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Cooler Heads

A Closer Look at All the Factors & Views on Global Warming

by Regis Nicoll

Every religion has its doctrines of Sin, Judgment, and Redemption. The current misanthropic strain of environmentalism, all the rage among cultural elites, is no exception. In this eco-religion, the Sin is man’s carbon footprint; the Judgment is the sizzling Eschaton of global warming; and Redemption can be obtained through carbon credits and population control. Pounding its pulpits, its prophets preach on the ecological Fall and the gospel of sustainability. One such prophet is Steven Schneider, who, early in the global warming debate, confessed:

To capture the public’s imagination . . . we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

During my 30-year career in the nuclear energy industry, I witnessed that strategy more than once. It was in evidence, for example, during a public hearing in Washington, D.C., regarding a proposal to construct a nuclear waste repository. The waste was to be treated, encapsulated, and placed in deep rock strata known to be geologically stable since their formation. Even under a hypothetical, catastrophic event, the radiation exposure to the public from such waste would be well below the amount received by everyone, every year, from naturally occurring radiation sources.

Nevertheless, an anti-nuclear spokesman argued that because radiation is a known carcinogen (which is true), there is no safe level of exposure (which is false), and any radioactive release into the biosphere would present an undue cancer risk. For emotional impact, he cited some heart-wrenching stories about cases of childhood leukemia that were not related to radiation exposure. As I surveyed the hearing room, I could see clearly that public opinion was being shaped by something other than scientific fact. It has now been over three decades since the last nuclear plant was ordered and, in that time, commercial nuclear power has atrophied.

Great irony, that. For had science prevailed then, the largest source of man-made greenhouse gases—fossil fuel power plants—would be all but eliminated now, and with it, the latest “scenario” spun out of the eco-pulpit.

Peculiar Unanimity

Today, photos of polar bear cubs clinging to drifting ice portend the looming global meltdown, with an all-star chorus sounding the alarm. An international panel of experts, the White House, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and A-list celebrities all warn that unless something is done, and fast, we’re in for disappearing ice caps, flooded cities, mass extinctions, and worse.

The sense of urgency is captured by the Christian columnist Andy Couch:

[Global warming] is the all-but-unanimous scientific consensus that human beings are changing the climate by emitting gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, and that if we do nothing to change our behavior, the warming trend that has taken hold for the past century may well become a runaway gallop.

Missing from that “all-but-unanimous” cohort are over 31,400 climatologists, meteorologists, and other scientists who have signed the Global Warming Petition, which states, in its entirety:

“We urge the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan in December, 1997, and any other similar proposals. The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind.

“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. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.” [www.petitionproject.org]

The Probabilities Test

Significant disputes among competent authorities reflect disagreement on six fundamental questions:

1. Is the earth warming?
2. If so, given historical patterns, is the warming significant?
3. Does warming result in an overall harmful effect?
4. Is human activity the primary cause of the warming?
5. If so, would stringent, government-enforced controls be effective at curtailing it?
6. Would such controls be cost-justified?

Note that the global warming creed hinges not on one, or even on several of these questions, but on all of them. Just one negative answer to any of them, and the climate change catechism is nullified.

The truth is, none of them can be answered with certainty. That’s because our knowledge is limited by finite data and processes that, in some cases, are poorly understood, and in others, are not even identified. Even trying to answer the first, and most fundamental, question with a modest degree of confidence is problematic. Given the range and variability of temperatures over the earth’s surface, many qualified experts dispute that a single value can be assigned to represent global temperature, much less whether the value is rising or falling over time.

When definitive answers are difficult to come by, conscientious researchers turn to probabilistic methods to determine scientific merit. Applying these methods to global warming, we could conclude that if the probability of an affirmative answer to all six questions is large; say, over 70 percent, then global warming and mitigative actions have a reasonably solid basis; if it is between 40 and 60 percent, their justification is weak; and if it is less than 40 percent, they are insupportable.

If we are generous and assign each question an 80 percent probability of affirmation, then multiply all six probabilities together, we come up with a cumulative probability of 26 percent, indicating that the proposition that “global warming is a problem that can be solved cost-effectively” is without technical merit. And that doesn’t include the inherent (and considerable) uncertainties in the computer models used to derive long-range climate change forecasts.

The Most Important Question

Yet even had our calculation supported the proposition, one question—the most important question—remains: Would government-enforced standards create more, or more severe, problems than they solve? Considering the enormous challenges of AIDS, malaria, clean water, sanitation, and affordable energy in developing countries, diverting the world’s limited resources from such real and present problems, which most acutely affect the poor, would likely have an effect on humanity that far exceeds a several-degree rise in global temperature occurring some decades, if not generations, away.

It is the impact on humanity, especially the least and the last, that is the preeminent Christian concern. That’s because man’s sin is not against Nature, but against nature’s God, who placed inestimable worth on man through the redemptive work of his Son. In turn, man is uniquely entrusted with the care of creation, which, regardless of the merits of the latest eco-cataclysm, involves the good stewardship principles of conserving natural resources, optimizing energy use, and reducing wasteful consumption. 



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