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A Global Warming Primer

Mises Daily: Wednesday, April 25, 2001 by

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On Earth Day, environmentalists again made appearances on the news, predicting that global warming will mean the end of life as we know it. As more Americans become aware that anthropogenic (caused or produced by humans) global warming is a hoax, the people who make their incomes from scaring us must increase their efforts.  For those readers who are not aware of the mounting evidence against global warming, here is a brief history.

What is global warming?  Theoretically, it is when the greenhouse gases—water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.—accumulate in the atmosphere and trap heat that normally would have been allowed to escape.  All of these gases exist naturally.  The problem, according to environmentalists, is that humans are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thereby are disrupting the natural carbon cycle.  How are we doing this?  By burning fossil fuels, which release stored carbon, and by deforestation, since trees absorb carbon dioxide and are approximately 50 percent carbon by weight.

The environmentalists claim to have scientific proof that global warming is occurring.  In order to examine the evidence, we must go back to the beginning.  How many of us remember the early-1970s scientists who warned of global cooling?  In 1973, Douglas Colligan published an article in Science Digest entitled "Brace Yourself for Another Ice Age."  The information in the article came from Stephen Schneider, a Stanford scientist who, more recently, was a participant in Clinton’s Global Climate Change Roundtable. In the '70s, Schneider used computer models to attempt to forecast future climates.  Computer models in the early 1970s—need I say more?  But that wasn’t the end.

By the mid-1980s, Schneider and most other scientists had changed their tune.  Computer modeling had become more sophisticated (now we had DOS!), and it was announced that ice wasn’t creeping down from the north, but instead that ice was going to melt at the poles and cover the coastal cities.  So . . . is this happening?

The computer models themselves must make some pretty heroic assumptions on how nature works.  A key ingredient is knowing how much carbon is being released by man and how much is being absorbed by nature.  Unfortunately, even this necessary variable is beyond our grasp.  According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, approximately 1.6 billion tons of carbon are missing from the annual balance (IPCC-I, 1990a, p. 14).  That is, one third of the carbon necessary to make these environmental forecasts is missing from the equation!

This should be old news.  In 1988 testimony before the Senate, James Hansen, the chief of NASA’s Goddard Institute, claimed that, "the [human-caused] greenhouse effect has been detected and it is changing our climate now."  However, in October 1998, Dr. Hansen changed his tune.  In that month’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Hansen stated, "The forces that drove long-term climate change are not known with an accuracy sufficient to define future climate change."

One question I often hear in response to this is, "What about the physical evidence?"  The fact is, there is no physical evidence supporting the global-warming theory.  The closest thing to evidence that can be produced is 40 years' worth of temperature measurements in major metropolitan areas.  The problem here is that metropolitan areas create what are known as heat islands: The concrete and steel absorb and store heat and distort the readings.  

Attempts are made to adjust for this phenomenon, but no serious scientist who has ever studied the numbers can seriously accept this as evidence.  Furthermore, this tortured data directly contradicts NASA’s Tiros weather satellites (arguably the most accurate measurements of global warming), which show that the earth has actually cooled slightly since 1979.

With all of these facts, one must ask why the deceit continues?  The first reason is federal government money.  As reported by James Sheehan of the Capital Research Center in 1998, "recent-selected EPA grants to nonprofit organizations"—such as the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, the Climate Institute, and the World Wildlife Fund—amounted to $12.2 million.  It is not a stretch to imagine what people will say in order to protect their portion of $12.2 million.  

Another group perpetuating the global-warming myth consists of those who would "profit" if fossil-fuel production were to be forcefully reduced—researchers in solar power and other alternative fuel sources, for instance.  Finally, there are the good, old-fashioned con men, like Dr. Robert Liburdy.  Dr. Liburdy recently has been charged by the federal government for "deliberately [creating] ‘artificial’ data where no such data existed."  What was this data for?  Liburdy is the man who, in 1992, claimed that his data proved a link between power lines and cancer, thereby starting his own nationwide scare.

So, the question that Americans must ask is this: "Do environmental problems exist?"  The answer is yes, they do—but anthropogenic global warming is not one of them.  Unfortunately, as long as people are distracted by the myths, their attention will not be centered on the facts.

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Rob Blackstock teaches environmental economics and is a Ph.D. candidate at Auburn University. Send him mail. See also Mises.org on Earthday. Finally, see Sheehan's article Goverment and the Weather