senate.

A careful reading of the numerous journals articles and books on global warming present myriad global warming topics that are ripe for debate: How much will it warm? How do we know? To what extent can we trust the projections? What's the cause? Et cetera. It's almost impossible to find a scientific topic that engenders no debate -- but certainly a complex, interdisciplinary monster like global warming is a scientific topic more contentious than most.

So in the interest of advancing science by debate, here's just a smattering of questions one might have posed at the March 3rd hearing had the deck not been stacked to lend the impression that the science really is settled.

Dr. Jerry Mahlman, National Center for Atmospheric Research, testified that 50 years from now, the average Heat Index (a combination of temperature and humidity) in Washington DC during August will be as high as the most extreme values observed today.

QUESTION: Dr. Mahlman, the conditions you described for Washington DC in 50 years, today, exist in only a relatively few locations on earth -- namely in desert locations with climate conditions that act to suppress precipitation. Since the Washington DC currently receives, on average, about 45 inches of rainfall a year and since no climate model suggests a profoundly different precipitation amount in the future, the conditions you describe are physically impossible. Are you suggesting that future climate conditions will strain the realm of modern physics?

Dr. Lara Hansen, World Wildlife Fund, testified that global coral bleaching events have increased dramatically since the early 1980s when in the past they were only local events.

QUESTION: Dr. Hansen, you noted that some of these large-scale bleaching occurrences coincided with El Nino events. But El Nino events have been occurring for centuries and the frequency or severity of El Ninos cannot be demonstrably linked to global warming. Isn't coral bleaching a red herring?

QUESTION: Factors other than temperature related to coral bleaching have changed since the early 1980s, including water pollution concentrations, disease transmission, sediment loads, etc. How can you be certain that higher water temperatures are the root cause, especially given that corals tend to be found around the globe in some of the warmest waters?

Dr. Robert Corell
, Chairman, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, testified that warming is preferentially harming the Arctic ecosystem via increased temperatures, lengthening of the frost-free season, less summer sea-ice, changing mammal habitats, etc., that are having major impacts on the native populace.

QUESTION: Sir, you correctly noted that this warming trend could ease transportation and commerce between nations that border the Arctic Ocean as seasonal ice is reduced, and that agriculture may become possible as warming, a longer growing season, and high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels favor plant growth. On a cost-benefit basis, how is climate change necessarily a net negative for these nations?

Dr. Lee Hannah
, Conservation International, testified that climate change will exacerbate habitat loss and result in massive species extinctions, perhaps on the order of millions of species (approximately 10 percent of all species on earth), possibly by the end of this century.

QUESTION: Dr. Hannah, the global region with the greatest species diversity is the tropics. Your model, by design, can only decrease the number of species, a historically inaccurate assessment of changing life on earth. Given that the current and future climate should be generally warmer and wetter, why should be believe a model that makes a prediction that is exactly opposite of ecological history and current observations of species diversity?

QUESTION: Your model, assuming warming of 0.8°C, forecasts about 20% reduction in species. In the last one hundred years, global temperatures have risen by 0.8°C. Please list for me some of the hundreds of thousands of species that have been lost since the year 1900 because of climate change.

The not-so-transparent point of this hearing was to drum up support for the McCain-Lieberman energy bill (S. 139) that would impose a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, and which would ultimately be a tax passed on to consumers. But based upon the same simple calculations used to compute the impact that implementation of the Kyoto Protocol restrictions on global temperatures, implementation of the McCain-Lieberman tax would have no measurable impact on temperatures.

Of course, the purpose of S. 139 is not really to address climate change, it is to further the political leverage of its adherents. No doubt some citizens will find this to be a less-than-worthwhile use of their hard-earned salaries.

Robert E. Davis, Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia.


TCS Daily Archives