The current uproar over the posture of the Bush Administration on global warming and, most recently, on power-plant emissions vividly illustrates the political hypocrisy and opportunism imbuing debates on environmental issues. Take first global warming. The charge that the current phase of global warming can be attributed to greenhouse gases generated by humans and their livestock is an article of faith among liberals as sturdy as is missile defense among the conservative crowd. The Democrats have seized on the issue of global warming as indicative of President Bush’s willful refusal to confront a global crisis that properly agitates all of America’s major allies. Almost daily, the major green groups reap rich political capital (and donations) on the issue.
Yet the so-called anthropogenic origin of global warming remains entirely nonproven. Back in the spring of this year, even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which now has a huge stake in arguing the “caused by humans” thesis, admitted in its summary that there could be a one-in-three chance its multitude of experts are wrong. A subsequent report, issued under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, is ambivalent to the point of absurdity. An initial paragraph boldly asserting the caused-by-humans line is confounded a few pages later by far more cautious paragraphs admitting that the thesis is speculative and that major uncertainty rules on the role played in climate equations by water vapor and aerosols.
It’s nothing new to say the earth is getting warmer. I myself think it is, and has been for a long, long time. On my shelf is an excellent volume put out in 1941 by the Department of Agriculture called Climate and Man, which contains a chapter acknowledging “global warming” (that same phrase) and hailing it as a benign trend that will return the earth to the normalcy in climate it enjoyed several hundred thousand years ago.
Anything more than a glance at the computer models favored by the caused-by-humans crowd will show that the role of carbon dioxide is grotesquely exaggerated. Indeed, the models are incapable of handling the role of the prime greenhouse gas, water vapor (clouds, etc), which accounts for twenty-five to thirty times as much heat absorption as carbon dioxide.
Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admits to a “very low” level of scientific understanding on an “aerosol indirect effect” that the panel acknowledges is cooling the climate system at a hefty rate (aerosols are particles so fine they float in air).
In a particularly elegant paper published in May in Chemical Innovation, journal of the American Chemical Society, Professor Robert Essenhigh of Ohio State reminds us that for the past 850,000 years, global temperature and carbon dioxide have been moving up and down in lockstep. Since 849,700 of these years were ones preceding any possible human effect on carbon dioxide, this raises the question of whether global warming caused swings in carbon dioxide or vice versa. Essenhigh argues convincingly that the former is the case. As global temperatures warm, a huge reservoir of carbon dioxide absorbed in the oceans is released into the atmosphere. Clearly, this is a much more potent input than the relatively puny human contribution to global carbon dioxide. Thus natural warming is driving the raised level of carbon dioxide, and not the other way round.
But science can barely squeeze in the door with a serious debate about what is prompting global warming. Instead, the Europeans, the greens and the Democrats eagerly seize on the issue as a club with which to beat President Bush and kindred targets of opportunity.
Now take the latest brouhaha over emissions from coal-fired plants. The industry wants what is coyly called “flexibility” in emissions standards. EPA chief Christine Whitman is talking about “voluntary incentives” and market-based pollution credits as the proper way to go. Aware of the political pitfalls, the Bush Administration has recently been saying that it is not quite ready to issue new rules.
Now, there’s no uncertainty about the effects of the stuff that comes out of a power-plant chimney. These heavy metals and fine particles kill people or make them sick. There are also cleaning devices, some of them expensive, that can remove these toxic substances. Ever since the 1970s the energy industry has fought mandatory imposition of such cleaners. If Bush and Whitman enforce this flexibility they will be condemning people to death, as have previous foot-dragging administrations, Democratic as well as Republican.
Both political parties have danced to the industry’s tunes. It was with the propagandizing of Stephen Breyer (now on the Supreme Court, then a top aide to Senator Ted Kennedy) that the trend toward pollution credits began. And after the glorious regulatory laxity of the Reagan/Bush years, the industry was not seriously discommoded in Clinton Time. Ask the inhabitants of West Virginia and Tennessee whether they think the coal industry lost clout in those years.
The sad truth of the matter is that many “big picture” environmental theses, such as human-caused global warming, afford marvelously inviting ways of avoiding specific and mostly difficult political decisions. You can bellow for “global responsibility” without seriously offending powerful corporate interests, some of which, for reasons material, cynical or both, now have a big stake (the nuclear industry, for example) in promoting the caused-by-humans thesis. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill loves it, and so does the aluminum industry, in which he has been a prime player. On the other side we can soon expect to hear that powerful Democrat, Senator Robert Byrd, arguing that the coal industry is in the vanguard of the war on global warming, because the more you shade the earth, perhaps the more rain you cause. So burn dirty coal and protect the earth by cooling it.
The logic of the caused-by-humans models installs the coal industry as the savior of “global warming”–you want to live by a computer model that does that?