The Theology of Global Warming By JAMES SCHLESINGER
Wall Street Journal, August 8, 2005; Page A10
Almost unnoticed, the theology of global warming has in recent weeks suffered a number of setbacks. In referring to the theology of global warming, one is not focusing on evidence of the earth's warming in recent decades, particularly in the Arctic, but rather on the widespread insistence that such warming is primarily a consequence of man's activities -- and that, if only we collectively had the will, we could alter our behavior and stop the warming of the planet.
It was Michael Crichton who pointed out in his Commonwealth Club lecture some years ago that environmentalism had become the religion of Western elites. Indeed it has. Most notably, the burning of fossil fuels (a concomitant of economic growth and rising living standards) is the secular counterpart of man's Original Sin. If only we would repent and sin no more, man-kind's actions could end the threat of further global warming. By implication, the cost, which is never fully examined, is bearable. So far the evidence is not convincing. It is notable that 13 of the 15 older members of the European Union have failed to achieve their quotas under the Kyoto accord -- despite the relatively slow growth of the European economies.
The drumbeat on global warming was intended to reach a crescendo during the run-up to the summit at Gleneagles. Prime Minister Blair has been a leader in the global warming crusade. (Whether his stance reflects simple conviction or the need to propitiate his party's Left after Iraq is unknown.) In the event, for believers, Gleneagles turned out to be a major disappointment.
On the eve of the summit, the Economic Committee of the House of Lords released a report sharply at variance with the prevailing European orthodoxy. Some key points were reported in the Guardian, a London newspaper not hostile to that orthodoxy:
- The science of climate change leaves "considerable uncertainty" about the future.
- There are concerns about the objectivity of the international panel of scientists that has led research into climate change.
- The Kyoto agreement to limit carbon emissions will make little difference and is likely to fail.
- The U.K.'s energy and climate policy contains "dubious assumptions" about renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Most notably, the Committee itself concluded that there are concerns about the objectivity of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] process and about the IPCC's crucial emissions scenario exercise.
Their lordships' conclusions were probably not welcomed at No. 10.
Also, on the eve of the summit, the Royal Society issued a press release, supposedly on behalf of the national academies of science (these eve-of-the-summit announcements are not entirely coincidental). It was headlined, "Clear science demands prompt action on climate change" and included this statement:
"The current U.S. policy on climate change is misguided. The Bush Administration has con-sistently refused to accept the advice of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences."
A sharp riposte from the president of the National Academy of Sciences followed. Space does not permit full discussion of the rebuke. A few key phrases, however, are revealing:
"Your statement is quite misleading. . . . By appending your own phrase, 'by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases' to an actual quote from our report, you have consi-derably changed our report's meaning and intent. . . . As you must appreciate, having your own misinterpretation of U.S. Academy work widely quoted in our press has caused considerable confusion both at my academy and in our government."
Though the issue of global warming and, indeed, the summit itself were overshadowed by the acts of terrorism in London, the final communiqué from Gleneagles was closer to the position of the House of Lords (and the position of the Bush administration) than it was to the Royal Society. President Chirac had the gall (no pun) to suggest that the Europeans had brought President Bush around to their point of view. Closer to the truth was the comment of Philip Clapp of the National Environmental Trust, who called the agreement "utterly meaningless - the weakest statement on climate change ever made by the G8."
An additional setback occurred three weeks after the Gleneagles Summit, when the U.S. entered into the "Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate" with Aus-tralia, China, India, Japan and South Korea. The focus will be on technology to cope with concerns about global climate as well as pollution. It responds to President Bush's earlier call for a "post-Kyoto era." Greenpeace immediately denounced the agreement stating, "The pact sounds like a dirty coal deal."
The issue of climate change urgently needs to be brought down from the level of theology to what we actually know. It is, of course, quite likely that the greenhouse effect has to some extent contributed to global warming -- but we simply do not know to what extent. The insis-tence that global warming is primarily the consequence of human activity leaves scant room for variation in solar intensity or cyclical phenomena generally.
Over the ages, climate has varied. Generally speaking, the Northern Hemisphere has been warming since the end of the Little Ice Age in the 19th century. Most of the global warming observed in the 20th century occurred between 1900 and 1940, when the release of green-house gases was far less than later in the century. Between 1940 and 1975, temperatures fell -- and scientists feared a lengthy period of global cooling. The reported rise in temperatures in recent decades has come rather suddenly -- probably too suddenly given the relatively slow rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
We must always bear in mind that the earth's atmosphere remains a highly complex thermo-dynamic machine. Given its complexities, we need to be modest in asserting what we know. Knowledge is more than speculation.
* * *
Much has been made of the assertion, repeated regularly in the media, that "the science is settled," based upon a supposed "scientific consensus." Yet, some years ago in the "Oregon Petition" between 17,000 and 18,000 signatories, almost all scientists, made manifest that the science was not settled, declaring:
"There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate."
Several additional observations are in order. First, the "consensus" is ostensibly based upon the several Assessment Reports of the IPCC. One must bear in mind that the summary re-ports are political documents put together by government policy makers, who, to put it mildly, treat rather cavalierly the expressed uncertainties and caveats in the underlying scientific reports. Moreover, the IPCC was created to support a specific political goal. It is directed to support the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. In turn, the Convention calls for an effective international response to deal with "the common concern of all mankind" -- in short, to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. Statements by the leaders of the IPCC have been uninhibitedly political.
Second, science is not a matter of consensus, as the histories of Galileo, Copernicus, Pas-teur, Einstein and others will attest. Science depends not on speculation but on conclusions verified through experiment. Verification is more than computer simulations -- whose conclu-sions mirror the assumptions built in the model. Irrespective of the repeated assertions regarding a "scientific consensus," there is neither a consensus nor is consensus science.
Mr. Schlesinger, the first secretary of energy, launched the Department of Energy's Carbon Dioxide Effects and Assessment Program shortly after the creation of that department in 1977.
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