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Interesting, but a grave central flaw
on December 30, 2006
Unstoppable Global Warming introduces author S. Fred Singer as founding dean of the School of Environmental and Planetary Sciences at the University of Miami, now professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia. And it introduces co-author Dennis T. Avery as a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, with a background that includes service at the U.S. Dept of State (under President Reagan), the U.S. Dept of Agriculture, and the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. In short, one scientist, one non-scientist.
And that's the way the book reads, as well. It intertwines two arguments, one that feels quite scientific, a second argument that doesn't. One argument makes a case that seems science-based that there's an irregular cycle of cooling and warming in the earth's climate, over a cycle that's about fifteen hundred years long, give or take a few hundred, with fluctuations in solar radiance the underlying cause. The second argument makes a much less scientific, more tendentious case that those who fear greenhouse gases and the threat of global warming are not to be listened to because their arguments are faulty, they're in it only for the money, and, even worse, they hate modern prosperity.
Given the sharp disparity between the two arguments, I would guess scientist Singer is primarily responsible for the chapters on the 1500 year cooling and warming cycle, while non-scientist Avery is most likely the lead author on the chapters that critique greenhouse-driven global warming.
My view is that global warming is quite a serious issue, but I also believe that people on both sides of this debate should read books on both sides of the debate. If greenhouse-style global warming does indeed worry you, buy this book and read it. If greenhouse gases don't concern you, buy and read The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery. Especially read Chapter Five, and its account of the massive release of CO2 and the massive extinctions that took place 55 million years ago.
Concerned environmentalists have a responsibility to engage the overall case that Avery and Singer make. Will global warming produce mass extinctions? Their case says No. Will global warming cause more violent storms? Their case says No. Will global warming cause famine, drought, and barren soils? Their case says No (no more than usual). Will there be millions of death from insect-born diseases? Their case says No. It's important for environmentalists to test their personal concerns by studying the counter-arguments of their critics.
The overall Avery-Singer case against greenhouse-driven warming is compromised by a very grave flaw. The authors punt the central issue - the accelerating accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. Do they mention the fact that atmospheric CO2 is up 36% (as of 2006) from its pre-industrial norm? No. Do they point out that cumulative CO2 is growing at 7% a decade, now, and accelerating? No. This rapid acceleration is at the heart of the global warming issue, and on this matter, they are dead silent.
They are equally silent on the issue of solar dimming, the ability of human-released particulates to cut down the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. They don't even consider the possibility, well-covered on a recent NOVA program, that greenhouse-induced warming has been partially - and temporarily - suppressed by particulate pollution in the atmosphere.
Most serious of all is their technique for avoiding the cumulative CO2 issue - raw assertion. Early on, they contend without substantiation that atmospheric CO2 is already "saturated" with infrared, so, therefore, adding more CO2 won't make any difference. Near the end of the book, they produce their one and only footnoted quote on this particular issue, a statement they attribute to the North Dakota climatologist John Bluemle to the effect that doubling atmospheric CO2 would have only a negligible greenhouse effect.
If one tracks this down on the Internet, here's what one learns. John Bluemle, it turns out, was North Dakota's geologist, not a climatologist at all, and Bluemle spent his career mapping lignite resources in North Dakota on behalf of the coal industry. Hmm. Nor was "negligible effect" even Bluemle's argument to begin with - in the source from which his quote is drawn, he freely acknowledges that the argument came to him via email from one David Jenkins, who it turns out is an oil geologist in the United Kingdom.
Well, there you have it. In the worldview of Singer and Avery, rising CO2 levels aren't a concern because an oil geologist in England once assured a lignite geologist in North Dakota by email that rising CO2 isn't an issue, and in the hands of Singer and Avery, the North Dakota geologist has been repackaged as a climatologist. That sure settles the central question, doesn't it?
A second grave flaw is the book's claim that prosperity is impossible without fossil fuel energy. Two or three centuries from now, when coal and oil finally run out, do Avery and Singer think we'll all go back to living in caves? I'm not sure what they think, but obviously we wouldn't. We'd find energy technologies that'd keep the world prosperous even without coal. And if humanity is going to make itself prosperous without coal eventually, isn't it safer to do so now rather than wait a couple hundred years, when atmospheric CO2 will be five or six times higher than today? A valid question, but not a question they address.
Let's grant the first half of the Singer-Avery argument - the proposition that the climate goes through a 1500 year cooling and warming cycle, and that we've been in the warming half of the cycle for the last two or three hundred years. If, unlike Singer, Avery, and North Dakota's lignite geologist, we do think cumulative carbon dioxide is a serious matter, we should be even more concerned about global warming now than we were before. Not only are greenhouse gas accumulations accelerating, not only will reductions in particulate pollution boost the impact of rising greenhouse gases even further, but we also have a couple hundred years of Singer's cyclic warming ahead of us as well. Global warming turns out to be a triple-threat problem.