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If you’re like me, about twice a month you get a fat yellow envelope from this guy named Ed McMahon, saying "YOU, JOHN DOE could already be the winner" of 9 million dollars or some such. If you’re like me you toss the envelope away, realizing that here the difference between "could" and "are" is vast and virtually insurmountable.
So, it is too, in the world of environmental doomsaying, which leads us to the subject of the New York Times front-page article by William K. Stevens: "Scientists Say Earth’s Warming Could Set Off Wide Disruptions." In that same edition a Times editorial decried possible congressional cuts in funding for global warming research.
This article was intended as the knock-out blow, with the setup left jab having come a week earlier in the form of another Steven’s front-page article "Experts Confirm Human Role in Global Warming."
There Stevens began with a reference to a draft report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "In an important shift of scientific judgment," he wrote, "experts advising the world’s governments on climate change are saying for the first time that human activity is a likely cause of the warming of the global atmosphere."
Actually, scientists have long acknowledged that human activity, through release of "greenhouse" gases that trap heat, would cause some warming. As Robert Balling Jr., Director of the Office of Climatology at Arizona State University says, "The issue all along has been how much warming and whether it would be countered by other cooling mechanisms."
Any environmentalist will gladly tell you the interaction of various forces on the globe can be terribly complicated. Probably the main complication here has been the effect that the heat build-up would have on water vapor, which in turn could cause a cooling effect.
Such complications have spawned a huge number of models estimating just how much total heat increase the globe would experience, ranging from "utterly insignificant" to the doomsayers’ "extra crispy."
The real news of the IPCC draft report, according to report reviewer and University of Virginia climatologist Dr. Patrick Michaels, is that the doomsayers’ model is kaput.
"What Stevens completely missed is that the mid-point of the model which they are now touting shows far less warming than the model upon which they based the 1992 Rio de Janeiro agreement," he told me.
That treaty committed the nations of the earth in principle to spend tens of billions of dollars to reduce greenhouse emissions.
Yet Michaels believes that this latest warming projection could still be far too high while another respected researcher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology climatologist and IPCC report reviewer Richard Lindzen, believes that warming will probably always be at a level difficult or impossible to detect above normal yearly fluctuations.
Lindzen says newer projections show less and less warming than previous ones because they are being tweaked into doing so. The reason? Real-life measurements are showing only slight warming. According to NASA scientist Roy Spenser, 17 years of satellite data show a rate of warming of about 7/100 of a degree per decade, or a rise of about 7/10 of a degree by the year 2100.
That’s "considerably less warming than climate models predict," he told me.
Which leads us to part two of Stevens’ attack, the potential catastrophe which is as likely as Ed McMahon showing up at your door with a check.
It’s not only that warming is far less than what was predicted. Less warming means fewer effects and less dire ones. More than this it seems increasingly clear that this warming is not a generalized one. Most of the warming it appears will be at night, when the temperatures are coldest. Most will also be during the winter and in the frigid far north at that.
"The season to season extremes are decreasing," says Michaels.
But, notes Michaels, if anything significant global warming could be expected to add to the polar caps by increasing precipitation above the poles. Waterworld flops again.
Speaking of island nations, how about those predictions of vast numbers of "super" hurricanes? The Environmental Defense Fund’s Michael Oppenheimer, an important source for Stevens, has predicted one of these as early as 1997, killing 22,000 Floridians.
But according to a paper by eight prominent researchers in the November 1994 Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Floridians can rest easy. They wrote, "year to year variations" in weather "are so great that they must effectively swamp’ any quite modest effect" of global warming on hurricane frequency.
It’s true that the IPCC draft report on which Stevens based his dire story does mention the possibility of severe climate problems, but as Michael MacCraken, who is coordinating the U.S. governmental review of the IPCC report, explained to me, that’s because it was just a first draft and the authors were obligated to mention any and all possible weather permutations, if only for later drafts to shoot them down.
Tomorrow the earth could be invaded by flying saucers with tall aliens carrying cookbooks entitled To Serve Man. But idle speculations are best left for things like the O.J. Simpson trial, not matters of world import and the front page of the New York Times.