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Jewish World Review June 11, 2001 / 21 Sivan, 5761

Robert W. Tracinski

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Consumer Reports

The National Academy of Dubious Science -- IMAGINE that you have invited a contractor to inspect your home and check for needed repairs. He tells you that, in theory, there might be a disastrous problem with the foundation. He can't actually prove that there is a problem, he says, and there are a lot of uncertainties. But there is a consensus among his workmen that the problem needs urgent attention. So he tells you his solution: You should pay him $50,000 for further study of the problem -- and you should immediately demolish one-quarter of your house, just as a precaution.

Sound outrageous? Well, President Bush just got that exact advice from a climate science panel at the National Academy of Sciences. They have a theory, the NAS panel told the president, that the globe might be warming and that the results might be bad. As a solution, they think the government should give scientists just like them a lot of money for further study. Oh, and just to be on the safe side, we should shut down a good percentage of the nation's power plants.

Here is how the panel's chairman, Ralph Cicerone, sums up its conclusions: "We know that greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere, causing surface temperatures to rise. We don't know precisely how much of the rise to date is from human activities, but based on physical principles and highly sophisticated computer models, we expect the warming to continue because of greenhouse gas emissions." The report also reminds us that "national policy decisions made now ... will influence the extent of any damage suffered by vulnerable human populations ... later in this century."

These pronouncements are made in a dual language, a cross between scientific jargon and bureaucratese. For the uninitiated, here is a translation.

"Causing surface temperatures to rise" means: We're wording this carefully to avoid data that doesn't fit our theory. Why does Cicerone refer only to "surface temperatures"? Because satellite measurements of temperatures higher in the atmosphere show a slight decline in global temperatures. And saying that surface temperatures are "rising" is vague. Global temperatures did increase before 1940 -- before industrialization swept the world. But from 1940 to about 1970, when industry was booming, temperatures fell, and scientists fretted about global cooling. The case for global warming is based only on warm temperatures in the past two decades -- too brief a time to demonstrate a trend.

Thus, Cicerone continues: "We don't know precisely how much of the rise to date is from human activities." This actually means: We can't prove that humans have anything to do with it. As an NAS press release admits, "The best information about past climate variability ... reveal(s) that temperatures changed substantially over the past 400,000 years" and "some rapid warmings took place over a period of decades." In other words, rising and falling global temperatures are normal and natural.

The claim that global warming is "based on physical principles" means: We guessed. That's what scientists do every time they deduce something from broad principles without gathering enough observational data -- the same way Lord Kelvin used "physical principles" to prove that heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible, eight years before the Wright brothers built one.

"Highly sophisticated computer models" means a really complicated guess. The computer models are programmed with simplified assumptions about how the climate works, then asked to project results 100 years into the future. These models are notorious for leaving out important factors -- like clouds -- and failing to predict today's actual weather.

The target of the global warming theory, "greenhouse gas emissions," means coal, oil, natural gas, and just about everything else that we use to generate power.

And that leads us to the statement about "national policy decisions made now." The NAS report comes on the eve of the president's trip to Europe, where foreign leaders will pressure him to endorse the Kyoto Protocol, a UN-sponsored accord that would require us to make drastic cuts in our carbon dioxide emissions. How? By shutting down power plants, giving up our cars, and blacking out our homes. Complying with Kyoto would require us to cut power production by as much as 25 percent.

The NAS panel, which is so concerned about any potential effect of global warming on "vulnerable human populations," did not bother to mention the effect on these same humans of shutting down industry and technology.

It is true that "national policy decisions made now" will determine our fate -- and we should refuse to sacrifice our well-being to dubious science.

Comment on JWR contributor Robert W. Tracinski's column by clicking here.