Time to Chill Out

Freezing, thawing or just plain (political) climate change?

I am a child of the ‘70s, and just like the folks who came of age in the ‘60s, who were warned of global disaster from "too many people," I was told that the next ice age was just around the corner. This climate disaster would bring worldwide famine and, with it, the collapse of social order, or at least deconstruction of the status quo. The 1968 “prophetic” book by Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, was a huge hit with environmentalists, academicians, futurists, and gloom-and-doomers, in general. The problem is that the book’s predictions -- not the impacts of overpopulation -- became the disaster. Yet, continued forecasts of unmitigated planetary peril (like Ehrlich’s 1990 sequel The Population Explosion) are warmly embraced, while its prophets profit from huge book sales and favorable publicity. Conversely, recently released books like Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years by S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) may hardly get a mention in the public debate.

As argued in Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, there is much to question in the claim of an unmistakable “human fingerprint” in the present global-warming trend. Based on a well-documented global-climate history going back at least tens of thousands of years, there appears in the climate record a natural cycle of substantial global warming and cooling. Excluding astronomical events such as comet impacts, this cycle looks to be largely influenced by variable solar activity and insolation, which is solar radiation received on the earth’s surface. And, the distribution of the sun’s energy around the globe by winds and waves, coupled with the control of atmospheric temperatures overwhelmingly by water in all its forms -- vapor, liquid (as seawater and clouds), and solid (as ice crystals, snow cover, and glaciers) -- is likely to account for nearly all climate change past and present.

But, even the evidence of natural climate cycles is not immune to unnatural alteration. For instance, Singer and Avery point out that the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) apparently rewrote the past 1,000-year climate record in its 2001 climate-change report. Unlike a similar graph in its 1995 report, the IPCC’s updated graph of the most-recent 1,000- year temperature trend “smoothed over” the well-known Medieval Warm Period (c. 900 – 1300) and Little Ice Age (c. 1,300 – 1,850). This smoothing helped to exaggerate the modern warming (c. 1930 - 2000), thereby giving proponents of the idea that human activity is largely responsible for enhanced temperatures the “scientific documentation” they need to carry on their remaking of global society in an effort to “save the earth.”

Former Vice-President Al Gore has been involved in a globe-trotting campaign of his own using his Academy-Award winning film An Inconvenient Truth and ongoing public appearances to champion the planet’s salvation from the carbonaceous sins of man. But, again, by ignoring past climate trends of natural warming and cooling cycles and focusing primarily on carbon dioxide emissions from the egregious behavior of man’s industrialized societies, the case of a definite and significant anthropogenic-related climate change is proffered. The fact remains that water in all its forms is the biggest climate regulator; not carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, or any other greenhouse gas you can name. An Inconvenient Truth is a good example of what Michael Crichton aptly noted in his recent global-warming thriller, State of Fear: “Environmental science is a contentious and intensely politicized field.”

I have had a long history of earnest interest in the environment. In 1970, the year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Natural Resources Defense Council were founded, I biked to high school on the first Earth Day, April 22, and frequented outdoor environmental forums at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa. My serious interest in the environment, however, is not unreasonable concern. Much personal, professional, and academic experience tells me that there’s a lot more to be learned about the hugely complex climate system. And, simple, politically motivated declarations of climate “facts” and proposed “solutions” to dubious anthropogenic contributions to global warming will only abridge a full understanding of the biosphere and humans’ limited interference with its natural operation.

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Anthony J. (Tony) Sadar, CCM is a certified consulting meteorologist (CCM), founder of Environmental Science Communication, LLC, of Pittsburgh, Pa., and co-author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers, 2000). Sadar holds graduate degrees in both environmental science and science education.

Featured Webinar