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A political cartoonist's take on the 'Gore Effect'
2008 sees a sea change in the face of the global warming debate.

When I began writing about global warming climate change, public outcry was tremendous.  Amid a sea of media stories about the sins of our wasteful lifestyle, no one wanted to hear about contradictory research, conflicting data, or skeptical scientists.

Now, over two years later, a funny thing has happened. The roles have shifted. My stories are the staid and ordinary ones.  It's the fellows predicting flood, famine, and disaster who are generating all the controversy.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. What happened? 

2008 was the year predicted to be the "hottest in a century".  Instead it became the coldest of the decade. It was the year the North Pole would "melt entirely, allowing you to swim to it".  Instead, nuclear-powered icebreakers became trapped in unseasonably thick ice. It was a year of record-breaking cold and snow, everywhere from Baghdad to the beaches of Malibu. It was the year the "Gore Effect" entered the public vocabulary, as whenever global warming protestors got together to march, they were met with blizzards and ice storms. Let's hope schadenfroh isn't a sin.

Polls are clear.  Despite the media's increasingly shrill tone and ever-more unrealistic predictions, the public has lost all faith in global warming. After all, how many times can you say that this time the science is now finally proven, without being laughed at?

In some respects, that's good.  It means less chance of implementing incredibly damaging policies, policies that will have disastrous impacts on standards of living, especially among the poor.

In other ways, it's bad. The overselling of inconclusive conjectures as "proven science" is leading some to distrust science itself. Given that, I think the year should conclude with a reminder of just what the scientific debate -- minus its alarmist media trappings-- is really all about.

As a moderately well known skeptic, I sometimes surprise people when I say I believe in global warming. If we define the term as, "man is having some impact on global temperatures", then the evidence is fairly clear. That statement in itself, though, means nothing. Are we impacting it enough to matter? Can CO2 cause catastrophic climate change?

That debate revolves around a single number, one so important we have a special name for it.

Climate Sensitivity
How much will the earth warm if we double the amount of atmospheric CO2, or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases? That value is called climate sensitivity. If all else remains equal, it’s fairly easy to calculate: about half a degree C, a figure accepted by most proponents and skeptics of AGW alike. It's also a value far too small for concern. With that sensitivity, the planet would warm by maybe a quarter of a degree by the year 2100. Yawn.

But there's a wrinkle in that simple calculation. As greenhouse gases rise, other things change as well. Some are positive feedbacks, which lead to more warming. Some are negative feedbacks, which counteract the warming. Scientists in the modeling community tend to believe positive effects predominate; they bandy about sensitivity values from 2C all the way up to 6C or more. Observational earth scientists (primarily geologists, meteorologists, and some atmospheric physicists) tend to believe negative effects dominate, and that the actual value may be even smaller than 0.5C.

The problem is that no real evidence exists for strong positive feedbacks. Worse, they seem contradicted by the paleoclimatic history of the planet, which has never experienced runaway warming even when CO2 levels were ten or more times higher than they are today. Over geologic time, CO2 correlates very poorly with temperature, leading one to conclude that it's a very weak greenhouse gas.

There is other evidence against a high sensitivity. But the real point is this. Whichever side is right, the media (and a few researchers) have forgotten one of the basic rules of science. Until a theory can predict the unexpected, it should always be viewed critically. The ancient Greeks knew the stars moved, and they had a thousand theories to predict why it would keep happening.  Until we can explain past climate shifts and successfully predict future trends, global models are educational toys. Not indisputable evidence.

Some pundits are calling 2008 the year global warming was disproven. I prefer to call it the year science triumphed over alarmism.

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RE: Very well put, Michael.
By reader1 on 12/31/2008 12:57:57 PM , Rating: -1
...causes economic and other damages.

That's FUD.

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By Ordr on 12/31/2008 1:56:10 PM , Rating: 5
What's FUD? The UN itself said that 10 trillion dollars will be needed to combat this so-called problem. How would that not cause any economic damage?

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By onelittleindian on 12/31/2008 2:11:43 PM , Rating: 5
Actually they said $45 trillion would be needed just to get started.

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By Ordr on 12/31/2008 2:20:28 PM , Rating: 2
Thank you for the correction :).

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By wjcott on 12/31/2008 2:56:51 PM , Rating: 2
Is that in Zimbabwean dollars?!

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By FITCamaro on 12/31/2008 3:56:30 PM , Rating: 1
If it was that would be nice since $45 trillion in Zimbabwean currency is "only" $46.5 million USD.

But no. If I was a billionaire, I'd send them that much in Zimbabwean currency as a joke.

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By reader1 on 12/31/08, Rating: -1
RE: Very well put, Michael.
By onelittleindian on 12/31/2008 4:49:59 PM , Rating: 4
A, 1.1% of everything the entire WORLD produces for the next 50 years is NOT a small amount. It's the size of all the military budgets of all the countries in the world added up together.

B, That's just what they estimate to get STARTED on reducing emissions. The total price tag is going to be even higher.

C, Besides the fixed costs, there's the recurring cost of making energy (and everything which depends on it, which is literally EVERYTHING) more expensive. Permanently. That's the biggest price of them all.

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By Ringold on 12/31/2008 5:52:07 PM , Rating: 4
If you're that loose with money, why not toss me .0001% of global GDP? What's .0001%! Just like the 1.1%, it's not your money anyway, so you wont miss it.

I'd point out again that the cost to global growth would disproportionately fall on developing, poor countries as the rich world heavily throttled their demand growth for their products. Thats a curious thing for the left to desire when every once in a blue moon they pretend to care about the poor around the world, at least when it's fashionable (like Darfur, but apparently Zimbabweans don't matter).

There's also opportunity cost, which would compound over years.. but worthless to try to explain it.

RE: Very well put, Michael.
By androticus on 1/5/2009 4:02:33 PM , Rating: 3
You know, if the UN existed circa 1492 they would have issued dire predictions about the economic cost to the world of colonizing the North American continent. It has probably "cost" "the world" vastly more than the "45 trillion dollars" to build up NA.

The egregious logical flaw in those kinds of calculations is to confuse the kind of spending that always occurs in any kind of dynamic system, with something that somehow never would have been spent. For example, 100 million people will build new homes in next 2 decades (say) -- if sea levels rise, most of them won't build next to the ocean -- if it got colder most wouldn't build in the coldest mid-west areas -- if oil shale gets cracked and Colorado gets rich many will build there, etc. etc. -- ANY theory can be used to show how building is done someplace and not someplace else, and then attribute the cost of all that building to the instigator of the incentive differential. The population of NYC isn't going to be moved inland in one go at the UN's expense -- it is only collectivist thinking that puts those type of pricetags on normal human activity.

"We basically took a look at this situation and said, this is bullshit." -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng's take on patent troll Soverain

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