Jeff Jacoby

Cooler heads prevail against climate panic

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / June 1, 2011

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THE MAY 21 apocalypse foretold by the fundamentalist minister Harold Camping never materialized, but end-of-the-world doomsaying goes on as usual among the global warmists.

“Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink,’’ a story in The Guardian was breathlessly headlined over the weekend. It reported — hyperventilated might be a better verb — that greenhouse gas emissions increased in 2010 “to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach.’’ The Guardian attributed word of this “shock rise’’ to the International Energy Agency, whose chief economist is “very worried’’ because “this is the worst news on emissions’’ and the climate outlook “is getting bleaker.’’ It cites another expert’s “dire’’ warning that if carbon dioxide isn’t drastically reduced, global warming will “disrupt the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people across the planet, leading to widespread mass migration and conflict.’’

All that is nothing, however, to the climate fearmongering in Newsweek, which insists the global-warming Rapture is already underway.

“Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions,’’ Newsweek intones, pointing to tornadoes in the United States, floods in Australia and Pakistan, and drought in China. “From these and other extreme-weather events, one lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty. The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone.’’ This is what comes of burning fossil fuels for energy, which has increased atmospheric CO2 levels by 40 percent above what they were before the Industrial Revolution. “You haven’t seen anything yet,’’ Newsweek preaches. “Batten down the hatches.’’

By now, of course, few things are more familiar than predictions of the environmental catastrophe to which the use of carbon-based energy has supposedly condemned us. In 1992, Al Gore claimed that “evidence of an ecological Kristallnacht is as clear as the sound of glass shattering in Berlin;’’ nearly 20 years later he is still warning of “an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.’’ Like Camping, Gore and other climate alarmists keep forecasting a Day of Doom that never arrives. And like Camping — who now says the world will end on Oct. 21 — they continue to be sure that disaster is just around the corner.

But hyperbolic climate rhetoric doesn’t scare as many people as it used to. Gallup reported in March that of nine leading environmental issues, global warming is the one Americans worry about least. In Britain too, as The New York Times noted last spring, fear of climate change has receded, as more and more people conclude that the dangers have been over-hyped.

Take the recent increase in global CO2 emissions. Is the Guardian’s panicked anxiety — “Climate on the brink’’ — really a sensible response? Writing in the journal First Things, the distinguished Princeton physicist William Happer makes a compelling case that rising carbon-dioxide levels are neither unprecedented nor anything to fear.

“Carbon is the stuff of life,’’ he points out. “Our bodies are made of carbon.’’ Yes, atmospheric CO2 is higher today than it was before the industrial age — 390 parts per million now vs. 270 ppm then — but there was a time when “CO2 levels were several thousand ppm, much higher than now. And life flourished abundantly.’’ Indeed, greenhouse operators artificially boost CO2 concentrations in order to grow better flowers and fruit.

So why recoil from the modest increase in carbon emissions caused by fossil-fuel use? Because more CO2 means more climate change? Happer shoots down that idea. The earth’s climate is always changing, sometimes dramatically. During the medieval warming of a thousand years ago, temperatures were much higher than they are now; during the Little Ice Age six centuries later they were much lower. “Yet there is no evidence for significant increase of CO2 in the medieval warm period, nor for a significant decrease at the time of the subsequent little ice age.’’

Newsweek’s “stable climate of the last 12,000 years’’ is a myth. So is the notion that higher carbon emissions are a prescription for disaster. Carbon dioxide is only one of several factors that influence the earth’s temperature, Happer writes, and “seldom the dominant one.’’

The global-warming alarmists have had a good run, as the global-cooling alarmists did before them, but fewer people find the doomsday prophecies persuasive. Scaremongering wins headlines; fact-based skepticism eventually wins arguments.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at