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Global Warming News

by Rudy M. Baum, Editor-in-chief
September 10, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 37

Global warming skeptics do not like being pinned down in making their arguments.

Carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas, some of the bolder skeptics argue, but even if it is a greenhouse gas, humans can't possibly produce enough of it to affect climate. Global warming is not occurring, some insist, but even if it is occurring, humans are not responsible for it.

Some argue that even if humans are responsible for global warming, it's not such a bad thing and we can adapt. Heck, people like warm climates, they say. Why do you think Florida and Arizona are two of the fastest-growing states in the U.S.?

And what about the polar bears suffering as Arctic ice disappears in summer? Well, they can adopt a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of the brown bears they evolved from. There are other problems facing humanity that it makes more sense to spend money on than global warming—even if it is occurring and humans are causing it.

Case in point: In August, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies revised the average annual temperature of the 48 contiguous states for the years 2000 to 2006 downward by 0.15 °C. The change corrected an error made when meshing two data sets. It was discovered by Stephen McIntyre, a retired Canadian businessman with a bent for mathematics who tirelessly combs NASA climate data looking for just such errors.

As a result, 1998 is no longer the hottest year on record for the contiguous 48 states; 1934, previously second, takes the top spot. And 1939 now replaces 2001 in the 10th slot.

For the planet as a whole, though, the revision had no real impact. The error applied only to the data for the contiguous 48 states, which make up only about 2% of Earth's surface.

But the Wall Street Journal seized on the revision in an editorial titled "Not So Hot," which asserted: "The new data undermine another frightful talking point from environmentalists, which is that six of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990. Wrong. NASA now says six of the 10 warmest years were in the 1930s and 1940s."

In fact, before the revision, NASA had said that five of the 10 warmest years in the contiguous 48 states had occurred since 1990. After the revision, that number fell to four, with the others being 1921, 1931, 1934, 1938, 1939, and 1953.

But NASA still says that six of the 10 warmest years worldwide have occurred since 1990. And the planet's five warmest years on record, in order, are still 2005, 1998, 2002, 2003, and 2004.

"If nothing else, the snafu calls into question how much faith to put in climate change models," the Journal hyperventilates. And it adds, "What's more disturbing is what this incident tells us about the scientific double standard in the global warming debate."

Both assertions are nonsense. Climate models and climate data correlate well. And the error was detected, pointed out, and corrected. That's hardly a double standard.

Meanwhile, Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg has published a new book, "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming." I have not yet read it, but I have read Lomborg's "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and other essays he has written. His point is that while human activities probably are causing the climate to change, spending money on problems like hunger, AIDS, and clean water will yield much greater benefits than spending the same amount on alleviating climate change.

Lomborg does not deny that climate change is occurring, but he does not think it is the impending catastrophe that many climate scientists think it is. He thinks that we—and polar bears—will get used to it. It's a legitimate point of view, although one I happen to disagree with.

In the meantime, the climate continues to change. The Washington Post reported recently that grape harvests in the Alsace region of France have come earlier and earlier over the past 30 years, shifting from mid-to-late October in the late 1970s to late August-mid-September since 2000. This year, harvesting in one vineyard began on Aug. 24, the earliest ever recorded. The dates are becoming just as hard to pin down as the skeptics' arguments.

Thanks for reading.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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