March 31, 2004

Extinguishing Extinction Hysteria

Filed under: Adaptation, Animals, Extinctions, Plants

Human-induced climate change is not leading to mass species extinctions, nor should it in the future.

On March 29, 2004, a pair of Congressional briefings exposed the bad science currently being published on climate change and mass extinction. Patrick Michaels, professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and senior fellow in environmental studies at Cato Institute,

Michaels examined the plethora of recent claims concerning anthropogenic climate change and its possible link to past, present, and future species shifts and extinctions. Michaels’ overarching conclusions? 1.) Climate affects species distribution. 2.) Plants and animals adapt, evolve, or perish under changes in climate. 3.) That process may be slowed or accelerated by human activities. 4.) Little evidence exists to suggest anthropogenic climate change is leading to mass extinctions, nor should in the future.

By way of background, Michaels produced a long list of claims, some appearing in major scientific journals, that plants and animals are being dramatically affected by climate change. Yet even the most rudimentary and central questions concerning those claims had been neglected during the scientific review process, he said. Such neglect, he pointed out, has become increasingly common in global warming science as the issue garners increasing attention.

Scientists in general are slow to change their points of view, he pointed out, citing the observations of several historians of science. But, Michaels argued, that situation is being exacerbated by the need for federally funded researchers and other grant applicants to present such issues in dire terms as various interests compete for a finite amount of taxpayer-generated research dollars.

Starting with butterflies and frogs of western North America, ending with polar bears and penguins of the world’s polar regions, and making a few stops in between, Michaels showed, case by case, how the actual observations, easily found in climate records from the U.S. government or the United Nations, aren’t at all consistent with glib claims of extinctions or species’ movements caused by global warming.

“Most of this data,” Michaels noted, “is about five mouse-clicks away,” wondering if some epidemic disease had recently developed in the scientific and science journalism communities that renders the index finger inflexible.

Michaels’ Congressional seminars were prompted by the publication of a recent article in Nature magazine that took the hype of global warming and species loss to a new level, concluding that climate change resulting from the burning of fossil fuels would stamp out 30% of world’s plant and animal species in the next 50 years. The lead author of this Nature study, British University of Leeds’ Chris Thomas, told the Washington Post, “We’re not talking about the occasional extinction—we’re talking about 1.25 million species. It’s a massive number.”

But their theory can be disproven in seconds, Michaels said, using the relationship between global temperature increase and species extinction that Thomas and colleagues present in their own paper. By their reasoning, the temperature rise of about 0.8ºC that has occurred over the course of the past 100 years already should have resulted in hundreds of thousands of extinctions. Yet nowhere is there evidence for such occurrences.

Furthermore, Michaels went on to point out that global climate models generally predict a warmer surface and an increased rate of rainfall. Given that the most diverse ecosystems on earth today are in the warmest regions—tropical rainforests being the prime example—the general character of future climate is one that is more, not less hospitable for biodiversity.

Oftentimes, in the haste to make big news headlines, simple observations such as these are overlooked. But that fact shouldn’t come as any surprise to longtime readers. Over the years, we have published quite a bit of “reality-check” for the climate-related scare stories.

For those who are interested in a memory refresher, here is a list of links to many of our previous articles on this topic. These articles, too, are but a mouse-click away:

North American Butterflies

European Butterflies

Costa Rican Toads

Western U. S. Amphibians

New York Frogs

Arctic Polar Bears

Antarctic Penguins

Antarctic Krill

North American Birds

U.S. Fish

Midwestern Plants

British Birds

North American Crustaceans

Fossil Fish

U. S. Humans

Global Plant Life

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