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OH OH! Another Satanic Gas!

Call up Environmental Defense! Last week, the following stories appeared in response to a May 4 article in Science by MIT's Ron Prinn: Reuters: "Atmosphere's Pollution-Fighting Chemical Waning." AP: "Decline in Natural Chemical Found." And the Times: "Study Finds a Decline in Natural Air Cleaner," with the pull-quote "Uncertain measurements tied to global warming."

Prinn's paper discusses atmospheric concentrations of the "hydroxyl radical," known chemically as OH, since 1978. OH is a highly reactive species that helps to reduce concentrations of several industrial emissions including methane, a potent global-warming gas.

Here's the abstract's key statement: "Global average OH levels rose 15±22 percent between 1979 and 1989 and then subsequently decreased to levels in 2000 about 10±24 percent below 1979 levels." The problem is that little "±" sign. None of these results can be statistically distinguished from a change of zero. The value 10±24 means a change of somewhere between –14 and +34. There is no reason to believe in any one number in this range more than any other.

Frankly, it seems like the editor of Science should have suggested that a paper with such flimsy results be resubmitted as a small technical memorandum describing our inability to confidently detect changes in this important chemical. Instead, though, it appears in Science Express, an on-line service of Science magazine, highlighting research to be published with possibly "some editorial changes" in "several weeks." (We ask readers to cease thoughts analogizing, say, USAir Express and Holiday Inn Express).

Is there a human component to those numbers? Almost everyone lives on the northern half of the planet. If the decline is greater here, then maybe people do have something to do with it. But Prinn and colleagues found that "OH levels in the southern hemisphere are on average about 14±35 percent higher than in the northern hemisphere." In other words, the difference in OH concentration between the hemispheres again cannot be scientifically distinguished from zero.

In today's environmentally correct climate, why let scientific truth get in the way of inflammatory speculation? The paper concludes that "The overall negative acceleration [since 1989] in the global OH trend is dominated by changes in the northern hemisphere and suggests an anthropogenic cause for the major OH variations."

What? This research just established that the change in global concentration between the years 1989 and 2000 cannot be distinguished from zero, nor can the difference in mean concentration between the hemispheres be separated from zero. How, then, can the authors say the changes are being caused by people, so many more of whom live in the northern half of the planet?

Beats me. It should have beaten every reviewer of this paper, too. But there's little incentive in this system anymore to do anything other than cry wolf. Or cry fowl (See page 1).


Prinn, R.G., et al., 2001, Science Express, www.sciencemag.org.


Euros Slam Us for Efficiency

Just pick up any European paper these days for a whiff of some pretty vitriolic anti-Americanism, thanks to President Bush's views concerning the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. His novel (to Europeans, anyway) idea is that a problem must be a problem before we tax people to solve it. Further, private investors are better structured to risk investment in future technology than the government is.

The May 17 London Financial Times contains a front-page "news" item about how European ministers are mad at George Bush about global warming and low taxes in the U.S. . A few days before, a British MP ranted on the BBC about our perfidy: With only 5 percent of the world's population, we produce 25 percent of the world's increase in greenhouse gases. How evil!

While such misleading nonsense might be expected from a Labour MP, it appears that the Times has also decided to forget about economics and candor. Let's set the record straight with a little Brit-bashing in return.

It is true. The United States leads the world in per-capita emissions of carbon dioxide. So what? What really matters is how efficient we are with respect to those emissions. The folly of the "per capita" argument can be seen in India and China. If they produced, say, one-half of the amount of carbon dioxide per citizen that we do (which they will in a couple of decades), they still would emit far more than we do.

The real measure should be how many bangs we get for the carbon dioxide buck. So let's take the 10 largest emitters and rank them in terms of emissions per unit economic output. The worst is Russia, where 148 million people are busy producing virtually nothing.

Let's assign them a grade of 100 for greenhouse efficiency, 100 being the worst possible number. On this scale, the U.S. gets a 33. Only Japan (18) and Germany (25) are better, and that's because they rely more heavily on nuclear power than we do. Those numbers don't allow for the fact that different nations have different transportation needs, and that moving goods and services takes a lot of energy. Nations that are large, geographically, are going to emit more, even after adjusting emissions for economic efficiency.

One solution is to adjust emissions per unit economic output for the area of each country. In that calculation, the United States comes in as Numero Uno, most efficient. Of the 10 big emitters in our basket, guess who is the worst: The United Kingdom! And this from a country that doesn't even put "loos" (that's British for "Johns") in hotel rooms!

Why are we so much better? One reason is that here in the good ol' USA, we use railroads to efficiently haul about 40 percent of what we make. In Europe, trains carry people instead—people who can't afford to drive because of the cost of petrol, driven up (in the UK) by new "global warming" taxes.

Another reason is the airplane. The United States is simply too big for trains to move a lot of people a long way. Admittedly, seat 13E on Peanut-Aire doesn't hold a candle to a couchette on the Venice-Simplon, but it will get you to Dallas and back in a day. The economies of scale in the massive American economy result in a No. 1 efficiency, even though the principal long-distance people-mover, the jet engine, produces more greenhouse gases per mile than any other form of propulsion.

This massive transportation need will never go away. Nor will the compact nations of Europe get any bigger (despite current German wishes for the EU). European politicians know that. And they know that the energy taxes required by the Kyoto Protocol will put us at a tremendous economic disadvantage.

Which is why European politicians and pundits are so mad at Mr. Bush over Kyoto. They were banking on it to bring us down to their level—constant 10 percent unemployment and crushing taxation.