As a brand-new electric cooperative member, I was
pleasantly surprised to read the editorial in the July issue of Cooperative
Living explaining the motivation behind the appeal to Congress for fair,
affordable and achievable climate-change legislation, and very interested in
the ensuing Mailbag letters about the topic.
I have followed this issue and studied global warming for
more than 10 years, and my opinion has not changed much over those years. I
have carefully examined large amounts of data and read many papers on both
sides of the debate.
The bottom line is that manmade CO2 is real. Anthropogenic
(manmade) global warming (AGW) from that CO2 is also real. Some of the
warming heading into 1998 was obviously part of a natural El Niño, even
though at the time it was depicted as an “acceleration” in manmade global
warming. As we see now, global warming is not accelerating. Natural warming
(and cooling) will always vary while a small, steady amount of warming is
caused by increasing manmade CO2. The CO2-warming link is no “hoax,” as one
Mailbag letter-writer implied. Perhaps he meant to question the notion of
catastrophic AGW, which I will address next.
The Mailbag letter-writer who was concerned about more
frequent floods should look at the raw data from the United States
Geological Survey (USGS). For example, the peak stream flow at Front Royal
over 100 years or so (with a gap in collection), taken from
http://nwis.waterdata.usgs.gov/usa/nwis/peak/?site_no=01631000, shows no
trend in extremes. Papers by statisticians showing otherwise should be
treated with a great deal of skepticism. A statistical increase in the
frequency of heavy rainfall events is likely valid, but those are localized
and have not resulted in any upward trend in wider-area river-basin
Often the polar bear is used as a symbol of the impact of
“climate change.” I would again ask for people to look at the raw data
available at http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/status/status-table.html. There is
hunting of a magnitude that is unsustainable. For example, in the Baffin Bay
population, often said to be in danger from declining ice, the harvest is
about 200 bears per year (about half harvested legally and half illegally).
That is from a population of about 2,000 bears. The decline in ice has
nothing to do with the decline in bears, contrary to what some people say.
Moreover, the current decline in Arctic sea ice is partly caused by a
natural cycle, which has resulted in previous low-ice periods through which
the polar bears have survived.
The important question is, what will happen to climate in
The answer is uncertain, but it’s likely that it will take
decades to see any serious consequences. Models showing particular
catastrophic consequences (e.g., large amounts of melting ice in Greenland
within a few hundred years) are often contradictory to model results with
other catastrophic consequences (e.g., showing catastrophic drying in the
Beyond those contradictions, I have little faith in such
models, since they cannot model important details of weather. For example,
will there be more thunderstorms (and hence more cooling) in a world with
more CO2? The answer is unknown, but the answer is required as an input to
the models. It is possible to create smaller-scale models with more accurate
weather modeling, but it is difficult to integrate those results into the
larger-scale, longer-term models.
If we assume the models have merit and catastrophic
consequences are possible or likely, the next important question is, what
can we do about the increase in CO2? The answer is primarily political for a
very simple reason. The manmade output of CO2 is roughly 29 billion tons per
year from fossil fuels, cement production and land-use changes. Germany,
since signing the Kyoto agreement in 1997, has cut its CO2 emissions from
1,078 million tons per year to 1,002 million tons per year in 2005 (see
www.umweltdaten.de/publikationen/fpdf-l/3436.pdf for a chart).
That decrease in annual emissions is 0.26 percent of the
world’s annual output of CO2, essentially negligible. All of the expense and
sacrifice Germany has made still makes no difference in the real world.
Some people would argue that this is just a start, but
that view ignores the problems and costs associated with switching to
alternatives like wind and solar (both of which don’t work well in
Virginia). Some would argue that fossil fuels are being depleted and/or are
imported from authoritarian countries and we need a national energy policy
for those reasons. Those are valid political arguments, but should not be
conflated with scientific arguments based on speculative computer models. I
would argue that a “fair, affordable and achievable” solution to energy is
exactly what the free market provides without any government intervention.
It is my considered opinion that the large amount of
government funding of climate research has resulted in predictions of
catastrophe that can only be prevented by government intervention, due to an
underlying conflict of interest.
That, of course, is a political opinion and I can easily
be accused of biasing my science by my politics. I don’t think that is true;
but regardless, the lowering of CO2 is clearly a political decision, not
scientific, and we should push for the best political outcome that we can
get. To that end, I was very disappointed when Senators Webb and Warner
voted to allow the EPA “back door” regulation of CO2. Real reductions have a
real cost to the economy; see for example:
www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/steo/pub/gifs/Fig25.gif. In this case, the
reduction in industrial activity caused the reduction in CO2 emissions, but
the opposite is also true.
We all have the responsibility to conserve to save
resources for our own future and for future generations. With this, I
believe the best case is if our elected representatives ignore speculative
predictions of imminent catastrophe and choose a gradual approach. That can
be made fair, affordable and achievable. If someone asks if it will be
“effective,” then I would just ask them if shutting down a refinery will
reduce the poaching of polar bears.
Eric Peterson is a software engineer in Front
Royal. He is a member-consumer of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.
This column is meant
to provoke thought, so we welcome reader comments. Send e-mail to:
firstname.lastname@example.org (please enter “Perspective” in subject line), or send
written responses to Cooperative Living, Perspective, Attn. Bill
Sherrod, P.O. Box 2340, Glen Allen, VA 23058-2340.