October 3, 2009

Will Global Warming Alarmism Disappear Like the Hula-Hoop?

By Martin Hutchinson

FROM-Money Morning

The entire world is waiting for a worldwide agreement to emerge from the Copenhagen summit on global warming in December. Such an agreement would include regulations that change the way we do business for the next two decades.

There’s just one problem. Are we absolutely sure that our enthusiasm for this battle will remain constant for 20 years, making everyone happy to bear the enormous costs involved?

The true tragedy would arise if the world spent trillions of dollars – condemning 7 billion people to live less-affluent and less-fulfilling lives – and at the end of it we discovered that the global-warming alarmism that caused the spending had been temporary.

I am naturally skeptical, so it was not surprising that for many years I was skeptical about global warming. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Report in 2007 came close to convincing me that it was real.

Nevertheless, that report’s maximum warming under its most pessimistic scenario was for an increase of 3.6 degrees Celsius (6.4 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Several other scenarios produced lower temperature increases; there were even questions about possible contrary effects. The IPCC’s “worst-case” warming would produce a sea level rise of 43 centimeters (17 inches), according to the report.

If global policymakers were entirely rational, the IPCC’s Fourth Report would have brought us – at most – a modest carbon tax. Such a tax could be increased if at some future date new evidence made the top end of the temperature projections seem likely. I hate hot weather as much as the next man, but 6.0 degrees Fahrenheit as a top estimate is just not that scary a number. It would be worth doing something to mitigate this, yes, but it would not be worth turning the whole global economy upside down and imposing huge new costs by bureaucratic fiat.

As for a sea level rise of 17 inches, it’s not worth doing anything at all about that at this stage. Only a few pathological areas of the world – such as the Maldives and parts of Bangladesh – would be affected at all by such a small rise. And constructing higher levees, or even handing out sandbags, could neutralize its effect.

Much more disturbing than the IPCC Fourth Report was its effect on chattering classes in the media and politics. Instead of admitting that moderate remedies would work fine, and planning towards them, they proposed a hugely bureaucratic regime of controls that would impose costs of $1 trillion annually on the United States, alone. Just one measure, the tightening of the CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) automobile fuel economy standards in 2016, imposes costs of hundreds of billions on the automobile industry, without any study of whether those costs could be justified.

The lesson of CAFÉ standards in the 1970s and 1980s, which through a loophole diverted the U.S. automotive industry from producing the world’s finest cars to the immensely ugly and fuel-guzzling SUVs, should have warned us against them.

Those standards were largely responsible for the decline in the U.S. automobile industry that has now resulted in the bankruptcy of General Motors Corp. (NYSE:GRM) and Chrysler Group LLC. However, they had remarkably little effect on U.S. gasoline consumption. They also caused thousands of deaths of people fool enough to buy small (and inevitably less safe) cars, rather than switching to SUVs.

A simple increase in the gasoline tax, or – if you want to be fancy – a carbon tax, would have far more effect on fuel consumption than new CAFÉ standards. And the higher gas tax would do far less damage. Yes, it would cost us money, but provided we forced our congressional representatives to remit other taxes rather than increasing wasteful spending, no harm would be done.

The attempt of the global warming alarmists to shut down debate has increased my skepticism. For one thing, it has focused my attention on just how many of them make a very nice living out of alarmism. As for the politicians, for many of them the primary goal is to control the economy, and extract rents by doing so.

Global warming alarmism is just a means to this unpleasant end. Politicians’ motives are rarely pure, but in this case they are particularly Chicago-esque, and the cost to the rest of us of their success would be enormous and permanent.

Since 2007, another factor has increased my skepticism. It has been revealed that instead of continuing to increase, global temperatures have declined since 1998. The current forecast is for no further increase until 2020 or so. Again the activists and politicians have refused to admit that this new evidence weakens the case for early drastic action.

I am now beginning to be convinced we may be moving in the wrong direction. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is normally an enthusiast for global warming alarmism (it increases their research funds somewhat). However, NASA reported Sept. 3 that the sun is in the deepest sunspot minimum for nearly a century, far beyond normal cyclical norms.

Should this persist, it would presumably have the same effect as the Maunder Minimum of sunspot activity and global temperature in 1645-1715. During the Maunder Minimum, northern hemisphere temperatures fell between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius, compared with surrounding periods. In 1682 London, they roasted oxen on the frozen River Thames, which sounds fun, but certainly hasn’t been possible since.

The Maunder Minimum occurred during a period of several hundred years known as the Little Ice Age, when temperatures appear to have averaged as much as 5 degrees Celsius colder than now. It’s still not clear what caused this. And it’s also not clear whether or not this could happen again.
Conversely, even 1998’s record summer was probably cooler than the late tenth century, when the Viking explorer Eric the Red found wild vines growing in Labrador.

I’m skeptical in this direction, too, although personally I would prefer a modest Little Ice Age to global warming – it would greatly improve the Washington summers. However, it does appear that natural effects, which we will have to put up with, could be at least as important as human-caused global warming for the next century or so.

It also appears that they may cancel each other out. I’m quite sure that I don’t want governments spending trillions of dollars, making everybody significantly poorer, to fight – very inefficiently – against something that may not even exist, or may not happen until 2200 rather than 2100. The 22nd century can look after itself, in my view.

In the 1970s, the world worried about global cooling. Who knows, by 2050 – or even 2020 – global-warming alarmism may also prove to have been a temporary enthusiasm. Like the 1950s hula-hoops, which were a lot more fun!


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