Is Global Warming Real?

My day is always brightened when packages arrive from the libertarian Cato Institute. They often contain books. The latest was a tome from Patrick J. Michaels, a research professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow at Cato. Entitled Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians and the Media, it purports to set the record straight about climate science.

Michaels is a past president of the American Association of State Climatologists, but some have questioned his qualifications to lecture us on the subject. According to author Ross Gelbspan in a 1995 Harper’s article, “Michaels has received more than $115,000 over the last four years from coal and energy interests. World Climate Review, a quarterly he founded that routinely debunks climate concerns, was funded by Western Fuels [a coal industry group].”

Patrick J. Michaels, Author of Meltdown

But Michaels believes that it’s not corporate dollars that distort science, but federal money. Writing in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed piece earlier this year, he commented, “Politics distorts science, particularly environmental science, because 99.99 percent of those sciences’ financial support comes from the federal government. Scientists distort science because their careers depend on the money they bring to their university or their laboratory. Both the employees of the academy, and the academy itself, must support a political process that results in the exaggeration of threats. In competition for a finite federal outlay, scientists present their particular issues (global warming, cancer, AIDS) in the most urgent light possible, threatening societal ruin if their work isn’t funded.”

Michaels concluded, “Eventually, this leads to bad policies, such as proposals to reduce emissions of atmospheric carbon dioxide that will cost a lot of money and have no detectable effect on climate.”

The professor further added to his thoughts in 2002, on CNN’s “The Capital Gang” after being asked about his industry funding: “Well, you know,” he said, “most of my funding, the vast majority, comes from taxpayer-supported entities. I would make the argument that if funding colors research, I should be certainly biased more towards the taxpayers, of which I am one, than towards industry. But the fact of the matter is, numbers are objective. And when you look at the global warming numbers, you cannot come to any conclusion other than the fact that we pretty much know how much it’s going to warm in the next 100 years. It’s not going to be that much. And you can’t stop it.”

With my BA in English, I’m not in a position to judge the scientific credentials of academics. But at least one section of Michaels’ book Meltdown jumped out at me. He writes about “a peculiar twist on global warming hysteria,” namely, that heating the planet will cause an ice age. He attacks science reporter Sharon Begley for observing that “The juxtaposition of a big chill in the Northeast and near-record warmth globally seems eerily like the most dire predictions of climate change: As most of the world gets toastier, average winter temperatures in Northeastern America and Western Europe could plunge nine degrees Fahrenheit.”

This Day After Tomorrow scenario is dependent on the theory that the melting of polar ice will shut down the Gulf Stream, blocking the transport of warm water from the tropics to the north Atlantic. I wrote about this in our book Feeling the Heat, making the point that there is indeed significant polar melting: “A UN assessment says Arctic sea ice in summertime could diminish 60 percent by 2050. This fresh water could dilute the salinity of the Gulf Stream, which would mean that it would no longer sink to the bottom of the ocean near Iceland and begin its return trip to the Pacific. According to Robert Gagosian, director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, ‘We’re seeing huge freshening in the North Atlantic. The sinking of the cold, salty water has slowed 20 percent in the last 30 years.’”

There is a large body of scientific literature on this subject, and widely varying conclusions about what this polar melting can mean. Certainly, no scientist envisions an overnight freeze of New York as seen in Hollywood’s version, but even the Pentagon has speculated on what an abrupt climate change scenario could mean (especially for northern Europe). According to the speculative Pentagon report, changes to the ocean’s “thermohaline conveyor” could “lead to harsher winter weather conditions, sharply reduced soil moisture and more intense winds in certain regions.” Specifically, the authors envisioned “Annual average temperatures drop by up to five degrees Fahrenheit over Asia and North America and six degrees Fahrenheit in northern Europe.”

So there’s a lot out there, but Michaels focuses simply on what’s happening with the weather up to now. He cites a government report concluding “there is no statistically significant trend during this 108-year-long winter record [from 1895 to 2003].” But all the scenarios imagine future cooling decades or centuries hence; I haven’t seen any credible scientific reports that we’re already experiencing global cooling.

Sure, reporters occasionally speculate, even in print, if a cold winter might be an indication of global warming. No scientist would support such claims. But to dismiss global cooling as a theory requires more than a brief review of a few decades of old weather data. Michaels concludes triumpantly that the winter of 2001-2002 was the warmest on record, proving
what exactly? He ends his chapter, “Climate change advocates can’t seem to allow anything seemingly out of the ordinary to pass without crediting global warming.” One could argue that Michaels seldom misses an opportunity to discredit climate change, even if he has to use arguments that don’t really address the question.

Fiction is Stranger Than Truth

Michaels’ global-warming naysaying just got a powerful boost from none other than bestselling author Michael Crichton, whose new thriller State of Fear turns reality on its head. The bad guys are environmentalists who insist that (despite evidence to the contrary) global warming is real. They’ll go to any lengths (including murder apparently) to prove their bogus thesis. Their comrades in arms are hare-brained celebrities, dupes in the environmental media (like me, I guess) and sinister organizations like the Sierra Club. The plot of this potboiler would be absurd enough on its own, but Crichton sees fit to add appendixes and author’s notes urging us to take it all seriously. The New York Times calls the book a “sorry excuse for a thriller,” so let’s just leave it there. But if past performance is a guide, this environmental denier will enjoy hundreds of thousands of sales and lucrative offers from the film industry. And millions of Americans will continue to believe that global warming is a liberal plot, an absurdity that will dovetail nicely with their firm conviction that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9-11.