February 8, 2007

February 8, 2007 | Commentary on

Just the facts

As I braved the bitter cold and howling winds on Monday night, dragging our two reluctant dogs dressed in their overcoats out for their final walk of the day, fond thoughts of global warming presented themselves. Why is it, I wondered, that human beings assume that the Earth has reached its absolutely ideal temperature and that any change is considered a disaster of apocalyptic proportion? Wellington, Ripken (they would be the dogs) and I would gladly have traded a few degrees up -- and one imagines so would the recipients of the giant snowfalls that paralyzed the Midwest at Christmas time. This week, the weather honestly felt more like the arrival of the Ice Age that we were threatened with in the late 1970s by more or less the same people who are now trying to scare us witless over global warming.

The chorus of cheers that on Feb. 2 greeted the release of a summary of findings by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is only the latest example of a hardening political consensus around a subject on which there is still scientific debate. What has happened is that climate change and the human role therein have now become a kind of orthodoxy that you question at your peril if you are a scientist or a politician.

Not only have questions been raised by dissenting scientists on the panel about the accuracy of the summary, which precedes the full report by three months and was written by U.N. political appointees, but the media coverage of the release has had a tendency to overstate its findings. This is how inconclusive and tentative findings become hardened "facts" in the popular mind. According to Richard Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, who was interviewed by Larry King, the full report is subsequently going to be brought into line with the summary, which doesn't seem a very scientific process at all.

"The science is solid," said Louise Frechette, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations on the Environmental News Network, a statement repeated enthusiastically by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Sen. Joseph Biden and many others. The Washington Post breathlessly reported that even though scientists are now only predicting a rise in sea levels of 23 inches in the event of a highly putative 7.8 degree temperature rise over the next century, shouldthe polar ice caps melt for some reason centuries from now, it would cause a 23-foot rise in sea levels.

Al Gore is now being solicited for a second run for the presidency by enthusiastic supporters, and the fact that he was recently nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his movie "Inconvenient Truth" and other emissions as good as proves he is right. (In a brilliant move in reaction, Landmark Legal Foundation nominated Rush Limbaugh for Nobel Prize as well.) Given that the policy implications of the climate change agenda could very well have highly detrimental effects on real human lives in terms of jobs, living standards, etc., all of this is very disturbing. That global warning is real and the cause of human activity is now being discussed as a fact, even though the U.N. panel only found it "very likely" that human activity caused a rise in temperatures in the second half of the 20th century. "Very likely" according to the U.N. report, means "66-90 percent" likely -- which seems a far cry from certitude.

Now, it appears to be true that the Earth has indeed warmed up, by 0.7 degrees Celsius over the past century, mostly in the early half. It is not clear, though, that human activity caused it, nor that steps proposed to reverse it will have any effect. The planet has in periods been much warmer and much colder than it is today. To take two fairly recent examples, when the Vikings settled in Greenland in the Middle Ages, the southern part really was green. And when the Thames froze so solid in the 17th century that the English could make bonfires on the ice, northern Europe was really enduring what is known as "the small ice age." Neither had anything to do with "greenhouse" gasses.

At work in the spreading orthodoxy of climate change is a twofold phenomenon: For one, even the most "progressive" human beings are deeply conservative and resist change; and two, a powerful political agenda -- a well-known one at that -- which focuses on "no growth," particularly no American economic growth.

The stakes are high. When we talk about climate change, we must bring the discussion back to the facts.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times