Global warming may be coming, but if it does, it won’t be as extreme as previously thought. And it might actually be a boon for the environment.
"Climate extremes would trigger meteorological chaos—raging hurricanes such as we have never seen, capable of killing millions of people; uncommonly long, record-breaking heat waves; and profound drought that could drive Africa and the entire Indian subcontinent over the edge into mass starvation."
—U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, World on Fire, 1991
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed—and hence clamorous to be led to safety—by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
—H.L. Mencken, newspaper columnist, Baltimore Sun, 1925
We’ve all read the global warming scare stories lately. Be prepared for more of the same as the Kyoto Treaty sits stalled in the Senate and Al Gore ties his presidential run to environmental issues.
Fortunately, there is no reason for alarm. Senator Mitchell’s scary scenario was implausible when he presented it—at a time when the crude computer climate models of the day were predicting three times as much warming as they currently do—and is clearly untenable today.
Climate researchers still do not agree on whether the earth will become warmer during the coming century. Even more importantly, none of them expect the planet to get very much warmer in the foreseeable future. They say that the earth is likely to warm by no more than 2 degrees Centigrade (3.5 degrees Fahrenheit) during the next century.
All the climate circulation models have cut their original warming forecasts at least in half in recent years, after satellite studies indicated that additional cloud cover would moderate any warming trend. Highly accurate satellite data for the last nineteen years show a slight cooling of the atmosphere. Most of the one-half-degree Centigrade of warming that has occurred in the last one-hundred years took place before 1940—before humanity put very much CO2 into the air. Thus there is strong evidence that the two are unconnected.
Research has only recently produced a computerized climate model able accurately to mimic the weather the world has actually had. This more-accurate model projects only a 2 degree Centigrade increase in temperatures.
That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t. The world has experienced that much warming, and fairly recently in history. And we loved it!
Between 900 AD and 1300 AD, the earth warmed by some 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit—almost exactly what the models now predict for the twenty-first century. History books call it the Little Climate Optimum. Written and oral history tells us that the warming created one of the most favorable periods in human history. Crops were plentiful, death rates diminished, and trade and industry expanded—while art and architecture flourished.
The world’s population experienced far less hunger. Food production surged because winters were milder and growing seasons longer. Key growing regions had fewer floods and droughts. Human death rates declined, partly because of the decrease in hunger and partly because people spent less of their time huddled in damp, smoke-filled hovels that encouraged the growth and spread of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.
Prosperity, fostered by the abundant crops and lower death rates, stimulated a huge outpouring of human creativity—in engineering, trade, architecture, religion, art, and practical invention.
Soon after the year 1400, however, the good weather ended. The world dropped into the Little Ice Age, with harsher cold, fiercer storms, severe droughts, more crop failures, and more famines. According to climate historian H. H. Lamb, during this period, "for much of the [European] continent, the poor were reduced to eating dogs, cats, and even children." The cold persisted until the 18th century.
The Little Climate Optimum was a boon for mankind and the environment alike. The Vikings discovered and settled Greenland around 950 AD. Greenland was then so warm that thousands of colonists supported themselves by pasturing cattle on what is now frozen tundra. During this great global warming, Europe built the looming castles and soaring cathedrals that even today stun tourists with their size, beauty, and engineering excellence. These colossal buildings required the investment of millions of man-hours—which could be spared from farming because of the higher crop yields.
Europe’s population expanded from approximately forty million to sixty million during the Little Climate Optimum, the increase due almost entirely to lower death rates. Trade flourished, in part because there were fewer storms at sea and fewer muddy roads on land. (There was more rainfall, but it evaporated more quickly.)
England was warm enough to support a wine industry. The Mediterranean Basin was wetter than today. Farming moved further north in Scandinavia, Russia, Manchuria, northern Japan, and North America. Farmers in Iceland grew oats and barley.
At the same time, technology flourished. The water mill, the windmill, coal, the spinning wheel, and soap entered daily life. Sailors developed the lateen sail, the rudder, and the compass. New iron-casting techniques led to better tools and weapons.
Real earnings in China reached their highest point in 3,000 years, thanks largely to the more-plentiful crops. There were half as many floods and one-fourth as many big droughts as in the Little Ice Age that followed. The increase in wealth produced a great flowering of art, literature, and invention, the products of which we still enjoy and appreciate.
The Indian subcontinent prospered as well, producing colossal temples, beautiful sculptures, and elaborate art. The Khmer people built the huge temple complex at Angkor Wat. The Burmese built 13,000 temples at their capital, Pagan.
We know less about what went on in North America. We do know that the Great Plains, the upper Mississippi Valley, and the Southwest apparently received more rainfall than they do now. The Anasazi civilization of the Southwest grew abundant irrigated crops—and then vanished when the Little Optimum ended and the rainfall declined. The Toltecs and Aztecs built marvelous civilizations in Mexican highlands that were plentifully watered.
Thus, we can cast aside the forecasts that global warming will bring more drought and expanding deserts. Global warming brings more clouds and more rainfall, especially near the equator. That is what apparently happened during the Little Optimum. For instance, North Africa received more rain than today, and the Sahara—and presumably many other desert regions—shrank in response to the increase in rainfall.
There were some negatives, of course. The steppes of Asia and parts of California apparently suffered dry periods. Also, it is important to remember that today’s climate models are not precise enough to tell us anything about local rainfall in the future. The British global circulation model recently predicted that the Sahara Desert and Ireland would get exactly the same rainfall in the twenty-first century. That certainly seems unlikely.
The medieval experience with global warming should reassure us greatly, and the latest scientific evidence supports such optimism. It is clear, for example, that a planet earth with longer growing seasons, more rainfall, and higher carbon dioxide (CO2) levels would be a "plant heaven." Modest warming would help crops, not hinder them. There is virtually no place on earth too hot or humid to grow rice, cassava, sweet potatoes, or plantains, for example, and corn can be grown in a wider variety of climates than any other crop.
The prospective global warming will not be uniform. It is expected to moderate nighttime and winter low temperatures more than it raises daytime and summertime highs. Thus, it will produce relatively little added stress on crop plants or trees—and on people.
The expected increase in CO2 will be an additional blessing. Carbon dioxide acts like fertilizer for plants. Dutch greenhouses, for example, routinely triple their CO2 levels deliberately—and the crops respond with 20 to 40 percent yield increases. Extra CO2 also helps plants use their water more efficiently. The "pores" (stomata) on plant leaves partially close, and less water vapor escapes from inside the plants. More than a thousand experiments with 475 crop plant varieties in 29 separate countries show that doubling the world’s carbon dioxide would raise crop yields an average of 52 percent.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does seem to be rising. In fact, we are nearly halfway to the expected CO2 peak of 550 parts per million. The current levels of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere are very low, however, compared to past periods. In fact, most of the earth’s species of plants and animals evolved in much-higher levels of carbon dioxide than we have today—up to twenty times the recent pre-industrial level of 280 ppm.
Lush Forests and Prairies
The increase in CO2 will make forests all over the world healthier and more robust—and allow them to support more wildlife. Canadian forestry researchers estimate that in a new warming their forest growth would increase by 20 percent. In fact, the world’s crops, forests, and soils may well be nature’s "missing carbon sink." (Not all human-produced carbon dioxide shows up in the atmosphere or is absorbed by the surface layers of the ocean, which suggests that it is being used by plants.)
Of course, it would put less stress on our wild species if the world always stayed at the same temperature, but the planet has never done that. Our "species models" mostly evolved in the Cambrian Period (six-hundred-million years ago), and they have already survived several Ice Ages and hot spells.
Scientists examining the impact of global warming on wildlife species in the two most at-risk environments (tropical forests and the Arctic) say that they would expect a modest global warming to produce little or no species loss.
In Global Warming and Biodiversity, for example, Dr. Gary S. Hartshorn notes that the tropical forests already undergo enormous variability in rainfall. He writes, "It is unlikely that higher temperature per se will be directly deleterious to tropical forest [wildlife] communities." Hartshorn also notes that although scientists previously estimated the number of wildlife species in the world at three to ten million, they had to change their estimate once they started counting tropical species. Now they estimate roughly thirty million species, with the overwhelming majority occupying the tropical rain forests. Thus, the negligible effect of global warming on tropical forests bodes very well for the world’s biodiversity.
In the same book, Dr. Vera Alexander notes that Arctic marine systems would be seriously threatened if the sea ice melted. The Arctic, however, has already survived major temperature changes, including the Little Climate Optimum, without shrinking appreciably. Even with average worldwide temperatures six to nine degrees Centigrade warmer than today’s, Alexander notes, the sea ice would re-form in the winter.
Assessing an Arctic tundra ecosystem, Dwight Billings and Kim Moreau Peterson predict that such a warming would have no major species impact. They expect more snow-free days in the summer, more photosynthesis, and somewhat more peat decomposition, but these factors would mainly benefit the primary food chain. Thus the available evidence suggests that global warming will have little effect on Arctic species.
Of course, we must also note that any wildlife species too fragile to survive this kind of mild warming probably disappeared from the planet several hundred years ago during the Little Climate Optimum.
Decrease in Disasters
Most of the trillion-dollar estimates of global warming "costs" headlined in the 1980s were based on forecasts that cities such as New York City and Bangladesh would be drowned under rising seas. In 1980, for example, some activists claimed that global warming would raise sea levels by twenty-five feet. In 1985, a National Research Council panel estimated a three-foot rise in the sea level. Those are frightening scenarios, but completely untrue.
The Medieval Climate Optimum did not produce devastating floods. Nor will a new global warming. It may seem paradoxical, but a modest warming in the polar regions will actually mean more arctic ice, not less. The polar ice caps depend on snowfall, and polar air is normally very cold and dry. If polar temperatures warm a few degrees, there will be more moisture in the air—and more snowfall, and more polar ice.
The world’s ocean levels have been rising at approximately the same rate—7 inches per century—for at least a thousand years. No one knows why. Data from the warming of 1900 to 1940 show a drop in sea levels and then a sea-level rise during the subsequent cooler period. In 1992, Science magazine published a paper based on ice core studies suggesting that the projected warming would reduce the sea level by one foot.
Global warming scaremongers have also claimed that a warmer world would suffer more extreme weather events. This too is unlikely. History records that the Little Optimum brought fewer floods and droughts. There is good reason to believe that this pattern would repeat in a new Little Optimum. Dr. Fred Singer, professor emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, says, "One would expect severe weather to be less frequent because of reduced equator-to-pole temperature gradients."
In other words, the smaller the temperature difference between the North Pole and the equator, the milder the weather. Most of the warming, if it occurs, will be toward the poles, with very little increase near the equator. Thus, there would be less of the temperature difference that drives big storms.
Forging onward intrepidly, some alarmists have claimed that a warmer world would suffer huge increases in deaths from horrible plagues of malaria, yellow fever, and other warm-climate diseases. One study predicted fifty- to eighty-million more cases of malaria alone per year. (There are now approximately five-hundred million new cases of malaria each year, and up to 2.7 million deaths.)
Fortunately, these claims are unlikely to come true, because they ignore some important, fundamental realities. As mentioned, global warming would be very slight near the equator and thus would only slightly expand the range of the malarial mosquitoes. Hence there is little reason to expect tropical plagues to increase naturally.
Moreover, these diseases are nowhere near as relentless as the scare scenarios assume. In the U.S., for example, malaria and yellow fever once ranged from New Orleans to Chicago. We conquered those diseases, however, and not by changing the climate. We did it by suppressing mosquitoes, creating vaccines, and putting screens on doors, windows, and porches. Other countries can do the same.
Third World countries have had high disease rates because they were poor, not because warm climates cannot be made safe.
As it happens, far from creating a plague of pestilences, the Little Climate Optimum engendered a worldwide population surge and set the stage for several historic invasions such as the Viking incursions into Normandy and England and the movement of German peoples into Eastern Europe. This time, however, global warming is quite unlikely to produce a population surge. The modern world’s population is currently restabilizing thanks to affluence, urbanization, and contraceptive technology. Births per woman in the Third World have fallen from 6.5 in 1960 to 3.1 today. The First World is already below the replacement level (2.1 births) and likely to stabilize at the modern equilibrium of about 1.7 births per woman. (See the article by Max Singer elsewhere in this issue.)
Warming or no, we can expect a peak population of approximately 8.5 billion people around 2035. That peak will be followed by a slow, gradual decline through the rest of the 21st century.
Why Be Wary?
The original global warming scare-stories were authored by eco-activists who have subsequently admitted that they were looking for ways to persuade people to live leaner lifestyles. To frighten us into lowering our living standards, they have announced a whole series of terrifying claims, most of which have already been proven wrong:
The Population Explosion. Activists frequently warned us that the human population would reach fifteen billion, or fifty billion, or whatever astronomic level would collapse the ecosystem. We now know that affluence and contraceptives will give the world a peak population of 8.5 billion around the year 2035, followed by a slow decline in the late twenty-first century.
Acid Rain. Activists warned us that acid rain from industrial pollution would destroy the forests in the First World. A billion dollars worth of research has shown that acid rain is a very minor problem due mainly to natural factors.
Cancer from Pesticides. We are still looking for the first case of human cancer from pesticide residues, and the National Research Council says that we will probably never find one. Moreover, as the National Research Council reports, "A sound recommendation for cancer prevention is to increase fruit and vegetable intake." Thus pesticides are actually helping cut cancer rates by producing more plentiful, affordable, and attractive fruits and vegetables.
There is no reason to believe that the authors of the global warming scares have any special knowledge about the future climate. In fact, their leading scientist, Dr. Stephen Schneider, was predicting global cooling just a few years ago, and he candidly states that he is willing to misrepresent the facts if it will stir up the public over the "correct" causes. New climate models make it clear that he is wrong.
"But what if we’re right?" the activists respond. History says that they are not. And the problem is, the "solutions" these activists recommend, however well intended, would leave much of the world without an energy system—and that would be deadly for both people and animals. If we were to triple the cost of coal, double the cost of oil, ban nuclear power, and tear out hydroelectric dams—which would be the result of the activists’ approach—humanity would essentially be left without energy.
Solar and wind power are extremely expensive and undependable. Burning large amounts of renewable wood would destroy huge tracts of forest—and the animals that live there. And in a world of expensive energy, people would not be able to afford the window screens, latrines, clean water, and refrigeration that prevent millions of deaths per year. Diarrhea, due mainly to spoiled food and untreated water, is the number one child-killer on the planet. Refrigeration has helped cut stomach cancer rates by three-fourths in the First World.
The widespread poverty caused by expensive energy would reverse the current worldwide trend toward greater affluence, decreasing birth rates, and better health. The low-energy option would destroy millions of square miles of wildlife habitat. High energy taxes would all but destroy modern agriculture, with its tractors and nitrogen fertilizer (produced mainly with natural gas). Shifting back to draft animals would mean clearing millions of additional acres of forest to feed the beasts of burden.
Giving up nitrogen fertilizer would mean clearing five to six million square miles of forest to grow clover and other nitrogen-fixing "green manure" crops. The losses of wilderness would nearly equal the combined land area of the United States and Brazil.
History and the emerging science of climatology tell us that we need not fear a return of the Little Climate Optimum. If there is any global warming in the twenty-first century, it will produce the kind of milder, more-pleasant weather that marked the medieval Little Optimum—with the added benefit of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and therefore a more luxuriant natural environment.
The modest global warming now predicted should bring back one of the most pleasant and productive environments humans—and wildlife—have ever enjoyed. We have nothing to fear but the fear-mongers themselves.
American Council on Science and Health, Global Climate Change and Human Health, New York, 1997
Moore, Thomas Gale, Testimony before the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, Nov. 16, 1995
Haskins, Charles H., The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, HUP 1927, ISBN 0-674-76075-1
Hubert H. Lamb, Climate, History, and the Modern World, Methuen, New York, 1982
Michaels, Patrick (Virginia State Climatologist), Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming, Cato Institute, 1992
Kerr, Richard A., "Greenhouse Forecasting Still Cloudy," Science, May 16, 1997, pp. 1040-1043