The burning of fossil fuels to generate energy produces carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas which, everything else being equal, could lead to some warming of the global climate. Most scientists believe the Earth experienced a small rise in temperatures during the second half of the twentieth century, but they are unsure how large a role human activities may have played.
The important questions from a public policy perspective are: How much of the warming is natural? How sure are we that it will continue? Would continued warming be beneficial or harmful?
The answers, in brief, are: Probably two-thirds of the warming in the 1990s was due to natural causes; the warming trend already has stopped and forecasts of future warming are unreliable; and the benefits of a moderate warming are likely to outweigh the costs.
Global warming, in other words, is not a crisis.
Why Does Heartland Address Global Warming?
The Heartland Institute has been studying global warming since 1994, when it produced Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism (Madison Books). Heartland is a national nonprofit research and education organization that focuses on economics, not science. So why have we become, in the words of the science journal Nature, “a major force among climate sceptics”? (Tollefson, 2011)
We were made curious by the fact that every single environmental group in the U.S. says global warming is “real” and a “crisis,” even though there was in 1994, and still is today, considerable debate going on in the scientific community. Many of the world’s most distinguished scientists believe climate processes are too poorly understood to support calls for immediate action or predictions of catastrophic global warming (Solomon, 2008).
The reason for the consensus among environmentalists is simple: If AGW is true, then stopping or preventing it requires higher taxes, more income redistribution, more wilderness preservation, more regulations on corporations, “smart growth,” subsidies for renewable energy, and on and on. In other words, many of the policies already on the liberal political agenda. Liberals have no reason to “look under the hood” of the global warming scare, to see what the real science says. They believe in global warming because they feel it justifies their ideological convictions (Hulme, 2009).
Independents, conservatives, and libertarians – about 80 percent of the general population, according to surveys, but less than 20 percent of journalists and academics – don’t want to go down the road to higher taxes and more regulations unless it is necessary. They open the hood of the global warming scare and look at the real science. They study the issue and come to understand it. Based on that understanding – not ideological conviction or belief – they conclude global warming is not a crisis.
The Heartland Institute “looked under the hood” and concluded concern over the possibility of catastrophic global warming was being manufactured to advance a political agenda. We then took upon ourselves the task of publicizing the scientific uncertainty behind the global warming scare and documenting the high costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions – economic costs as well as the loss of freedom.
And now you know why an economic think tank is so prominent in a scientific debate. We do not do this to raise money from oil companies or others with a stake in the issue – oil companies never contributed more than 5 percent of our annual budgets, and they give a trivial amount today. We challenge claims that climate change is a crisis because our pursuit of the truth led us to this position.
Isn’t There a Consensus?
Science doesn’t advance by “consensus.” A single scientist or study can disprove a theory that is embraced by the vast majority of scientists. The search for a consensus is actually part of what philosophers call “post-normal science,” which isn’t really science at all. Still, many people ask: What do scientists believe?
Most surveys cited by those who claim there is a consensus ask questions that are too vague to settle the matter. It is important to distinguish between the statement that global warming is a crisis and the similar-sounding but very different statements that the climate is changing and that there is a human impact on climate. Climate is always changing, and every scientist knows this. Our emissions and alterations of the landscape are surely having impacts on climate, though they are often local or regional (like heat islands) and small relative to natural variation.
It is easy to find evidence that scientists disagree about climate change. Climate Change Reconsidered cites thousands of articles appearing in peer-reviewed journals that challenge the basic underlying assumptions of AGW (Idso and Singer, 2009). More than 30,000 scientists have signed a petition saying there is no threat that man-made global warming will pose a threat to humanity or nature (Petition Project).
Alarmists often cite an essay by Naomi Oreskes claiming to show that virtually all articles about global warming in peer-reviewed journals support the so-called consensus. But a no-less-rigorous study by Benny Peiser that attempted to replicate her results searched the abstracts of 1,117 scientific journal articles on “global climate change” and found only 13 (1 percent) explicitly endorse the “consensus view” while 34 reject or cast doubt on the view that human activity has been the main driver of warming over the past 50 years. A more recent search by Klaus-Martin Schulte of 928 scientific papers published from 2004 to February 2007 found fewer than half explicitly or implicitly endorse the so-called consensus and only 7 percent do so explicitly (Schulte, 2008).
A survey that is frequently cited as showing consensus actually proves just the opposite. German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch have surveyed climate scientists three times, in 1996, 2003, and 2007 (Bray and von Storch, 2010). Their latest survey found most of these scientists say they believe global warming is man-made and is a serious problem, but most of these same scientists do not believe climate science is sufficiently advanced to predict future climate conditions. For two-thirds of the science questions asked, scientific opinion is deeply divided, and in half of those cases, most scientists disagree with positions that are at the foundation of the alarmist case (Bast, 2011).
On August 2, 2011, von Storch posted the following comment on a blog: “From our own observations of discussions among climate scientists we also find hardly consensus [sic] on many other issues, ranging from changing hurricane statistics to the speed of melting Greenland and Antarctica, spreading of diseases and causing mass migration and wars” (von Storch, 2011).
These are not minor issues. Extreme weather events, melting ice, and the spread of disease are all major talking points for Al Gore and other alarmists in the climate debate. If there is no consensus on these matters, then “skeptics” are right to ask why we should believe global warming is a crisis.
How can scientists say they believe global warming is a problem, but at the same time not believe there is sufficient scientific evidence to predict future climate conditions? Either this is hollow careerism and ought to be subject to public criticism, or it is cognitive dissonance – holding two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time. If the latter, it is probably caused by the complexity of the issue (we must trust the judgment of scientists working in other fields to form opinions on subjects we are not ourselves expert about) and its close association with social and economic agendas (we want to believe something is true even if our own research suggests it is not).
This is not an unreasonable claim or an attack on the integrity of working scientists. It is a standard theme in many books on the history of science, dating back at least as far as Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and as recently as Mike Hulme’s 2009 tome, Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Hulme, not incidentally, is no skeptic: He contributes to the alarmist IPCC reports and works at the University of East Anglia (home of the Climategate scandal). Even he admits that his position is based on belief rather than scientific understanding and is inseparable from his partisan political beliefs.
Bray and von Storch, in an essay in 1999 reporting on the results of their first survey, remarked on how a willingness to make predictions and recommendations about public policy that aren’t supported by actual science is a sign of “post-normal science,” or the willingness to rely on “consensus” rather than actual scientific knowledge when the risks are perceived as being great (Bray and von Storch, 1999). Scientists who express beliefs about global warming that they can’t support with real science are sharing opinions shaped by ideology and trust. Their beliefs should be given no more weight than the beliefs of nonscientists.
Natural or Man-Made?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an agency of the United Nations, claims the warming that has occurred since the mid-twentieth century “is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (IPCC, 2007). Many climate scientists disagree with the IPCC on this key issue. As Idso and Singer wrote in 2009,
The IPCC does not apply generally accepted methodologies to determine what fraction of current warming is natural, or how much is caused by the rise in greenhouse gases (GHG). A comparison of “fingerprints” from best available observations with the results of state-of-the-art GHG models leads to the conclusion that the (human-caused) GHG contribution is minor. This fingerprint evidence, though available, was ignored by the IPCC.
The IPCC continues to undervalue the overwhelming evidence that, on decadal and century-long time scales, the Sun and associated atmospheric cloud effects are responsible for much of past climate change. It is therefore highly likely that the Sun is also a major cause of twentieth-century warming, with anthropogenic GHG making only a minor contribution. In addition, the IPCC ignores, or addresses imperfectly, other science issues that call for discussion and explanation (Idso and Singer, 2009).
Scientists who study the issue say it is impossible to tell if the recent small warming trend is natural, a continuation of the planet’s recovery from the more recent “Little Ice Age,” or unnatural, the result of human greenhouse gas emissions. Thousands of peer-reviewed articles point to natural sources of climate variability that could explain some or even all of the warming in the second half of the twentieth century (Idso and Singer, 2009). S. Fred Singer and Dennis Avery documented natural climate cycles of approximately 1,500 years going back hundreds of thousands of years (Singer and Avery, second edition 2008).
It is clear from climate records that the Earth was warmer than it is now in recorded human history, before man-made greenhouse gas emissions could have been the cause. We know enough about how the Earth’s climate works to know that biological and physical processes remove CO2 from the atmosphere at a faster rate when concentration levels are higher and release more heat into space when temperatures rise. These feedback factors and radiative forcings are poorly modeled or missing from the computer models that alarmists use to make their forecasts.
The arguments are complex, but the debate over natural versus man-made climate change is unquestionably still ongoing. The more we learn, the less likely it becomes that human greenhouse gas emissions can explain more than a small amount of the climate change we witness.
How Much Warming?
NASA satellite data recorded since 1979 allow us to check the accuracy of claims that the past three decades have been warming at an alarming rate. The data show a warming rate of 0.123 degrees C per decade. This is considerably less than what land-based temperature stations report during the same time period, and which are relied on by the IPCC (Christy, 2009). If the Earth’s temperature continues to rise at the rate of the past three decades, the planet would see only 1.23 degrees C warming over the course of an entire century.
Most climate scientists, even “skeptics,” acknowledge that rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere would, all other things held constant, cause some small amount of warming. Alarmists claim that small amount will trigger increases in the amount of moisture in the atmosphere, which in turn will cause further warming. But other scientists have found no evidence of rising levels of moisture in those areas of the atmosphere where the models claim it should be found. Without this “amplification,” there is no global warming crisis (Singer, 2011).
While the global climate warmed slightly during the 1980s and 1990s, it has not warmed at all since 2000, and there is some evidence that a cooling trend has begun (Taylor, 2007). This contradicts the predictions of the IPCC and poses a challenge to the theory that CO2 concentrations play a major role in global temperature trends. It confirms the views of many less-politicized climate scientists who acknowledge that the global climate is always warming or cooling (Michaels, 2005; Christy, 2006).
The scientific community’s lack of certainty about future climate trends is rooted in the shortcomings of computer models. These models are the centerpiece of the IPCC’‘s reports, yet it is widely recognized that they fail to account for changes in precipitation, water vapor, and clouds that are likely to occur in a warmer world. It is a case of “garbage in, garbage out.”
If we cannot predict how much warming will occur, how can we claim that continued human emissions of greenhouse gases is harmful?
Global Warming Benefits as Well as Harms
Alarmists claim global warming will cause massive flooding, more violent weather, famines, and other catastrophic consequences. If these claims are true, then we should have seen evidence of this trend during the twentieth century. Idso and Singer (2009) provide extensive evidence that no such trends have been observed. Even von Storch (2011) admits there is no consensus on these matters.
The preponderance of scientific data suggest sea levels are unlikely to rise by more than several inches, weather may actually become more mild, and since most warming occurs at night and during the winter season, it has little adverse effect (and some positive effect) on plants and wildlife. Hurricanes are likely to diminish, not increase, in frequency or severity (Spencer, 2008; Singer and Avery, 2008).
Higher levels of CO2 have a well-documented fertilizing effect on plants and make them more drought-resistant. Warmer temperatures are also likely to be accompanied by higher soil moisture levels and more frequent rain, leading to a “greening of the Earth” that is dramatically different from the “parched Earth” scenario featured in many biased and agenda-driven documentary films (Idso, 1995).
The current best estimate is that, if left unaddressed, by 2060 global warming is likely to have a small (0.2 percent of GDP) positive effect on the U.S. economy and a small (1 to 2 percent of GDP) negative effect on the global economy (Mendelsohn and Neumann, 1999). These estimates are very small and speculative.
Reducing Emissions is Expensive
While the likelihood that global warming would be a crisis was never large and is getting even smaller as new research is reported, we know the cost of reducing man-made greenhouse gas emissions would be high.
An analysis of a carbon “cap-and-trade” proposal considered by the U.S. Senate in 2008 – the Lieberman-Warner Act – found it would destroy between 1.2 and 1.8 million jobs in 2020 and between 3 and 4 million jobs in 2030; impose a financial cost on U.S. households of $739 to $2,927 per year by 2020, rising to $4,022 to $6,752 by 2030; and would increase the price of gasoline between 60 percent and 144 percent by 2030 and the price of electricity by 77 percent to 129 percent (National Association of Manufacturers/ACCF, 2008).
States that try to reduce emissions on their own are likely to incur costs 10 times greater than a national program because businesses and residents would find it easier to move to nearby states with lower energy costs or less-burdensome regulations and because states would have to rely on more costly command-and control regulatory approaches (Bast, Taylor, and Lehr, 2003).
The record of existing emissions trading programs gives little basis for supposing a massively bigger regime would work. The sulfur dioxide trading program, often pointed to as a model, succeeded only because railroad deregulation made low-cost, low-sulfur coal available from the Powder River Basin (Johnston, 1998).
European emissions trading programs have been characterized by low trading volumes, high price volatility, and mostly paper transactions that do not result in actual reductions in emissions. Most European countries are far behind schedule in meeting their emission reduction goals under the Kyoto Protocol.
So what should be done about global warming? Actually, a lot is being done: The federal government of the U.S. is spending billions of dollars every year on research. State and federal governments are massively subsidizing ethanol producers and wind and solar power generators in the name of “reducing carbon emissions.” Billions of dollars more are being spent by businesses and consumers complying with regulations that are said to be justified by concern over global warming.
In light of the compelling scientific evidence that global warming is not a crisis, policymakers should consider reducing current spending on climate change and repealing regulations and mandates that were previously justified by fear of global warming. More specifically, they should consider the following policies:
- Oppose higher energy taxes or carbon “”cap-and-trade”“ programs.
- Repeal renewable energy mandates that require utilities and their customers to buy high-priced electricity from solar and wind companies.
- Support research independent from government research programs that are biased toward alarmism.
- Remove barriers to energy conservation embedded in state and local laws and regulations, such as restrictive building codes and zoning ordinances.
- Support research and, if appropriate, capital investments in adapting to climate change rather than trying to prevent it.
- Pursue win-win strategies that produce enough benefits to pay their way apart from their possible effect on climate
- Oppose planned increases in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that would reduce car and truck emissions by small amounts while dramatically increasing prices and reducing consumer choices and safety.
Bast, Joseph, 2010. “Analysis: New International Survey of Climate Scientists,” The Heartland Institute, September 25, heartland.org/policy-documents/analysis-new-international-survey-climate-scientists.
Christy, John R., 2006. “Questions surrounding the ‘hockey stick’ temperature studies: implications for climate change assessments.” Testimony, House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, July 27.
Petition Project, Web site, www.petitionproject.org.
Solomon, Lawrence, 2008. The Deniers: The World Renowned Scientists Who Stood Up Against Global Warming Hysteria, Political Persecution, and Fraud* *And those who are too fearful to do so. Richard Vigilante Books.
von Storch, Hans, 2011. “RE: ‘The Sceptic Meets His match,’” blog, August 2, 2011, http://klimazwiebel.blogspot.com/2011/08/bray-and-von-storch-on-tollefsons-piece.html#more.
Links to Other Organizations
- Alternate Solutions Institute
- American Council on Science and Health
- American Enterprise Institute
- American Land Rights Association
- Asociacion de Consumidores Libres
- Association for Liberal Thinking
- Business & Media Institute
- Carbon Sense Coalition
- Cathay Institute for Public Affairs
- Cato Institute
- Center for Science and Public Policy
- Center for the Dissemination of Economic Knowledge (CEDICE)
- Centro de Innovación y Desarrollo Humano
- Centro de Investigaciones de Instituciones y Mercados de Argentina (CIIMA-ESEADE)
- Citizens Alliance for Responsible Energy
- Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow
- Competitive Enterprise Institute
- Congress of Racial Equality
- Discovery Institute
- Doctors for Disaster Preparedness
- Dr. Tim Ball: A Different Perspective
- European Center for Economic Growth
- Free Market Foundation
- Fundacion Atlas 1853
- Hayek Institute
- Global Warming Policy Foundation
- The Heartland Institute
- The Heritage Foundation
- Institute for Energy Research
- Institute of Public Affairs
- Institut für Unternehmerische Freiheit
- Instituto de Libre Empresa
- Instituto Liberdade
- International Climate Science Coalition
- Istituto Bruno Leoni
- Liberty Institute
- Lion Rock Institute
- George C. Marshall Institute
- National Center for Policy Analysis
- National Center for Public Policy Research
- New Zealand Business Roundtable
- Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine
- Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy
- Property and Environment Research Center (PERC)
- Science and Environmental Policy Project
- Science and Public Policy Institute
- Sovereignty International