Top banner


Heat vs. Light in the Global Warming Wars

John Firor

Beating the Heat: Why and How We Must Combat Global Warming. John J. Berger. 136 pp. Berkeley Hills Books, 2000. $10.

The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming. Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling, Jr. xii + 234 pp. Cato Institute, 2000. $19.95.

The scientific case for a possible human-induced warming of the climate has progressed rapidly in the past 30 years. New and improved observational techniques have given scientists more detailed information about the structure and dynamics of the atmosphere and have improved our ability to reconstruct many features of the global climate over the past 400,000 years. Mathematical simulations of current and past climates have also improved as more scientists have turned their attention to the problem and as ever-more-capable computers have allowed more processes to be included in the simulations. Much work is under way to reduce the uncertainties in the models and to improve observations at locations that are critical to an improved understanding of climate, such as the boreal forests and the Western Pacific warm pool.

All is not rosy, however, for those participating in the progress of this exciting science. Work on climate change is being conducted in an intense political spotlight as a result of the clear implication of these studies that the world should cease to place great quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Over the years, scientists have, of course, spotted other activities that needed to be reduced: emission of gases causing acid rain, for example, and the use of chlorofluorocarbons that damage the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere. In those instances, however, after a period of scientific controversy about the reality and seriousness of the problem, a period of industry claims that the science was defective, a later period of industry whining about how much it would cost to do anything and a period of governmental hesitation, a legislative or treaty path for reducing the offending activities was achieved. These reductions were accomplished at surprisingly low costs, demonstrating just how flexible and resourceful modern industries are, despite their protestations to the contrary.

But climate change is being induced on a much larger scale than were these earlier problems. Most of the climate-changing gases are released by the burning of fossil fuels, a nearly universal activity supported by one of the world's truly large industries. And the eventual reduction in fossil-fuel use required to lower the risk of major climate change is estimated to be far from trivial. Thus very loud and prolonged whining about devastatingly high costs, and claims that the science is fatally flawed, should be expected and indeed are being heard.

These two books represent the range of this controversy, but with very different approaches. One is a relatively calm recitation of the mainstream scientific view. The other uses personal attacks and accounts of imagined conspiracies to buttress claims that the science of climate change is unacceptably flawed and that a treaty or legislative action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would devastate the economy.

In Beating the Heat, John Berger, a Ph.D. ecologist who writes for popular audiences about energy and natural resources, gives a clear presentation of the nature of the problem as seen by the majority of climate scientists. If the atmospheric concentration of heat-trapping gases continues to rise, one should expect an increase in global average surface temperature, a rise in sea level and an enhanced hydrological cycle. These changes in climate will affect ecosystems, coastal areas, agricultural crops, human health and some human activities.

Details of these expected effects cannot be described today with any certainty. Berger circumvents this problem by using scenarios, clearly labeled as fictional, wherein characters see or hear about things that could happen in the future but are far from certain.

In Berger's first scenario, a reporter goes to sleep today and wakens in 2100. He tours the world in a futuristic "personal transportation device," observing the many serious effects of climate change. Berger follows the world tour with an imagined Cabinet meeting in the White House in 2012, in which agency heads give estimates of the cost of the damage that will be caused by climate change if no policy changes are made to mitigate it.

Berger then describes energy systems (actual, not imagined) that are both inexpensive and free of greenhouse gas emissions. He also gives advice on personal steps that can be taken to reduce emissions and offers tips on lobbying for emission reduction policies.

Berger describes the ongoing controversy largely by listing the kinds of industries that are most active in opposing any legislative steps. He notes that industry is not monolithic: A number of large companies in the United States have withdrawn from the most strident lobbying group and announced efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their own operations. Berger also lists organizations and individual scientists who receive financial support from the oil and gas industries, suggesting that these funds pay for the espousal of "scientifically dubious positions." In a section labeled "Climate Myths," he lists and responds to the most frequently voiced reasons for not moving ahead on emissions reductions.

Beating the Heat offers a general overview of the controversy over climate change and a glimpse of the acrimony surrounding it.

The Satanic Gases is an altogether different beast. Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling are professional atmospheric scientists, and the dust jacket of their book states that their scientific studies support their claim that global warming predictions are "simply wrong." The book does not fulfill this claim. Errors in scientific statements are numerous, misleading logic is used, and much of the "evidence" presented is from earlier, now superseded, studies. Minor scientific errors are common: The authors claim the earth radiates in visible wavelengths; they refer to gamma rays as "thermonuclear signals"; a thunderstorm is said to collapse when it "literally runs out of air"; ozone is said to break down to OH; and so on.

They make even more errors when describing policy matters and attempting to disparage various mainstream scientists. A scientist with whom the authors disagree is likely to be labeled "federal scientist" or "federal employee," even when he or she is a university professor, apparently in the belief that the term "federal" is pejorative. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the agreement to make a small start on greenhouse gas reductions, is repeatedly criticized, even though the authors' description of the agreement suggests they have not read the text. They claim that this treaty allows the United Nations "to invoke whatever penalty it might choose upon those who do not meet their commitments." No such provision occurs in this treaty, nor is it likely that a group of sovereign countries would delegate such powers to the UN.

A sad aspect of this book is the effort throughout to prove that other scientists are scientifically dishonest. Climate modelers are accused of hiding the deficiencies of their models, when in fact modelers fairly meticulously list the ways in which their models fail to perform and the approximations made in creating a model. Those who choose to describe a variety of scenarios rather than using one uncertain guess are said to be employing "politicized fairy tales."

The most egregious example of a personal attack is a quote taken out of context and altered to distort its meaning. The quotation is taken from a published interview with a well-known scientist in which he discusses problems faced by climate scientists when talking to congressional committees and the press. In the interview he points out that one is obligated to give the whole truth, with the caveats—the ifs, ands, and buts. As human beings, though, he observes, we want to see the world become a better place, to draw attention to a potentially serious problem, so we feel a pull to use colorful metaphors and dramatic examples. This leads to an ethical bind. He concludes that "Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both." Michaels and Balling omit the phrase "I hope that means being both," saying only that the scientist has said that "he has to choose 'the right balance between being effective and being honest' about global warming."

This book cannot be recommended, either as a contribution to public understanding of the current status of climate change science or as a helpful description of the current international negotiations searching for a consensus on how and on what time scale the world should begin the process of reducing emissions of climate-changing gases.

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner