Once upon a recent time, environmentalists came to the White House. Some had just finished an air trip in a jet that emitted exhaust gases to blow even a bigger hole in the ozone layer. Others drove up in their SUVs and the only thing green about their SUVs was maybe the color.
With a frowned look on their faces, they tell the President how worried they are, “Mr. President, the world is warming up, and the very state of Florida that made you president will be under water in a hundred years. Also, guess what - disease, famine, droughts and floods will be rampant, and can you believe who is responsible – we the almighty humans!”
As the evening falls, a juicy steak dinner punctuates the discussion of the pending doom, while the worriers spill their conversation to blaming the poor sugar farmers for ruining the Everglades of Florida. Well, that steak came from bovines that expel methane gas from all ends (you get the picture) and the swamps such as the Everglades are yet another major source of methane gas.
Methane gas is one of the three major (15%) greenhouse gas components (other two being carbon dioxide (75%) and nitrous oxide (6%)) in our atmosphere blamed for creating global warming.
What is global warming? When earth radiates heat back to the sky, greenhouse gases trap some of the heat in the lower atmosphere and reflect it back to earth. This natural phenomena of trapping heat is not bad as otherwise we would be in an ice age. The problem is that we may have more of these greenhouse gases than we may need in the lower atmosphere. Hence, more heat can get trapped and thereby increase the temperature of the planet, and that can result in catastrophic climate changes, such as unusual floods, droughts, rise in sea level and in short, may bring the end of humanity.
Well, it is not that simple. First, we need to answer the question if the earth is really warming up substantially to create such catastrophic climate changes. Even if it is, we need to know how much of the warming is our doing. After all, we can only control ourselves and not nature.
Some extremists may come up with simple solutions such as turning vegetarian so that the demand for methane-producing bovines vanishes; let the hungry developers build to their heart's content on the swamps like the Everglades; stop driving cars; bring energy consuming manufacturing to a halt; and turn off the air conditioners. Do these measures not remind you of the good old days?
So seriously, is global warming a myth? Are we really putting our future generations and ourselves at risk by ignoring the facts? You decide for yourself.
Myth 1: Modeling the earth's climate is nearly an exact science
True that climate models have become more accurate, but we have a long way to go. For example, modern computing resources restrict climate models to divide earth into homogeneous regions that have to be many thousands of square miles in area. The other challenge is identifying and quantifying variables that go into such models. Variables of climate models such as clouds, water vapor, ocean currents, ice sheets, forest themselves are variable and it is not valid to make them deterministic.
Since most models are predicting the climate 100 years from now, how do we know what technologies would be available in 2100. Who would have thought about technology of year 2000 in 1900? Well, except for Nostradamus, of course!
More importantly, even if the world is warming up, it could be a cyclic natural phenomenon. Such natural cycles span decades and even centuries. Do you realize that in the late 1960s, we were shouting, “Global cooling” and predicting the coming of the ice age?
Climate models developed in the early 1990s claimed that temperatures would rise by 10 degrees by 2020 while new ones now estimate only a 2 to 3 degrees increase by 2100. Since this increase of 2 to 3 degrees may not be sufficient to cause public alarm, scientists are now playing odds by looking at probabilistic models of climate change. One of these models predicts a 50% chance of 5-degree rise in the earth’s temperature by 2100. However, critics, such as MIT’s Richard Lindzen, of such models say that these estimates can be “skewed by the biases in the inputs to the climate models used to predict such a temperature increase”. However, who are we to judge when he is a high paid consultant for energy lobbyists such as Western Fuels and OPEC.
Myth 2: The sun is a constant source of energy
The sun is like any other natural source of energy and it varies. In fact, the contribution of the sun to the temperature increase is about 0.4 degrees for the next century. Should we not be subtracting this number from the predictions of temperature increase due to humans? Also, because of the variance of the sun's energy such as due to sunspots, it may be responsible for the cycles of warming and cooling that can span decades, not just years.
Myth 3: There are more severe floods now
Every time there is a flood now, we have some global warming expert explaining it away. We wish he would spend his time predicting when the flood would be coming or when the next hurricane will make landfall. That would save many lives and property.
If we told you that "flood causing rains" have increased by 20% since 1900, you would claim that we have blown a hole (bigger than the one in the ozone layer) in our own argument. Actually, the "flooding causing rains" make 11% of the total rain today as opposed to 9% in 1900. The difference is only 2%, not 20%. Is that a typographical error? No, but to make an argument, global warming advocates take the 2% difference on the basis of 11%, and translate it to a 20% increase in "flood causing rains". Yes, there are lies and then there are statistics.
Myth 4: There are more severe droughts now.
Every time there is a drought anywhere in US, the news media always shows a poor farmer who has lost his livelihood because of the drought. Surely, he is distraught, so would we if we needed to figure out how we would feed our families and pay off the farm loans.
Droughts and floods are an integral part of the agricultural world. In fact, the surface area of USA in drought has shown no particular trend in the last century. If you want an example of a severe drought, you will have to go all the way back to 1934 when half of the country was in drought.
Myth 5: How can all scientists be wrong?
Most of the funding for basic research, such as global warming, comes from the federal government. Therefore, the kind of research that is funded is aligned to political views.
Since academia receives most of the basic research funding, it is harder to receive grants on topics that challenge prevailing paradigms. The amounts of grant money dictate the reputation, promotion, tenure, and salary increases of a university professor. His peers sit on committees that decide who and what is funded.
Does that mean that researchers are bordering on inappropriate activity? No! It is that scientific grant proposals that go against the popular views are scrutinized more carefully and hence lower their chances of being funded. A university professor could be committing "career suicide" if he continually tries to go against prevailing paradigms, and God forbid if someone agrees with him, he may also be counting his days. History does not tell us otherwise either and it is filled with stories of people who challenged the status quo - from Galileo's stand against the earth being the center of the universe to Boltzman's steadfast position on his atomic theory.
Human nature inclines us to be on the cautious side and we place bets like the Pascal’s wager – if the global warming advocates are wrong, no harm is done; and if they are right, we did the right thing. However, such caution and the resulting controls on greenhouse emissions will uproot economies of developed nations, and put at stake the security and lifestyle we take for granted.
Myth 6: Kyoto pact would reduce global warming
The Kyoto pact is a treaty to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It is predicted that if all participating countries followed the Kyoto pact, it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5%. Some estimates trim this reduction to 2% since some countries get credit for having "carbon dioxide sinkholes" such as forests. Also, many scientists think that reducing greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide may be more beneficial to reduce the greenhouse effect because although carbon dioxide makes 75% of the total greenhouse gases, other gases, such as nitrous oxide, can trap heat hundreds of times more effectively than carbon dioxide.
Although, USA produces one-fourth of the emissions and one-third of that comes from automobiles, USA has been reluctant to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. As if the cold war was not over, some analysts think that European nations are pushing the USA to do this out of an economic point of view. They simply wish to reduce USA industry and thereby promote their own in the marketplace.
So having looked at the major myths of global warming, do we propose an open license to pollute our environment? No! In fact, our common plea is that the environmentalists stick to the facts so that their credibility is not sacrificed. Too many times, people pay no attention to environmentalists, as many major disaster predictions made by them have not come true.
No matter what the facts about global warming are, we continue to pollute our ground, air, and water. Pollution is real and the associated adverse health effects are too. We do not need new scientific evidence for that. We need to work on conservation of energy and develop nonpolluting energy technologies. The reason to do so need to be factors other than a mass hysteria of global warming.
The jury on global warming, and especially the human contribution to it, is still out there. The wisdom of the serenity prayer is much needed. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference” - Reinhold Neibuhr. God, we pray we know the difference!
Autar Kaw, "A Cold Look at the Myths of Global Warming", Personal
View, August 2002, last accessed at